people analytics, How 6 leaders are embracing a data-driven mindset

Priya Sunil speaks to leaders helming HR at organisations in Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, who are at different stations of their people analytics journey, but all have one common destination – improving the employee experience and contributing to business needs.

"You cannot solve all problems through data, but you can still get a lot out of it. Understanding employees’ stories through data will enrich career conversations by knowing their preferences, values, and motivations."

These are snippets from our conversations with HR and people analytics leaders – demonstrating more urgency than ever before. As Josh Bersin points out in his 2022 predictions,

CHROs are going to be asked: Can you get me a view of how well our hybrid work programme is going? Which groups are most impacted by mental health challenges? Where are careers and skills changing the fastest, and what roles and jobs are falling behind?

With that in mind, Priya Sunil speaks to HR leaders, who are at different stations of their people analytics journey, but all have one common destination – improving the employee experience and contributing to business needs.


TL;DR:

  • Analytics goes beyond presenting facts, it offers insights into what the data represents, and how it reduces unnecessary biases and ultimately improves performance effectiveness.
  • It is like playing a game of chess. You have the entire view of the game, line up our resources, and understand the current situation. You are doing some scenario planning, thinking two to three steps ahead, and thereafter making a strategic move while anticipating the next step."
  • The most important thing on the journey is to gain trust and cooperation from your stakeholders, from start to end. This means data of 100% accuracy, relevant resources referenced, an analytical pack that includes an action plan and timeline, and continuous updates and improvements to the analytics report.
  • Data is crucial, but deep professional expertise and understanding must be a strong foundation for metrics and analytics to make sense.

It starts with embracing a mindset shift

Arguably the biggest need brought about by the rise in people analytics is a mindset shift – from one that is driven by intuition, to one that is driven by data. At ASM, a supplier of semiconductor process equipment for wafer processing, the journey to instilling this shift in leaders and the workforce has “not been easy”, Singapore-based Daniel Kusmanto, Director, Digital & Analytics, ASM, notes.

"There are wins. There are pushbacks. Similar to every change management, the journey is long and we need to transform it one step at a time," he says. He references what he shared with us back in 2020: "At the end of the day, transformation is not a ‘big bang’. It happens bit by bit via the small interactions with data and analytics that create the ‘aha’ moments daily." That, he affirms, is still true.

After a few transformative years, he observes that leaders are embracing a data-driven mindset even more now – dashboards are being developed at all corners of the organisation, there is a central analytics body, and there are greater demands for data and insights within and beyond HR.

"We are also growing in capacity and capability to respond to the increasing demand for more external data, deeper insights, and predictive analytics."

- Daniel Kusmanto, Director, Digital & Analytics, ASM

Meanwhile, Thailand-based Dr. Santhipharp Khamsa-Ard, PhD, Chief People Officer at real estate company Ananda Development Public Company (Ananda), agrees that with many businesses running on intuition for years, it is hard for some to move to a data-driven approach. He shares the common reasons why people are hesitant to adopt new technologies.

“The fear of the unknown, security concerns, the perceived risk of adopting the wrong technology, the fear of losing a competitive edge through late adoption, as well as the lack of skills and knowledge among staff, all of which requires ongoing time and financial commitment.”

This is where upskilling plays an important role in the shift in mindset, along with an understanding of technologies, and creating change agents in each department, the leader says. That brings us to a learning from Noppadol (Kenny) Chaiwong, Human Resources Director at beverage logistics specialist BevChain Logistics (BevChain) – that he and his team are embracing this mindset shift knowing that having facts on hand is useful in delivering needs or action plans to the management team. At no point are personal concerns presented.

Kenny, based in Thailand, explains: "It helps us in determining the job strategy and responding quickly to our stakeholders." Importantly, it gives the team confidence in supporting the business and finding a win-win solution based on the data available, along with a timely action plan.

The opportunities and challenges

No matter how big or small, the journey is never complete without some bumps and jumps. For Kenny, the opportunities lie in he and his team using the data derived to support business goals over the next few years, especially the impact of workforce management on financials, and ROI as the business grows. On the challenges front, Kenny shares, the team may require more research to ensure its data analysis report is updated and financially impactful to all stakeholders.

Over at Ananda, Dr. Santhipharp is in the midst of implementing a people-pillar in data analytics – one that would engage associates across all generations. And while all of the concerns he shared earlier are valid, he believes technology, if used correctly, and at the right time, is a tool that can "reap vast benefits".

