How People Analytics Can Help You Change Process, Culture, and Strategy

It seems like every business is struggling with the concept of transformation. Large incumbents are trying to keep pace with digital upstarts., and even digital native companies born as disruptors know that they need to transform. Take Uber: at only eight years old, it’s already upended the business model of taxis. Now it’s trying to move from a software platform to a robotics lab to build self-driving cars.

And while the number of initiatives that fall under the umbrella of “transformation” is so broad that it can seem meaningless, this breadth is actually one of the defining characteristic that differentiates transformation from ordinary change. A transformation is a whole portfolio of change initiatives that together form an integrated program.

And so a transformation is a system of systems, all made up of the most complex system of all — people. For this reason, organizational transformation is uniquely suited to the analysis, prediction, and experimental research approach of the people analytics field.

People analytics — defined as the use of data about human behavior, relationships and traits to make business decisions — helps to replace decision making based on anecdotal experience, hierarchy and risk avoidance with higher-quality decisions based on data analysis, prediction, and experimental research. In working with several dozen Fortune 500 companies with Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics division, we’ve observed companies using people analytics in three main ways to help understand and drive their transformation efforts.

In core functional or process transformation initiatives — which are often driven by digitization — we’ve seen examples of people analytics being used to measure activities and find embedded expertise. In one example, a people analytics team at a global CPG company was enlisted to help optimize a financial process that took place monthly in every country subsidiary around the world. The diversity of local accounting rules precluded perfect standardization, and the geographic dispersion of the teams made it hard for the transformation group to gather information the way they normally would — in conversation.

In core functional or process transformation initiatives — which are often driven by digitization — we’ve seen examples of people analytics being used to measure activities and find embedded expertise. In one example, a people analytics team at a global CPG company was enlisted to help optimize a financial process that took place monthly in every country subsidiary around the world. The diversity of local accounting rules precluded perfect standardization, and the geographic dispersion of the teams made it hard for the transformation group to gather information the way they normally would — in conversation.

So instead of starting with discovery conversations, people analytics data was used to baseline the time spent on the process in every country, and to map the networks of the people involved. They discovered that one country was 16% percent more efficient than the average of the rest of the countries: they got the same results in 71 fewer person-hours per month and with 40 fewer people involved each month.

The people analytics team was surprised — as was finance team in that country, which had no reason to benchmark themselves against other countries and had no idea that they were such a bright spot. The transformation office approached the country finance leaders with their findings and made them partners in process improvement for the rest of the subsidiaries.

It’s unlikely the CPG company would have been able to recognize and replicate these bright spots if they had undertaken transformation with a top-down approach. And, perhaps more importantly, it involved and engaged the people on the ground who had unwittingly discovered a better way of doing things.

In bottoms-up cultural transformation initiatives, the how things are done is equally or more important than what is done. Feedback loops and other methods of data-driven storytelling are our favorite way that people analytics makes culture transformation happen. Often times, facts can change the conversation from tired head-nodding to curiosity. One people analytics team in an engineering company was struggling to help develop the company’s managers, for example. Managers often perpetuated a “sink or swim” culture that didn’t fit the company’s aspirations to be an inclusive, humane workplace.

The data analysis found that teams whose managers spent at least 16 minutes of one-on-one time with each direct per week had 30% percent more engaged direct reports than the average manager, who spent just 9 minutes per week with directs. When they brought that data-driven story to the front lines, suddenly a platitude was transformed into a useful benchmark that got the attention of managers. In this way, data storytelling is a lightweight way to build trust among stakeholders and bring behavioral science to culture transformation.

Top-down strategic transformation is often made necessary by market and technology factors outside the company, but here people analytics is a critical factor for execution. A people analytics team can serve as an instrument panel of sorts to track resources, boundaries, capacity, time use, networks, skill sets, performance, and mindsets that can help pinpoint where change is possible and can measure what happens when you try it.

One people analytics team at a financial services company was trying to help the CEO manage growth while he worked to instill a new culture in which departments would be asked to run leaner and more competitive in the market – “scrappy” and “hungry” were terms that often came up. As the transformation accelerated, teams were asked to do more with less, generate more data, and make decisions faster. Amid this, department leaders began to hear anecdotes about burnout and change fatigue and questioned whether the pace was sustainable.

To address this, the people analytics team provided their CEO with a dashboard showing the number of hours that knowledge workers were active for in different teams. When an entire team is over-utilized, he knows they can’t handle more change, while under- or unevenly utilized teams might be more receptive. He can also slice the dashboard by tenure, to learn whether recent hires have been effectively onboarded before approving new hire requests to absorb extra work.

As organizations increasingly look to data to help them in their transformation efforts, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t just mean having more data or better charts. It’s about mastering the organizational muscle of using data to make better decisions; to hypothesize, experiment, measure and adapt. It’s not easy. But through careful collection and analysis of the right data, a major transformation can be a little less daunting – and hopefully a little more successful.

By: Chantrelle Nielsen & Natalie McCullough



AIHR – Academy to Innovate HR

What is People Analytics and how is it different from HR Analytics, Workforce Analytics, or Talent Analytics? What has made it so popular all of a sudden and why should you be excited about it? What is the ROI of People Analytics? These are the questions that will be answered in this video!

