“Decoding” Your Company with Employee Analytics

Most talk of big data and communication has to do with how marketers can use data to better connect with customers. But big data also ramifications for employee communication.


Credit: masterart

Rahaf Harfoush is a co-author (along with Leerom Segal, Aaron Goldstein and Jay Goldman) of The Decoded Company: Know Your Talent Better Than You Know Your Customers. CW Senior Editor Jessica Burnette-Lemon asked Harfoush about how companies can use internal data to improve performance and keep top talent.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon: Could you explain the concept of a “decoded company”?

Rahaf Harfoush

Rahaf Harfoush

Rahaf Harfoush: What we call a “decoded company” is a data-driven, talent-centric organization that can execute and evolve faster. Much like how Amazon, Facebook, Google and other companies have decoded consumers’ preferences to personalize our experiences. Decoded companies use the same big data techniques to understand their people in an ethical and transparent way (more on that later). In doing so, they are able to personalize their processes, policies and tools to suit individual preferences. The benefits of doing this include decreased bureaucracy and increased autonomy, which is empowering for employees who in turn are happier and more productive.

JBL: What kind of internal data is available about the workforce for analysis?

RH: There are all sorts of inputs you can track to better understand your organization. Everything from the number of meetings that are held every week and their average length to projects, tasks, clients, budgets, and anything else that sheds light on the true nature of what’s happening inside your business. With this information, you can begin to apply what we call your “informed intuition” to make choices that can positively affect your company’s culture, work habits and strategy.

JBL: What are some examples of how companies could use that data? What kind of insights can help improve productivity, for example?

RH: Our book, The Decoded Company, is filled with tips and experiments that readers can use to experience the benefits of using this kind of data firsthand. One of easiest experiments involves asking your team or colleagues to rate every meeting’s usefulness on a scale from 1 to 10. Do this for a month and track the data in a spreadsheet. After the month is up, you might discover that there is one (or more) weekly meeting that no one really finds useful. Armed with this insight, you might opt to cancel the meeting or refocus its purpose, which would give everyone more time to get actual work done.

Another simple experiment requires only a piece of paper and a pen. Take a good guess as to how many times you are going to be interrupted (either by emails, a phone call, meetings, or a friendly colleague) before you go to lunch. Write your guess down on the piece of paper. Then, every time something or someone interrupts you, make a tick mark on the paper. If you’re like most people who have conducted this experiment, by lunch time you’ll have realized a key fact: It’s easy to underestimate the amount of times we’re interrupted at work and we are always amazed how much time is consumed by these distractions. This understanding can help you change your work habits; for example, changing the amount of times you check emails, or blocking off interruption-free time to finish that report.

The reality is that many people have a vague idea about how they work, but few ever back up their assumptions with data. Online services like RescueTime can help you track where your time is going and research has proven that most of us underestimate the amount of time a task is going to take. If you think a project is going to take you three hours but in reality that number is closer to seven, then you can be better prepared and give yourself the right amount of time in order to finish your deliverables without feeling stressed or hurried.

JBL: You argue in your book that using this kind of internal data analysis can help to solve one of the biggest problems facing businesses: attracting and retaining talent. How so?

RH: Companies want to transform into a center of gravity for brilliant people. Companies that use these data-driven approaches to work operate with increased speed, make better decisions and foster inspiring cultures. This attracts the best people, who want to work in these types of environments. Ultimately, your talent gets more time working in the zone, doing what they truly enjoy doing, which keeps them happy and satisfied with their jobs. Decoded companies eliminate useless processes and focus on treating talent like the capable, intelligent, valuable contributors that they are. Creating cultures where people are rewarded for their work and their contribution, instead of outdated performance reviews, means that people understand they will be recognized for their efforts–a huge motivator to join your company and shine.

JBL: With the rise of “big data,” privacy has become a huge concern. Does this kind of data tracking infringe on individual employees’ privacy?

RH: We believe that privacy is a huge concern to both employees and their employers. We believe that being open and transparent is the key to developing ethical data practices and we outline specific guidelines in the book to help companies ensure that the data policies they introduce are respectful and don’t overstep any ethical boundaries.

First, we suggest that any data collected be covered under something we call The Corporate Public Record, meaning that you don’t collect private or personal data, just information that relates to work. For example, project tasks, current clients, budgets, meetings—all of those things are open and public. If your manager asked you for a status report on a project, you wouldn’t respond with “No, I’m not going to tell you.” Focusing on these types of data streams ensures that an employee’s privacy is always safeguarded.

Second, we advocate for complete transparency. Be completely clear and up-front about what data is being collected, why, and how it’s being used. If you make a good case for how the collected data is going to improve collaboration, efficiency or provide talent with more autonomy, people will be more willing to participate in your efforts. Eliminate any unknowns by being clear and honest.

If you fulfill these two requirements, your data practices will be ethical and transparent, and will protect everyone’s privacy. However, if you don’t fulfill these two guidelines, then you must provide an opt-out provision, that is, giving people a choice to participate in sharing their data with you. Otherwise, your policy could fall into unethical territory and could hurt your culture and your bottom line.

JBL: What role do you think communication professionals can play in helping to “decode” their companies?

RH: Helping to “decode” an organization is something in which everyone in the business can participate. Communication professionals can help by being collaborative participants in offering suggestions about how to improve their working environments. Information gathering is key, so doing some of the experiments we mentioned above can be a powerful discussion point when looking for organizational improvements.

Second, understanding an organization’s strategy in using data is key, as the need to share this information with prospective clients, prospective hires, the media and in marketing documents will only increase as more companies embrace the potential offered by big data. It’s no longer simply a technical responsibility, but everyone’s responsibility to make sure they are informed.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon is CW’s senior editor.

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