Is HR Ready for Big Data?! - Informa Connect Middle East
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By Mostafa Azzam
Digital/Analytics HR Leader ☆SHRM/HCI Global Facilitator ☆Adjunct Faculty, Americ… See More

In an era where HR is frantically struggling for a seat on the bandwagon of data-savvy, data-driven business functions; where HR is yet to come to terms with the data value chain; where data culture is practically non-existent; data visualization remains a dark art; and BI stands for Brain Injury! Is HR ready for Big Data?!
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I recently delivered a keynote on HR Analytics and the drive towards a more proactive, predictive and business-driven HR function. And, as I had expected, the conference was filled with presentations and pitches about Big Data and its mainstream HR implications – and how it was seemingly transforming HR as we spoke!

Being a longstanding HR professional, and an engineer by training, I am quite familiar with Big Data, its connotations, and its real world applicability within quite singular and unique environments. Environments that typically generate terabytes upon petabytes of very fast and varied data that usually require real-time analysis to generate any worthwhile insight. Barring “questionable” futuristic sci-fi trends (e.g. wearable technologies and real-time sensors in the workplace), I have yet to witness the practical applicability of Big Data in HR. It is, in my opinion, just another hyped up fad!


There is no denying, however, that Big Data (and its big applications) has tremendous significance in a multitude of real-life settings. It carries growing significance in almost all “high-tech” industries and businesses. Industries such as the Airline industry, Retail shopping, Medicare, Manufacturing, Meteorology, Oil & Gas, AI, Seismology, Marketing, Sales, etc. are becoming increasingly reliant on its potent power and potential. Note, however, that these are industries where data comes in really, really BIG! And, not just in terms of Volume, but also in terms of Velocity and Variety (the 3V’s). It is then collected, cleansed, analysed, interpreted and used to generate insightful knowledge, usually in real-time and for real-time application. Any sense of HR, yet?


In our quest to position Big Data within the HR framework, we must first take a few steps back and agree the basic definitions – What is Big Data?

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HR professionals need to understand and appreciate the technical connotations of Big Data. According to Gartner: “Big data is high Volume, high Velocity, and/or high Variety information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision making, insight discovery and process optimization.” Additionally, a fourth V “Veracity” is sometimes added to further quantify Big Data (making it now the 4V’s model).

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Most data collected by organizations used to be transactional data that could easily fit into rows and columns of relational database management systems; e.g. typical HR data. We are now witnessing an explosion of data from Web traffic, e-mail messages, and social media content (tweets, status messages), as well as machine-generated data from sensors (used in smart meters, manufacturing sensors, and electrical meters) or from electronic trading systems. This data may be unstructured or semi-structured and thus not suitable for relational database products that organize data in the form of columns and rows. We now use the term big data to describe these datasets with volumes so huge that they are beyond the ability of typical DBMS to capture, store, and analyze.

Big data doesn’t refer to any specific quantity, but usually refers to data in the petabyte and exabyte range—in other words, billions to trillions of records, all from different sources. Big data is produced in much larger quantities and much more rapidly than traditional data. For example, a single jet engine is capable of generating 10 terabytes of data in just 30 minutes, and there are more than 25,000 airline flights each day. Even though “tweets” are limited to 280 characters each, Twitter generates over 8 terabytes of data daily. According to the International Data Center (IDC) technology research firm, data is more than doubling every two years, so the amount of data available to organizations is skyrocketing.

Businesses are interested in big data because it can reveal more patterns and interesting anomalies than smaller data sets, with the potential to provide new insights into customer behavior, weather patterns, financial market activity, or other phenomena. However, to derive business value from this data, organizations need new technologies and tools capable of managing and analyzing non-traditional data along with traditional enterprise data (e.g. HR data).

Judging by the above, the need for truly unique technologies and analytics methods in relation to big Data becomes quite evident. Wikipedia further elaborates on Big Data to state that: “Relational database management systems, desktop statistics and visualization packages often have difficulty handling Big Data. The work instead requires massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers”. Thus, for some organizations, the realm of Big Data is only realised after data size exceeds tens or hundreds of terabytes – and even then, only in relation to specific applications. Add to that, the rapid input velocity and variety (the 3V’s) expected of such data – coupled to the need for real-time processing and analysis – and you end up a million miles away from your typical everyday HR number-crunching (by any stretch of the imagination!)


Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for Big Data. I appreciate, more than anyone, the potential impact and influence of Big Data on the world today. Just not within the realm of HR, and just not today! A massive, massive digital transformation is needed to refurbish HR with the infrastructure (and information) it needs to carry out Big Data operations routinely and effectively … and I am not just referring to equipment!

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In HR’s inevitable transformation to the digital domain, most impact seems to be coming from the direction of Data Analytics, Visualisation, Cloud Computing, Collaboration, Mobile Technology, Social Media and, to a lesser extent, Wearable Technology. A possible contender to Big Data within the HR sphere is Long Data. Long Data typically refers to data collected over increasingly “long” periods of time with relatively wider frequency and narrower data points than is typical of Big Data. From a standard analytics viewpoint, richer insight is gained the further away we move from typical descriptive analysis towards more predictive engagements. Skills development, cultural & behavioural change, employee engagement, turnover, attrition, retention, …etc., would probably be amongst the classical examples that lend themselves to a longer term view of data collection and analysis with quite narrow data points and relatively wide collection frequency. Yet, even Long Data is a potential challenge for current HR practices!


HR Analytics has historically been focused on examples similar to the above (e.g. skills development, cultural & behavioural change, employee engagement, turnover, attrition, retention, …etc.). Yet, these examples attract NO significant attention outside the HR department. Rather, our focus should be more towards the harder business metrics, Workforce Analytics and the wider implications of productivity, quality, cost reduction, revenue, time, efficiency, safety, customer satisfaction, …etc.

As a result, and due to our heretofore misguided application of Data Analytics, Data Culture and Data-driven outcomes, HR does not enjoy the strongest of credibilities within organisations. We have only to look to the wider Middle-Eastern context to confirm this notion. And, surprisingly enough, the HR terrain in the western hemisphere is not far removed!

If HR is ever to improve its organisational credibility and reputation and boost itself up to levels typically enjoyed by the more data-savvy, data-conscious and data-driven business functions such as Project Management, Design, Engineering, Sales, Marketing, Finance, …etc.; a wider and much more focused effort is needed to connect and apply Workforce Analytics to more hardcore business-related needs and concerns.

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In the meantime, let’s forget about Big Data in HR. Let’s not even talk about Long Data. Let’s just look for SMART DATA and apply WORKFORCE ANALYTICS!


Mostafa Azzam:
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