For more, related information, check out our HR analytics + digital human resources management courses and certification programs: 🎓 Learn everything you need to drive data-driven decision-making in HR (certificate program) 💥 🎓 Get the skills you need to use technology to make HR more effective (certificate program) 💻 Have a greater strategic impact with data as an HR Business Partner 🎯

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Want to Make a Difference at Work? Tell Yourself a Different Story – Monique Valcour, John McNulty


Human beings crave coherence. We long to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that’s consistent with what we believe and value. We want to live and work authentically. This quest for coherence is hardwired; psychologists often refer to human beings as “meaning-making machines.” Our brains create coherence by knitting together our internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through an automatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do.

As we repeat the resulting stories to ourselves (often unconsciously), they become scripts and routines that guide our actions. And instead of recognizing our stories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them as immutable truths, as “the way things are.”


We’ve encountered countless stories among our leadership development and coaching clients that shape the way they think and lead, such as, “Everything is always a battle around here.” For better or for worse, our stories shape what we notice and how we interpret it. They inform our decision making and behavior. If, for instance, you see your workplace as a battlefield, you expect hostility. You’re primed to attack and defend.

You may assume that casualties are inevitable. You may misinterpret people’s intentions and overlook opportunities to collaborate. There may come a time when you need to shift your guiding story to one that enables you to pursue new goals or do things differently.


Such was the case with Chris, a management consultant facing a health and career crisis. He’d joined a top strategy consulting firm straight out of business school and internalized the “alpha male” narrative that embodied his firm’s focus on toughness, competition, and an insatiable appetite for growth.

This story had facilitated his ascent up the firm’s career ladder. A decade later, however, he was dangerously unhealthy and disengaged from his work. The story, once motivating, now trapped him in a state of suffering. Unsure of what to do, he sought coaching.


The first step to authoring liberating stories is to identify and examine the stories you tell yourself and others. This helps you understand what you stand for and why you act and react the way you do. Identify a personal or collective challenge you’re facing. What is the basic story you tell yourself about this issue? Chris’s challenge was that he was burned out and he no longer found his work meaningful.

The long hours, travel requirements, and high demands of his work were taking a serious toll on his physical and mental health. According to the logic of his guiding alpha male story, he should have been able to overcome any challenge through force of will and effort, always prioritizing the success of the firm.


Once you’ve unearthed a story and dusted it off, the next step is to consider how it affects you. Is it constraining or liberating? Your physical state can provide clues. When Chris considered his suffering in light of his and his colleagues’ standards for limitless stamina, his stomach felt as though it had been punched. What does your story enable you to create?

Chris’s story didn’t allow any space for self-care, different ways of working, or alternative definitions of success; these would be signs of weakness. The only pathway it offered was to buckle down and work harder. He realized that there was a disconnect between what he wanted — to restore his health and find greater meaning in his work — and the narrative that justified the way that he and his fellow consultants thought and behaved.


Our stories are rarely created in isolation; they involve our relationships with others. Therefore, working with the interpersonal aspects of our stories is an essential step toward authoring stories that support our desired development. Chris and his colleagues had been socialized to accept the alpha male story when they joined the firm.

In organizations, shared narratives function as control mechanisms that tell employees what to value and how to behave. Chris felt indebted to the firm and to the boss who had invested a great deal in his career. His loyalty and self-conception as a reliable high performer made it difficult for him to envision rejecting the dominant narrative by making a choice that contradicted what others expected of him.


If you find that one of your guiding stories limits you, the next step is to consider what you’d like to change and how your story would need to shift to help you achieve the transition. Chris yearned to adopt a healthier lifestyle, find a new sense of purpose at work, and build stronger relationships with his family members.

Making this change required choosing which elements of his story to bring forward and which to let go of. Chris reaffirmed his commitment to high performance and continuous learning, and to using his strong analytical, communication, and leadership skills.

Retaining these narrative elements provided a solid foundation for his new story. He added a commitment to doing meaningful work that had a positive social impact. He decided to let go of the parts of his story that equated professional commitment with working at an unsustainable intensity.


Chris pursued options for the next step in his career: either a customized role at his firm or a leadership role at a nonprofit. Ultimately, he decided that the nonprofit role was most consistent with his new “health and fulfillment” story. Chris worried about how others in his firm would react to his decision to leave. His new story represented a departure from — and was seemingly incoherent with — the old alpha male narrative.

His boss initially rejected the explanation he offered for his resignation, saying, “You just need a little time off.” In coaching, Chris reflected on other life stories that had shaped his identity. For example, his immigrant parents had always placed great value on family closeness; like them, Chris believed that the family as a unit was far more important than any organization.

This provided a root system to support the development of his new career narrative. It strengthened his conviction to define himself in his own terms and enabled him to disentangle himself from the shared alpha male narrative. When Chris told his new story with confidence, it helped his boss and others to see him in a new light and understand that his decision sprang from deeply held values.


Once we realize that our behavior stems from stories we construct and repeat until they seem fixed in stone, we become more capable of authoring liberating stories. Reconstituting our stories so that they help us move in the direction we want to go is a process of choice and intentional sense-making.

Any leader can begin to develop this powerful skill by learning to recognize the stories you live by — individually and collectively as a team or organization — examining their effects, and refining them to emphasize empowering elements. The rewards of doing so include an increased sense of humanity, coherence, and liberation.




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