What Does Big Data Mean for HR?


Everyone’s talking about Big Data these days.  What does it all mean?  What’s new about Big Data?   And what are its main implications for people management and HR?

Big Data refers to huge batches of data, typically drawn from a wide variety of sources.  In addition to more traditional (spreadsheet-like) data, Big Data can include machine data (e.g., from mechanical sensors, computer activity logs, satellites), transactional data (cash register purchases), and even “unstructured” data like that from social media (e.g., tweets, Facebook relationships).

In addition to the much greater volume of data that can now be stored and accessed, new software techniques make it possible to combine and analyze a much wider variety of data types, even including unstructured data.  Further, Big Data files can be set up so they’re updated almost instantaneously, making real-time analyses of massive data flows a realistic possibility for the first time.

So what does this mean for HR?  Well, from one perspective, many of the most notable Big Data advances – analysis of machine data or real-time social media trends – don’t seem as useful in the realm of people management as they do in fields such as retail ordering, supply chain management, risk analysis, etc.

But Big Data’s most fundamental insight – that data from a wide variety of sources can be combined to yield concrete steps for improving business results – is exactly where HR should be seeking to go as well.  And it’s not necessary to have millions of data points or GPS trails or real-time transactions to benefit from this insight.

In fact, HR Analytics at its core is much more straightforward than much of what’s happening in Big Data.  All you really need to get started is to map some reasonably decent data on the “people side” of your business (e.g., from an employee survey, 360 reviews, learning records) to information on key business outcomes (e.g., financial results across locations, turnover, or a variety of other strategic outcome measures that can even be captured through an employee survey).

So don’t be overwhelmed by all the talk of Big Data – the advances it’s enabling are exciting to watch, but the HR world is already well-positioned to take advantage of analytics.  Now it’s time for more organizations to do just that!

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One Comment

  1. avatar

    Mark van RijmenamMay 27, 2013 at 3:57 am

    Thanks for the article Laurie. I believe there are a lot more possibilities for HR and Big Data. Think only about the insights that can be gained from analyzing workplace behavior or analyzing all knowledge present within an organization. You can find more information in my article:

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