Making sense of complex workforce data typically requires a combination of high-priced analytics talent and veteran HR professionals who can translate data about workforce activities into trends and calls to action for business leaders. But that’s about to change as a growing number of analytics vendors release products that do the heavy lifting for users, automatically combing through volumes of data and converting this information into business-friendly insights.
Just ask Florida Blue. A not-for-profit healthcare company and an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association based in Jacksonville, Fla., Florida Blue was one of the first companies to go live with SuccessFactors’ Headlines product in May 2013. Headlines is a new application to SuccessFactors’ workforce analytics tool that pushes out to an HR manager or business leader simple storylines based on extensive data mining.
For example, Headlines can take highlight insights from employee termination data from the SuccessFactors’ workforce analytics system, and automatically display this data in easy-to-read, prioritized headlines or banners such as, “66 employees exited this month, double last month’s count.” Following this, Headlines can display a list of contributing factors for the departures such as training and salary, and key characteristics of employees who have recently left the company like location, tenure and job title. It also can identify other employees at risk of quitting based on similar factors. In addition to automatically identifying hot spots that require a manager’s immediate attention, Headlines can push information in the form of personalized alerts via email in common business language.
That’s been a huge help to Dawn Pickett, a senior consultant for workforce analytics at Florida Blue. A software engineer by trade, Pickett depends on a seven-person team of HR business partners—not data analytics experts—to provide the health company’s business leaders with monthly updates on factors including workforce metrics, mobility and headcount.
“Headlines takes some of the work off of the HR analyst and instead pushes the information out to the HR business partners,” says Pickett. “The tool gives you instant insight into a select set of measures and does the slicing and dicing for you. It can actually reduce several hours of data analysis time by highlighting what’s working and where there are opportunities for improvement.”
Simplifying the User Experience
SuccessFactors isn’t the only analytics vendor focused on converting complex analytics into an easy-to-digest format for non-technical HR professionals and business leaders. For instance, Pentaho’s release of Pentaho Business Analytics 5.0 in September marked a major overhaul of its flagship product and a new standard for user-friendliness.
The completely redesigned data integration and analytics platform includes new capabilities that automatically blend data from disparate sources in real-time without the need for in-depth data integration expertise. Typically, blending data requires big data experts to move disparate sources of data into centralized data marts—a difficult and time-consuming process that can result in out-of-date information. With Pentaho 5.0, however, data is blended in real-time for timely analysis.
“We tried to think about how we could simplify the user experience, whether you’re an IT administrator or a business user,” says Donna Prlich, senior director of product and solutions marketing at Pentaho. “With Pentaho 5.0, there’s less of a reliance on IT. If you want to get data faster, there’s no longer the need to wait a couple of weeks until IT runs you a report.”
These offerings fit into an ongoing trend of creating visual presentations of data trends and correlations. The proliferation of these tools can help businesses monitor key performance metrics and improve decision making and planning. Companies that range from specializing in visualizations to those who offer add-ons to analytics and business intelligence applications are in this field and include Tableau Software, QlikView, Tibco, Microsoft, MicroStrategy, Actuate, Jaspersoft, IBM, SAS and Information Builders. (For an overview, see “Advances in Data Visualization Software Empower Business Users.”)
Still a Need for Data Scientists
That’s not to suggest, however, that data scientists will be out of work anytime soon. “There will still be a need for a rock star data scientist in large and small firms,” says Joshua Sullivan, vice president and a data scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consultancy in McLean, Virginia. “I just don’t think you’ll have quite so many.”
Pickett agrees. In fact, she says that extensive technical skills such as those of a system administrator are still required to properly configure many of today’s analytics tools while HR professionals are indispensable to determining what’s worth measuring in a company.
After all, says Pickett, “A workforce analytics application does not provide value when it gets turned on. Users are trained; success requires an ongoing partnership between the technology, analysts and end-users.”
Cindy Waxer, a contributing editor who covers workforce analytics and other topics for Data Informed, is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a contributor to publications including The Economist and MIT Technology Review. She can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter: @Cwaxer.