06 July 2021

C-Suite & People Analytics: Insights from The Literature

Priyanka Mehrotra

TL;DR

  • We reviewed more than 50 articles to understand what the current literature says about the role of people analytics in helping the C-suite with their challenges.
  • From this lit review, we identified 5 key themes and 5 critical articles that we encourage readers to check out.
  • Among these themes, we learned that people analytics has played a vital role during the pandemic, has a growing opportunity to step up more, needs to tie its work to the business goals, must have a data-driven culture for a C-suite and people analytics partnership—and CHROs play a crucial role in enabling it.
  • We provide additional reading recommendations.

Introduction

As vaccinations and declining infection rates in some regions bring a sigh of relief, organizational leaders are starting to design policies around new working models, such as a hybrid workplace, for their employees. As a result, in addition to existing challenges around talent retention and recruitment, leaders are now faced with new questions such as:

  • Which employees should be brought back to office and for how many days?
  • How often should they continue working from home, if at all?
  • How do employees feel about the new policies?

Talent-related challenges will continue to remain a top priority for the C-suite in 2021 and beyond, as shown by recent research.1,2

So how can leaders prepare themselves and where can they look for support? Enter people analytics (PA).

In order to understand the role PA can play in helping the C-suite with these and future challenges, as well as what they need to be successful in this endeavor, we reviewed more than 50 academic and business articles, reports, and books. This article summarizes the themes and insights from our literature review:

  • PA has played a vital role during the pandemic
  • A growing opportunity exists for PA to step up in orgs
  • PA should understand and tie to business goals
  • A data-driven culture is essential for a C-suite and PA partnership
  • CHROs can help bridge the gap between the C-suite and PA

Let’s take a brief look at these 5 themes.

PA has played a vital role during the pandemic

People analytics became a much more visible force during the pandemic. Several articles highlight the value PA provided as orgs shifted their workforce to remote working.

During the pandemic, the C-suite and senior leaders relied heavily on people data to tell them how their employees were feeling, what challenges they were facing, and how to adapt to new business priorities.

Because of this data from PA teams, during the pandemic orgs could successfully:

  • Design and implement strategies that met the specific needs of their workforce
  • Keep a pulse on employee engagement levels as they moved to remote work

The question that remains to be answered, however, is whether or not PA will continue to perform this role.

Will PA and HR continue to play a vital role, consult with the senior leadership, and remain influential moving forward?

The answer, according to the lit, lies in how effectively PA functions can pivot their focus to the emerging challenges surrounding return-to-work plans—and use this time as an opportunity to keep their “seat at the table,” which leads us to our next theme.

A growing opportunity exists for PA to step up in orgs

Several articles spoke about how PA teams and leaders should use this period to step up, having recently shown the value they’ve provided to the org during the pandemic. Recent research has shown:

  • 42% of corporate board directors think talent management will be a top priority for them in 20213
  • 50% of CEOs globally cite recruitment and retention of top talent as their most critical human capital focus in 20214

Some of the ways PA can help leadership with retention and with building a culture that attracts top talent include providing insights around:

  • Employee engagement
  • Employee experience
  • Employee networks
  • Workforce planning
  • Labor market analysis

PA leaders should grab this opportunity to push back on some of the low-value and low-impact requests that come their way—and instead identify key business issues and create a cadence of sharing insights with the C-suite on those issues.

In addition, PA can continue to demonstrate value to the C-suite through issues surrounding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) as they have risen to the top of every C-suite agenda. Orgs will continue to need PA to help them with these challenges, too.

PA should understand and tie to business goals

A frequent finding we came across in the lit is that, in order for PA to provide value to the C-suite, PA functions first must understand the business’s challenges and goals.

PA teams and leaders must:

  • Understand what metrics matter to the C-suite
  • Use their expertise and capabilities to convey that information in a timely manner and in language the C-suite will understand

According to one report, only 24% of HR functions provide analytics that connect their people metrics to business metrics.5 There’s a huge gap in the metrics and areas that PA teams focus on, and what information and data C-suite execs need.

PA must speak the C-suite’s language in order to engage them.6

A common reason why the C-suite is not often data-driven is a lack of trust in the data. According to research, 40% of senior execs have reservations about relying on the data and analytics HR produces.7

Often this can be due to either the correct data not being shared, or not being explicitly linked to the challenges and immediate needs of the orgusually resulting from a lack of knowledge around business priorities and agendas.

A data-driven culture is essential for a C-suite & PA partnership

A number of articles highlight the role of organizational culture in elevating PA to a place of strategic value to the C-suite. However, we note this push for such a culture that recognizes HR and PA as a market advantage must come from the top.

