Apr 01 2013

What is big data in HR?

The recent HR Tech Europe Spring conference, held in London, featured a range of speakers who talked about how organisations, and HR in particular, could use big data to make better decisions. Search ‘big data’ on Google and you will see how popular a topic it is becoming.

So what is big data? Here is the Wikipedia definition – to boil it down, it is large and complex data sets that are being created faster than ever before. But the ‘big’ is relative. Organisations are already sitting on a mountain of employee data. The bigger picture is that we are creating 1.8 zettabytes of data a year and that amount is growing at an exponential rate.

Most electronic devices generate some form of data and as we continue to put sensors in more an d more objects – cars, fridges, wristbands such as the Nike Fuel wristband, so we create ever more data. Added to this, the two billion people online currently are set to grow to five billion in the coming years.  That’s the ‘big’ in big data.

As well as the volume of data, two othere important factors for organisations to consider are the speed at which that data is generated and the variety of that data.

For example, unstructured data – the kind of data that you will not find in a spreadsheet – is powering the growth in data on the web – think of comments on blogs, tweets and Likes on Facebook.  This is data and it is telling us something. The question is: what?

This type of data enables orgnisations to look at sentiment – ie how they are feeling – and how employees and customers respond to organisatiional developments. For example, it would be possible  – by analyzing tweets, comments on networks etc, to get a feel for sentiment after a company had made an announcement.

On a more micro-level, such analysis could, for example, provide a more accurate picture of how people feel about learning and development programmes.

But if that seems like too much of a leap into the future, take a deeper look at the data you are currently sitting on.

Matthew Hanwell, who works in HR technology and social media at NorthgateArinso, provided an example of how organisations might like to use the data they have currently to identify business opportunities.

He told delegates at the conference that HR is very good at aggregating data but that doing so can be dangerous as it can hide business problems. He gave the example of a company that had a 5.2% global attrition rate. The company felt this was acceptable and thete there was thertefore no need to take any actions to improve it.

On further analysis the data revealed that one part of the business had a 40% attrition rate in colleagues who had served less than a year while another had an attrition rate of 0.02%. Hanwell likened this to having one hand in oven and one hand in the freezer while the body feels fine.

This was a good example of why HR needs to take a more proactive approach to the data it collects and the way it analyses that data.

Once HR gets good at using data to support the business it can start to look at how it can use analytics to predict organisational development needs and target resources and intervene before there is a problem.

Hanwell told delegates that data driven decisions are better decisions but knowing is not enough if it does not lead to action. He concluded by saying that data provides HR with huge opportunities, but that HR professionals and teams will need the right attitude, skills and competencies.


Thanks to Freedigital.net for photo


  1. Chris Ryan

    Hi Claire

    A really useful overview with an excellent example.

    To paraphrase an old poem “data data everywhere, but not a drop to think” 🙂

    Thanks for sharing

    1. lcporguk

      Thanks Chris I’m pleased you like it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>