Be proactive, not reactive

One thing we’ve learnt through all our conversations is the approach to people analytics has to be proactive, and not reactive. Leaders need to ask the ‘why’ of the situation, before working on the ‘what’. Daniel equates this to playing chess.

"We have the entire view of the game, we line up our resources, and we understand the current situation. In our mind, we are doing some scenario planning, thinking two to three steps ahead, and then we make our strategic move while anticipating the next step."

The same goes for people analytics, he says – monitoring the leading metrics regularly, applying predictive methodologies, drawing insights, and if feasible, playing scenarios, to advise on the next strategic moves that can either put the team in a better position, or prevent an issue before it happens. For instance, knowing the projected headcount can help advise leaders on talent interventions to be put in place now. At the same time, knowing someone’s engagement, productivity, and absenteeism levels could be an indication of the intent to leave, thus prompting leaders to take precautionary measures.

"The more we manage the data, the more we can learn and take tangible actions that will help the organisation by creating a sustainable solution," agrees Kenny. Dr. Santhipharp notes the importance of the proactive approach undertaken at Ananda, where several teams come together to work closely on data analysis.

"We listen to the needs of the business sectors, following which we design proactive action plans. Of the many approaches, we should focus on and select the right one."

- Dr. Santhipharp Khamsa-Ard, PhD, Chief People Officer, Ananda Development Public Company

He also advises that HR involve someone (or a few people) responsible for managing the data analytics, as both the creator and champion. They can be the bridge for people to understand and utilise the data to remain on the right track.

A culture of continuous improvement

People analytics can go a long way in driving a culture of continuous listening and improvement – beyond surveys and feedback forms, Dr. Santhipharp stresses. "We build the foundation of learning by trust. When we need change, listening to their (the employees’) concerns is important." As such, what does it take for organisations to drive such a culture?

Start by having the end in mind, Daniel shares. Paint a picture of what the end goal would be through regular insights on the workforce (including predictive), measurements of programme effectiveness, and an understanding of employee needs that can advise on HR policies/programmes. "Of course, having in place some healthy, internal competition with small rewards can also help. And equally important is to apply regular monitoring and nudges – we need to have consistent follow-ups to drive adoption and cultivate the habit," he says.

On Kenny’s end, the most important thing he has done is to gain the trust of the stakeholders, by working on the analytics efficiently. This means data of 100% accuracy, relevant resources referenced, an analytical pack that includes an action plan and timeline, and continuous updates and improvements to the analytics report. Additionally, Kenny and his team make it a point to inform the relevant parties of these insights, as in some cases, the line managers may overlook the root cause in their department.

For example, if the team finds high attrition rates in some job functions or departments, it alerts the line managers on the percentage of their leavers and advises them to either reconsider their work itself, or any uncontrolled factor that may impact their department.

The report is not only derived on a weekly or monthly basis, but is also included in regular roundtable discussions.

"It’s not only about the culture, but also about the consistency."

- Noppadol (Kenny) Chaiwong, Human Resources Director, BevChain Logistics

Having built the foundation of your people analytics journey, let’s now read on to discover case studies from various employers on what’s working and what’s not, before heading into an enlightening conversation with Asia-based people analytics guru, Fermin Diez.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty: Tech Data

Cyl Lin, Director, Human Resources Singapore, HR Business Partner, MDC (Modern Data Centre) & Analytics, APJ, Tech Data, is a strong believer in how people analytics can help identify, attract, retain, and develop talent.

She makes it a point to ask herself three questions – (1) If managers affect the productivity, engagement, and retention of employees, what is the monetary impact? (2) What are the key drivers of employee attrition and what drives retention? and (3) Can training impact productivity, and what is our ROI?

"Shifting from intuition to becoming more data-informed has enabled me to unlock the power and potential of my team," she notes. In doing so, she used the PROSCI Change Management methodology and ADKAR model to boost the team’s desire towards this development opportunity, and understand WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). She has also started to invest in data analytics literacy training to help her team embrace the mindset shift towards being a data-first organisation.

Analytics goes beyond presenting facts, it offers insights into what the data represents, and how it reduces unnecessary biases and ultimately improves performance effectiveness.

With its use, leaders are able to evaluate scenarios, such as benefits benchmarking by measuring pay differentiation ratios, and performance management effectiveness by measuring promotions’ success rates and training satisfaction rates, Lin shares. These insights can reveal how leaders align coworkers’ talent and skills with what the business actually needs.

