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HR leaders need to tap into their data gold mine

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here.

Two years ago, City of Edmonton staff combed through static reports, spreadsheets and binders to make workforce decisions. Today, they use workplace analytics to pull real-time data identifying employee engagement, retention, hiring and safety insights to inform staffing decisions for garbage collection to firefighting.

Workplace analytics help city staff optimize their workforce with hard data.

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Edmonton's giant leap into analytics is unique. According to Accenture's 2016 outlook How Well Do You Know Your Workforce, "Many companies are struggling just to get basic reporting right. They may not even know exactly how many people work for them, in what jobs and in what regions. And many still rely on first­-generation spreadsheets to manage HR data."

The Society of HR Management (SHRM) Foundation says that's about to change. Eighty-two per cent of organizations plan to start or enhance their use of talent-related big data over the next three years, according to SHRM's 2016 report called Shaping the Future of HR (researched by the Economist Magazine Intelligence Unit).

What does this mean for Canadian leaders?

According to the World Bank, Canada's workforce participation has been on a downward spiral since 2008. What differentiates today's HR leaders is how effectively they leverage data to increase worker productivity, amid a shrinking workforce with skill shortages.

"Having greater insights on talent is a workforce imperative for Canadian organizations," says Marc-Étienne Julien, CEO of Randstad Canada. "Leveraging workforce analytics more effectively will maximize efficiency and profit per employee. Analytics will fuel greater insights and expertise in talent management, employee engagement and turnover."

Business functions like finance, marketing and sales are all managed by analytics. Yet it's HR that is sitting on the real goldmine: employee data. HR manages a host of systems on employee information, applicant tracking, compensation and training. They can't lose time by piecing together a puzzle from different spreadsheets and reports. They need to integrate systems to identify patterns and develop evidence-based strategies to drive revenue.

Edmonton's work is a template for others. Surprisingly, few in Canada are following their lead. "We have companies that are global leaders in workplace analytics, yet they derive the majority of their revenue helping companies outside Canada," says Debbie McGrath, CEO,

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What's holding us back?

We have the talent and partners to support us. Why aren't we responding to the business case for HR analytics? "HR professionals are trained to develop talent, enhance culture, and increase engagement. Data science is generally not part of our skill set," says Dave Weisbeck, chief strategy officer, Visier, a Vancouver-based Data Analytics Provider.

It doesn't have to be. Introducing workplace analytics to your organization is like any other corporate enhancement. HR leaders are experts at forming teams to implement change in other disciplines. It's time to turn their focus within. Here's some insight from experts on taking the first steps to leverage big data to transform your workforce decisions.

Be clear on what you want to achieve and the right data to collect. "Make sure whatever you want to achieve aligns with your company's objectives. Aim to answer questions that stump your CEO and test systems against real life challenges," says Jeff Nugent, managing director, Contingent Workforce Solutions. "The answers must be designed to be meaningful to the business. Perhaps employee retention is a huge issue costing millions of dollars annually. Streamline your data to ensure it's tangible and actionable. You can connect the dots to uncover trends on who's leaving and why."

Find a powerful champion to lead a pilot project. There's always someone who's an early adopter and knows how to move things forward in the organization. "Reach out to a few candidates who can act as an executive sponsor to launch a pilot. Show them how analytics can address issues that are holding them back," says Mr. Julien. "Perhaps it's the need to find employees with specialized skills. Productivity is probably low because they're never fully staffed. Outline how you'd like to lead a pilot for them to analyze data on the successful candidates in a workplace analytics solution to develop a strategy to find similar candidates."

Don't be intimated. "Everyone mistakenly thinks they have to have perfect data or can't do analytics," says Dave Weisbeck. "People assume the team you form to study analytics has to be technical. They get overwhelmed, thinking they're hiring outside experts who speak a language they don't understand. In reality, you're hiring people to work with you, to help you connect business priorities and answer questions. It's like solving a mystery together. There is a problem you're trying to solve and now you're building your case through evidence. The data holds evidence that tells you why your hiring is flawed, why you're paying so much overtime, why your absenteeism is high and why people are leaving."

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If you take these steps to slowly integrate real time analytics into your workforce decisions, you may be amazed by the value it returns in time, talent and revenue.

Mary McIninch, B.A., LL.B., is executive director of the Association of Canadian Search Employment and Staffing Services (ACSESS), the national voice of the recruiting, employment and staffing services industry.

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