Friday, August 17, 2012

What Trashy Data Means for HR

You want to know how the economy is doing, track trashy facts. Driving home from a meeting at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at Colorado State University I flipped on the radio to Marketplace from American Public Media and heard this story about tracking trash. This guy was explaining that when he was a graduate student he was studying anthropology. One thing he learned was that you can find out a lot about societies by studying their trash.  What he didn’t know at the time was that he would later in life discover a correlation between the volume of trash and the strength of the economy. When the economy is going strong we get rid of more stuff (there’s an obvious social commentary in there, but I will leave that to some other pundit). Turns out, right now, we are not dumping so much trash.

OK, so what is an HR Innovation blogger doing writing about trashy economic indicators. Well, here’s the thing. This is a big data story. All this information about trash: how much is shipped, what kind of trash it is, how many tons are discarded and who’s discarding it is all compiled and kept in multiple, unrelated, obscure data bases. Someone had to find, compile analyze and interpret all this data to find the patterns that represented useful information. The same sort of anthropological expedition is there for HR professionals as well.

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post titled “Big Data Should Be a Big Deal for HR.” All this trash talk got me thinking about big data some more. So much information is collected in so many different places. Companies collect terabytes of data about their employees; social and professional media adds even more, so do our schools, our volunteer organizations, our churches, our governments, our local PTA. They all have records about people. Some of this data means very little and is perfectly content to be obscure. Other information is a gold mine that provides useful information about who we are, what we do, what we like to do. In other words: Human Resource Information.

The problem (or challenge) that confronts us is how do you dig through all the trash (OK – I know I am overdoing the analogy) to find what is really meaningful. But it is going to happen. Technical tools are being developed and researchers are being busy to help discover ways to find these deposits of data and figure out how to mash them together to find new patterns and new uses of the information. HR professionals sit largely on the sidelines of this frontier. It’s a shame; it will be one of the biggest trends that change HR in the next decade.