However, there are challenges to be overcome. "HR does not own all the data that are crucial predictors of talent outcomes. Each system comes with its own custodians and data taxonomies that lead to incomplete, inconsistent, and fragmented data.

"HR’s interface with these custodians (for example, IT, finance) is limited, and unstructured data in the form of image, audio, feedback text, internal social media, is even harder to access and retrieve. Analytics results that are not put into good use may be due to the high-level representation that might be difficult to be translated into specific actions."

On the whole, Lin sees the need to spend time scoping, identifying, evaluating, and presenting the data; thus, she prefers taking a proactive approach to people analytics. "This allows us to have adequate time to plan ahead." And the keys she sees in achieving success with the help of people analytics? Adopting a growth mindset, being open to feedback, ideas and continuous improvements, and making people analytics relatable even at an operational level.

"The expectations of the people/HR teams have been elevated by business leaders to have adequate ability to analyse data, understand trends, develop recommendations, translate insights into actionable plans, and provide thought partnership with the business to navigate complex business models. Being proactive helps to anticipate potential changes and be prepared to address negative impacts."

Keeping data simple: TH Group

At TH Group, the enterprise credited for laying the foundation for the fresh milk industry in Vietnam, Tran Thi Quyen, Human Resources Director, TH Group, Vietnam, and her team Group-wide are focused on building a robust people analytics engine – and are "on the right track to build a good HRIS system, establish good data disciplines, and identify what we want to analyse for what purposes", she tells us.

So while the team is interested in a holistic view of the ecosystem around an employee and their journey, she adds: "Of course, we cannot (and should not) measure and analyse everything. A thorough business-based thought process should help select what really matters. Then, we will methodically work to organise the data, as well as the tools to produce optimal insights and projections."

Most importantly, she adds, is the need to strengthen the mindset of data-driven decision-making. This, TH Group is achieving, by requiring all people operations, decisions, and forecasts to be backed by evidence and data that are structured in a consistent, accurate, and truly meaningful way. "Sometimes, people have the tendency to make an intuition-based conclusion and seek data to prove their points,” she highlights.

Data is crucial, but deep professional expertise and understanding must be a strong foundation for metrics and analytics to make sense.

One example of the team’s data-driven approach is how it uses data and evidence in designing the leadership competencies, Quyen explains. "We could have easily bought or borrowed from hundreds of existing models, but those might not truly reflect the ‘persona’ of TH leaders. Therefore, we decided to gather data, conduct interviews, and conduct analyses to develop our own. We are in the final stage and I trust our model represents the true TH leaders." She is quick to see the "clear" opportunities that lie ahead – that as the system is developed, everyone is engaged, and this provides them with a "great chance to learn and own it".

No doubt, the journey is also not without its set of challenges in integrating information systems. For this, HR has worked closely with the IT team to build a coherent architecture that allows integration and the smart flow of data. "We set this simple rule: single entry for each piece of data, and a single view of data."

Next, keeping the end of measuring what matters for the business in mind, there is a need to establish the metrics, dashboards, and an analytics engine. As such, the team adopts a design thinking approach – from understanding business/management needs to building, prototyping, and testing.

Catch up with the analytics expert

We now introduce HR guru Fermin Diez, Faculty at National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, and Singapore Management University – who brings more than 30 years of experience in HR, which includes consulting, corporate and academic roles, in 40 countries in all continents.

Q How has the use of people analytics in HR evolved, and what has shaped the biggest changes to the function?

There are three parallel tracks today: One is for those organisations that first embraced analytics several years ago. For these, the way forward is to embed analytics further into as many areas of influence as possible. New questions they are grappling with include how best to structure the workforce for maximum output in terms of full-time employees, hybrid, gig, part-time, project-based, and more.

There are also new questions around how best to organise hybrid work, mental health issues, and whether or not remote work on a permanent basis can work, or if employees should come to the office all/some of the time.

For those that have recently embarked on HR analytics, the questions are more about how to go outside of doing HR analytics for HR purposes (for example, turnover and engagement, recruiting efficiency, etc), and start addressing business questions (labour productivity, ROI of training, pay mix versus outcomes, etc.).