“It's the CEO who determines the culture of an organization, where to invest and what role HR has in the organizationstrategical versus tactical, offense versus defense.”8

Some of the ways the C-suite can effectively build this type of culture and start leveraging data to their benefit include:

  • Placing HR in the executive rank and have it report directly to the CEO
  • Making people data a priority and part of a regular cadence of check-ins with the CHRO
  • Looking for and putting in place HR leaders who are partial to science-based decision-making

These actions can help build an organizational culture that uses people data as a competitive advantage to understand and address people challenges: They make a statement that people are a priority.

CHROs can help bridge the gap between the C-suite & PA

We came across several articles that spoke about the role CHROs played during the pandemic, and how they’re working with CEOs to oversee their remote workforces and developing return-to-work plans. A few examples include:

  • IBM. Some of the questions the CHRO is discussing with the CEO and other senior leaders:9
    • Who comes into the buildings?
    • How many people are allowed in an elevator at 1 time?
    • How does the company configure floor plans to keep people far enough apart from each other so they feel safe?
  • Accenture. The CHRO is paying special attention to employees’ emotional well-being10

The key to doing this work is people data: PA functions and the CHRO can play a crucial role in bringing data and insights to the C-suite. In the lit, we discovered a few ways that CHROs can do this by:

  • Being a data champion. CHROs can help the CEO move toward the data domain by highlighting the immediate and long-term value of leveraging data to address challenges
  • Sharing important metrics. CHROs should regularly share metrics that matter to the CEO, depending on the issues facing the org
  • Presenting in business language. CHROs understand how to present and report metrics in terms of their financial impact on the overall business

What Caught Our Attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contain information that we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same.

People Analytics As A Strategic Partner To The Business

Mellish, A., Human Capital Institute, 2020

Emphasizes the need for PA to become a strategic partner to the business. Return to work challenges, remote engagement, and retention of talent, DEIB culture, and workforce planning are some areas in which PA can contribute.

"People analytics means different things to different organizations. However, there is one through line of purpose for every people analytics practice: to inform and influence business decisions in support of organizational strategy."

Highlights:

  • The PA function can partner with the business in many ways. But PA must always ask the questions: How does this advance our strategy? And how strategically important is it when compared with everything else we’re working on?
  • Orgs can leverage PA to navigate return-to-work challenges, engage and retain employees remotely, build a culture of diversity and belonging, and infuse workforce planning with compassion.
  • To effectively use PA, orgs should internally build the capabilities and skills needed to influence business decisions with people data.
  • Orgs also need to invest in data analytics tools to enrich reporting, advance visualization, and uncover insights and trends that might have gone unnoticed.

People Analytics Should Be A Part Of Company’s DNA: Alexis Saussinan, Merck Group

Modgil, S., People Matters, 2019

Provides insights into how PA offers endless possibilities and application areas. This report also defines clear strategic cases, getting support from leadership, and setting transparent ethical guardrails as being key to driving business value.

"Companies that are able to make the most out of people data and analytics, in a sustainable manner and with the perfect balance between business performance, human focus and ethics will be best positioned to drive sustainable high performance and innovation."

Highlights:

  • Orgs need to ask if they have the right foundations in place to create and deliver PA at scale for the business.
  • PA can offer insights around factors that lead to high performance among new hires, and identify key influencers and team composition to drive performance and innovation.
  • To deliver maximum potential, PA should become part of the DNA of a company and be naturally embedded at every step of the employee journey.
  • Getting strong C-suite exec and HR sponsorship at the highest levels is a prerequisite to drive true business value as well as positive employee outcomes.

How CEOs And CHROs Can Connect People To Business Strategy

Harvard Business Review, 2017

Presents findings from a survey of 168 companies. The article also includes insights from interviews with thought leaders and CEOs from large global companies. The findings suggest that companies are making progress in their use of human capital metrics but it is still glacial.

“If you have an analytics savvy CHRO, he or she won’t let the CEO get away with problem turnover rates or engagement scores. They have deep conversations about how these metrics are connected to the business.”

Highlights:

  • Some of the findings from the survey include:
    • Less than 50% of respondents routinely report on human capital metrics to the C-suite.
    • Fewer than half of respondents say HR uses metrics to predict talent needs, measure the results of their talent strategy, and improve the business.
    • Only 24% of respondents provide analytics that connect people metrics to business metrics.
  • Human capital metrics will have strategic value when the CEO and CHRO have a trusted relationship: CHROs need to be data-driven and engage the CEO in meaningful talent conversations.

