4 Ways You Can Use Big Data to Better Leverage Your Employees

By Jason Good on November 5, 2015

4 Ways to Use Big Data to Better Leverage EmployeesAs you likely know, “big data,” or large compiled data sets that can be analyzed to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, isn't just for Fortune 500 companies with well-staffed IT departments. Technology is putting the power of big data — and the business intelligence that comes with it — in the hands of just about anyone who can wield a smartphone. That’s great news for small and mid-size businesses.

Here are 4 ways you can use big data to better leverage your most important asset: people.

Of course you want the best people working for you. That’s why it’s important to eliminate emotion and potential bias in the screening process — and look to the data.

Consider a candidate with many short-duration jobs on his resume. We’ve traditionally been trained to assume such candidates are job hoppers who aren’t likely to stay long. However, research looking at more than 7,000 employees shows that past performance definitely doesn’t predict future results, and past job-hoppers could wind up being star employees for your company.

When workforce science company Cornerstone (formerly Evolv) screens employees for hourly work at Walgreens, Hyatt, TGI Fridays and other major brands, it asks questions that seem to have nothing to do with work, like how many social networks a person uses or how close she lives to the office. But answers to these questions — based on data Cornerstone has compiled by tracking and correlating survey responses and job performance — turn out to be helpfully predictive. As a result, workers selected by Evolv’s software to work in marketing company Harte-Hanks’ call center missed 29 percent fewer hours in their first six months and handled calls 15 percent faster than employees hired before the software was used.

Then there’s startup ConnectCubed, which uses spatial reasoning tests, trivia, or memory tests on longtime employee standouts to create data profiles of “ideal” workers. Potential new hires can then be measured against such profiles. “When new people apply, you can say, ‘Wow, this guy has all the makings of our top salesmen,’ ” says ConnectCubed CEO Michael Tanenbaum.

You can learn a lot about your employees' productivity from simple data. Timecard data can tell you really basic stuff, like which of your employees works the most hours, who is billing the most overtime, how much time they devote to a particular project, or who takes the most sick days. But such data can also lead to more complex analyses like which of your divisions or stores is consistently over- or under-staffed.

Do you have a sales team? Tracking metrics like profit per lead and average close time can give you a solid idea of how each of your salespeople is doing.

You can also predict future cash flow by tracking proposals out and average time to close. If you know your team sent out fewer than usual proposals this week and it takes an average of two weeks to close a deal, you know you’ll have to do something different in a few weeks if you want to maintain cash flow.

Retention isn’t just about pay (though of course making sure your employees are paid fairly is part of keeping them).

Fair and honest feedback, delivered regularly, is part of keeping an employee motivated. And many companies are taking this to heart by replacing the annual performance review with a more regular stream of feedback, in the form of both quantitative data and qualitative reports. “Doing away with the annual review cycle really makes sense for us when you consider that two-thirds of our employees are millennials, who are used to giving and receiving constant feedback in their daily lives, whether it be through Instagram likes or writing and reading reviews on Amazon,” Ellyn Shook, the head of human resources at Accenture, told Fortune.

Another set of analytics can predict when an employee is about to leave his or her job — helpful information for sure, since it’s estimated to cost about 20 percent of an employee’s salary to replace him. A key point here is that a single data point alone can’t predict employees who are at flight risk: “One of the things that people want to find is that one nugget, that key thing that correlates with someone leaving, but it is never that simple,” notes Thomas Daglis, a data scientist at Ultimate Software. His company’s UltiPro Retention Predictor software draws on 50 key data points.

Are your employees motivated to come to work every day? Are they excited about their jobs and your business? While we don’t yet have a solution for tracking excitement levels (at least one that wouldn’t make your employees think they were working for Big Brother), the way you apply insights gleaned from using data can be a powerful motivator. Data-driven feedback eliminates bias and giving employees data that helps them do their jobs better, says one convert, is “very motivating.”

“Big Data will save employee engagement by giving each employee a better sense of personal ownership over his or her performance,” predicts Jeremy Boudinet, marketing director for Ambition.

All this said, nobody is advocating for an algorithm to be the sole decision maker at a company, and employees will rightfully rebel if they feel they’re being unfairly tracked. If you’re tallying up employee bathroom breaks or tracking other data that doesn’t seem to be relevant, your workers will feel violated. Think improving, not policing.  Employees need to be told what information you’re collecting and why, and employers need to be clear they won’t penalize someone simply for going on Facebook once in a while.

Ready to get started? There's no need to rush out and buy a hugely expensive software package. If you're already a GoCanvas user, you may have a cache of data in the form of digital timecards, PTO request forms, and performance reviews waiting to be analyzed. And if you're not a GoCanvas user, give us a try free for 30 days and see how easy it is to turn your paper forms into mobile apps — and those apps into actionable insights. Don't forget to jump start your trial by downloading pre-built HR & Time Management apps right from the GoCanvas Application Store!