There are still a number of organisations waiting to get started down the HR analytics path. The advice here is to start with low-hanging fruit, use existing tools, train your current staff in the fundamentals of HR analytics, and get going ASAP. In due course, they will move from Excel to Tableau, Power BI, Alteryx, and beyond. To complete a marathon, you must first run shorter distances consistently!

Q Why is people analytics growing in importance in today’s workplace?

Business leaders now have a better understanding of what leading HR practices can do for their organisations, and are asking their HR teams to do more to help improve business results. The HR function is being asked to lead the change transformation process, which during and post the pandemic have become key agenda items, and to show that the proposed changes make business sense, not only from the point of view of employee engagement and mental health, but because it will lead to a competitive advantage, and thus, improved financial outcomes for the organisation.

The spotlight is on HR today, and we cannot influence our organisations adequately by making gut-feel-based decisions. Senior management expects HR to supply data to support decisions.

Recently, I supported a company involved in retailing to address their HR strategic plan. They had presented to the CEO and board what they thought was a solid plan for the next five years, involving improved processes for recruiting, enhanced onboarding and training of the sales staff, a new compensation plan that was more linked to performance, and a focus on employee experience as a means to increase retention.

The CEO asked a single question: "To achieve our business growth plans, what would our workforce need to be like, and what do we need to start doing now to achieve that?" This completely changed the focus of the plan towards a workforce forecast, and strategies to achieve the desired growth. Rather than centering on improving the HR function, the plan honed in on how to support the business to implement the expansion strategy the board had approved. Data became crucial in this new context.

Q What opportunities and challenges does this pose for organisations?

The most immediate challenges are two: data availability, clean-up, and warehousing; and having enough internal knowledge of how to address business problems, turn them into hypotheses, and do the analyses to gain insights.

Clean, available data is the infrastructure of HR analytics. What to do with it is the knowledge that is required to do HR analytics. They go hand-in-hand. The opportunity lies in the fact that senior management is keen to have HR move in this direction quickly. Over the years, I have met many in HR who feel they are not sufficiently tech-savvy, numerically able, and with enough business acumen to be able to execute this mandate. This is not difficult to solve, as they have found that with a mindset shift, and some training on the fundamentals of HR analytics, they are able to answer at least 80% of the questions businesses are asking.

For answering the remaining 20%, some investment will be required in specialised data scientists, and tools, but that can come later. The biggest opportunity is that if HR can show it can add value on this first 80%, it is easier to move to the next stage.

One of my favourite stories is the one from the head of an HR analytics team from an MNC. When he first started, he claims he did not know enough to be able to accomplish what he was being asked to do. Five years on, the business has not only provided resources for him to build a team and robust tools, but also continues to ask him and his team to go into various areas of the business to help determine how best to add value through people decisions.

Q What, in your view, does it mean to take a proactive, rather than a reactive approach, to people analytics?

Start with the business problem first. What are the line functions struggling with? Their problems are usually not framed as employee turnover, but as not achieving financial targets.

HR analytics is proactive when it sets out to answer business questions through people-related variables.

For instance, I worked with an FMCG company that was losing market share to help figure out what it could do to reverse this recent trend. There were, of course, marketing and other variables involved, but my job was to help look at the people variables. Did we have the right people? Enough of them? Was the training working? And was it sufficient? Was the pay scheme motivational enough?

After looking at, and discarding some of these hypotheses through analyses, the conclusion was that we did not have uniform criteria for hiring sales staff. It seemed that every district manager had his or her own criteria of what constituted a good salesperson. From "they must be college educated", to "no college, please". Then "they want to be boss right away and don’t want to spend enough time in the field". From "with experience is better", to "no experience; I’d rather teach them everything myself".

Through analytics, we found that there was one set of characteristics that correlated with higher sales. After changing the sales team in a pilot project, and seeing that the results improved, the entire sales force was progressively changed over the next few years to the profile which was determined through analysis. Results improved and within two years the company had regained the lost share, and then some! Further, other regions copied what we had done and saw their results improve as well.

Q What is the No.1 trend that will drive people analytics in Asia in the next one to two years?

Soon, all HR professionals will need to be analytics-savvy. The trend is not only irreversible but accelerating. More people are joining HR teams with a better understanding of analytics. In Asia, we are nearing the tipping point, and from there onwards, there will be no turning back.

If you have yet to board this train, know that it is leaving the station as you read this!


This article first appeared in the Q2 edition of Human Resources Online's Southeast Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and more!

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Images of interviewees / Provided 

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