The CEO’s Guide To Competing Through HR

Bafaro, F., Ellsworth, D., & Gandhi, N., McKinsey & Company, 2017

Highlights the need to accelerate the reinvention of HR as a function capable of understanding the drivers of strategy using the power of data analytics.

"Technological tools provide a new opportunity for HR function to reach its potential and drive real business value."

Highlights:

  • Orgs that want to advance the reinvention of HR should concentrate on:
    • Rethinking the role of the HR business partner within the org
    • Using PA to identify the talent actions that drive value
    • Fixing HR operations
    • Focusing HR resources in a more agile way
  • Replace the business partner role with a new talent value leader (TVL) who would be held fully accountable for the performance of the talent.
  • The development and delivery of insights should be systematicas this will help HR drive strategic talent value instead of a piecemeal manner as at present.
  • As part of the reinvention, the HR function should use automation tech to address operational issues and focus more on strategic mission.

CFOs Should Not Leave Workforce Analytics Solely to HR

Freker, J., CFO, 2020

Highlights the need for CFOs to take a more active role in using HR analytics to identify strategic opportunities for capturing ROI from HR and people programs.

"There is a strong link between CFO’s level of involvement in strategic workforce planning and broader business performance."

Highlights:

  • CFOs can use workforce data for strategic insight—using talent data to lower cost of hiring, aligning compensation with business performance and engaging a productive workforce.
  • People analytics can help identify cost anomalies, especially in multinational companies in which jurisdictions vary across countries.
  • Four main analytics for CFOs to tap into include—healthcare analytics (employee health, absenteeism, wellness), financial analytics (benefits plan, equity, compensation), diversity analytics (talent management, L&D, succession planning, DEI metrics), and engagement analytics (employee engagement, communications, outreach).
  • Leaders should be looking at a single, intuitive, and responsive reporting system instead of one-off reports from multiple data sources.

Additional Reading Recommendations

Footnotes

  1. “The Biggest Leadership Challenge CEOs Face in 2021 and How to Tackle It,” Inc.com. / Joe Galvin, March 10, 2021, https://www.inc.com/joe-galvin/the-biggest-leadership-challenge-ceos-face-in-2021-how-to-tackle-it.html
  2. C-Suite Challenge™ 2021: Leading in a Post-COVID-19 Recovery, The Conference Board, 2021, https://conference-board.org/topics/c-suite-challenge/c-suite-challenge-2021
  3. PwC Executive Pulse Survey, PwC, 2021, https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/pulse-survey.html
  4. C-Suite Challenge™ 2021: Leading in a Post-COVID-19 Recovery, The Conference Board, 2021, https://conference-board.org/topics/c-suite-challenge/c-suite-challenge-2021
  5. How CEOs and CHROs Can Connect People to Business Strategy, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2017, https://hello.visier.com/rs/300-UJP-575/images/HBR-How-CEOs-and-CHROs-Connect-People-to-Business-Strategy.pdf
  6. “HCM Challenges in 2020: Empower Your C-Suite with Insightful Data,” PDSSoftware.com, April 3, 2020, https://www.pdssoftware.com/blog/2020/04/03/hcm-challenges-in-2020-empower-your-c-suite-with-insightful-data/
  7. “The C-Suite Lacks Confidence in HR Data Analytics. But Why?” SHRM / Roy Maurer, March 23, 2018, https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/hr-data-analytics-trust-leaders-kpmg.aspx
  8. “Why HR Deserves A Spot In The C-Suite,” Forbes.com / Chad Biagini, December 3, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeslacouncil/2018/12/03/why-hr-deserves-a-spot-in-the-c-suite/?sh=a210db777309
  9. “How the coronavirus crisis has elevated the role of HR chiefs in the C-suite,” CNBC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/the-coronavirus-is-elevating-the-role-of-hr-chiefs-in-the-c-suite.html
  10. “How the coronavirus crisis has elevated the role of HR chiefs in the C-suite,” CNBC, April 22, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/the-coronavirus-is-elevating-the-role-of-hr-chiefs-in-the-c-suite.html

Written by

Priyanka Mehrotra

Priyanka Mehrotra is a Research Lead at RedThread Research. Before joining the company in 2018, she was part of the research team at Bersin by Deloitte where she worked on talent management, D&I, and people analytics as well as conducted research and contributed content for Bersin’s Mid-market study. Prior to Bersin by Deloitte, Priyanka worked at several non-profits, think-tanks, and international organizations where she published and co-authored several articles.

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