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“Data is great, but so what?”: How Merck overcame barriers to adopting a people analytics mindset

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From implementing one single global people analytics platform, to piloting advanced approaches such as predictive modelling and machine learning, Aditi Sharma Kalra uncovers how Merck Group’s HR team is supporting the business vision, in this exclusive with Alexis Saussinan, Global Head of People Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning, Group HR, Merck.

Germany-based Merck Group is a vibrant science and technology that has been pursuing progress for people everywhere for more than 350 years. It is working on breakthrough solutions and technologies in healthcare, life science, and performance materials in 66 countries, with more than 52,000 employees.

At Merck Group, HR shapes the people dimension of the business, and people analytics is one of the critical focus areas of the global HR strategy to support this business vision.

Over the past few years, Merck Global People Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning team have achieved several milestones ranging from implementing one single global people analytics platform to support strategic decision-making, to piloting innovative people analytics approaches such as network analytics, predictive modelling  and natural language processing to support strategic workforce planning.

In this exclusive interview, we speak to Alexis Saussinan, Global Head of People Analytics and Strategic Workforce Planning, who is based in Singapore and has witnessed firsthand the implementation of this people analytics mindset in the global organisation.

Q What was the business need for implementing such technology?

The business need for us goes beyond just technology. We leverage people analytics as a one of our core capabilities in HR to empower leaders to make informed strategic decisions, encourage curious and passionate talent to solve the most complex problems, and further develop results-driven teams and networks.

To achieve these strategic business and people objectives, we benefit from an amazing sponsorship from our senior leaders as well as close partnerships with key bodies and committees such as our Works Council.

This gives us very strong foundations to support Merck Group’s current and future successes in the era of digitalisation, industry 4.0, and beyond!

Q What were the main challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Raising awareness about new and innovative domains like people analytics is never easy, and comes with its set of challenges around convincing HR and business leaders about what’s in it for them.

“How can people analytics help deliver strategic impact?”, “Data is great, but so what?” These are some of the questions regularly being asked that can represent challenges and barriers to the adoption of a people analytics mindset.

To overcome these challenges, we have tried and tested several different approaches in an agile manner to identify what works (and what doesn’t!). For example, we realised that it does not work when you mainly position people analytics as just a tool or technology. People are already overwhelmed with tools in their professional and private lives. What works is when you focus on user experience and embed people analytics in our colleagues’ journeys.

We started by implementing a single global people analytics platform, leveraging more than 100 millions of pre-approved, relevant and accurate real-time data points.

Q On the other side of the spectrum, how did you drive engagement and adoption?

To drive people analytics’ adoption and reinforce our analytical thinking capabilities, we re-purposed several business marketing techniques such as user persona definition, journey mapping, consumption, and usage analytics.

For example, we came up with regular, practical bite-size insights’ campaigns called ‘Did you know?’, proactively pushing relevant and actionable insights to our community at the right time during the year.

In Q4, we created a ‘Did you know?’ around how to leverage people analytics as part of yearly business planning. In Q1, we had another ‘Did you know?’ around the impact of performance and rewards’ differentiation to drive high employee engagement.

In addition, we work very closely with our global HR leaders to identify strategic focus areas where we want to pilot innovative advanced people analytics techniques and ‘practically’ show the impact that people analytics can have at scale for the organisation.

To deliver on these pilots, we come together in small global cross-functional agile teams for a period of time and work in iterative sprints to deliver tangible outcomes. These outcomes are then assessed and, for most impactful and promising results, we look for upscaling opportunities either on targeted business or people areas or even at Merck Group level.

A recent example is when we brought together different business, HR and technology colleagues to work on an advanced people analytics and machine learning platform.

This platform combines multiple data sources into one single intelligent interface that predicts future business and people scenario outcomes while proactively pushing actionable recommendations to business and HR leaders for them to anticipate and influence these scenario. This solution showed great business impact potential and is currently being further rolled-out globally.

The examples above are only an extract of our continuous focused efforts on developing the core people analytics capabilities of our HR community, while already preparing for the future with steps in predictive modelling, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

Q In developing people analytics expertise and products in-house, what is your secret? Where did you start?

I wish there was one secret 🙂

For us at Merck, it all started with a strong focus on building the right foundations. We started by implementing a single global people analytics platform, leveraging more than 100 millions of pre-approved, relevant and accurate real-time data points.

From the very beginning, we decided to open this platform globally not only to HR colleagues, but also to business leaders in all transparency (more than 4,000 users in total). This was already a bold move that proved to be right choice, as transparency was the key for us when we started and it still is.

From there, we accelerated fast and step-by-step. We delivered small tangible and successful pilots that showed the impact of people analytics, for example ‘identifying diversity sweet spots in teams to drive innovation’, and used these credentials to further raise awareness across the organisation.

We identified and leveraged some HR and business key influencers and people analytics ambassadors to further increase reach and impact. We used some of the most impactful corporate events, such as our yearly global executive committee meeting, to showcase Merck’s people analytics capabilities (we even won an award there!).

In addition, we always ensured that we are part of the right networks to learn and contribute to the global people analytics community by sharing with other companies and leveraging best practices.

For example, we regularly partner with external institutes and universities to perform some foundational research related to specific people analytics topics. Collaborating and co-developing with the external people analytics ecosystem is a strong focus of ours and part of our approach towards new ways of working.

We also developed and grew the team in a pragmatic manner by adding the right targeted capabilities and roles we needed to realise our strategy.

Q As the people analytics pathway started to take shape, how did you, in turn, equip the team internally to succeed at this new product?

From a people analytics’ team perspective, as we advanced our journey, we also developed and grew the team over the last few years in a pragmatic manner by adding the right targeted capabilities and roles we needed to realise our strategy. Some of the capabilities we added over the years included tech skills, business acumen, consulting, data science, marketing, and of course HR content expertise.

We always operated as a global team, with different team members’ work locations in Europe, US and Asia. This was another success factor that helped us work on strategic topics at corporate level, without ever losing touch with the businesses and regions on the ground.

These focused actions helped us achieve very strong results and gave us foundations to engage into the next steps of our strategic roadmap towards ‘enhanced’ people analytics.

Q What are key results that the use of technology has brought about at your organisation?

To date, we have been able to drive a very strong adoption and usage of our available people analytics capabilities by our HR and business communities (we track these numbers every month as part of our team performance scorecard).

As an outcome of that, all key strategic people discussions at Merck now make use of people analytics data and insights. For example, we leverage people analytics to define and review our global HR strategy, enhance our corporate strategic talent management programmes, and support strategic business transformations such as mergers and acquisitions or innovation-driven initiatives.

These are just examples and we still have a long way to go, with one clear strategic objective in mind:  contribute to having HR shape the people dimension of Merck!

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HR Vendors of the Year Awards is back again for its 5th year with a fascinating gala night to celebrate the best HR vendors in Hong Kong. Winning is both an affirmation of the exceptional quality of your work in the industry and among peers. Enter Awards now
Contact us now for more details.

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