You say, I only hear what I want to
One of the most ubiquitous songs of my ‘90’s youth was Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’. I heard it on the radio after a day of discussing the results of a project with a client. It was an odd song to hear on the drive back and it immediately got me thinking about communicating with clients about their data. In consulting, you sometimes face resistance to the use of data. Sometimes this resistance to data comes from a resistance to consulting itself. I often face what’s called the “we know” approach where stakeholders feel that they know the problem and solution. In the ‘we know’ approach, organizational stakeholders view the consultant as merely the implementer of the clients’ prepackaged solution. The growth in the use of people analytics has compounded some of the skepticism around a consultants’ value and the importance of data.
I'm only hearing negative
These conversations remind me of the discussion around analytics in the world of sports. As many of you may know if you have followed me on social media, I watch a lot of sports (I ruin many sports discussions by talking about small sample size). In the past few years, as data has become increasingly available to general managers, coaches, and decision makers in the world of sports there has been an influx of data scientists, statisticians, and ‘data geeks’ entering the traditional world of players and ‘sports people’. This influx of data driven participants has created a divide in media about how sports are reported upon. Traditional fans, former players and coaches have become more vocal about their resistance to the so-called ‘geeks’. The most fascinating discussion around this occurred between Bomani Jones (an ESPN host) and Jalen Rose (former NBA player and current ESPN analyst) in two interviews with the great Isaac Chotiner (an interviewer for the New Yorker).
Jones and Rose discussed an issue that I feel affects many stakeholders in organizations, that of their expertise being downgraded. This is something I have heard in conversations with some HR pros and organizational stakeholders, and I can see why they might feel that way. The marketing around people analytics has been that it’s the new cure-all for what ails organizations. While the use of data has always existed in sports and in organizations, the focus on the use of data above all else may be off-putting to those who aren’t naturally data savvy.
And you said that I was naive
And I thought that I was stronger
As someone who tries to use data to help organizations, the resistance to data can be frustrating. But Jones points something out about the use of statistics that’s very important to understand when he states “We are a society that is generally afraid of math, and we’re particularly afraid of math at high levels. If you’ve ever had to try to teach anybody anything related to math and that person thought they weren’t good at it, they just shut down on it.” I have certainly been in meetings or at presentations where the math becomes too ‘scary’ for the audience and they shut down. For those of us who enjoy data and use it in our analyses, that reaction can be surprising.
Jalen Rose made a comment that is also informative when he said that sometimes analytics folks can come across as “I am smarter than you because the numbers back up what I say, and I am more read. I study more. I am able to take these numbers and manipulate my point.” But that’s not the point really, is it? If you work in human capital, you can’t purely depend on numbers to tell you the whole story. In sports you have to watch the games and in human capital you need to know the business.
I don't listen hard, don't pay attention
To the distance that you're running
AT SIOP 2019, my colleagues, Austin Chitwood, Dr. Yousseff Chouhoud, Kaci Grant, Dr. Courtney Keim, Dr. Kevin Massick, Erik Zito and I discussed this communication barrier. In each of the presentations, understanding stakeholders was of great importance. If you work with data either as a trained I-O psychologist or a people analytics professional, its up to you to approach stakeholders with a level of respect and understanding. What I have learned during my time as a consultant is that individuals working within organizations are a valuable resource. We can’t let our fondness for numbers create an unintended obstacle between us and organizational stakeholders. We need stakeholders to tell us what data to collect, and to help us derive meaning from that data. Just like we’d need a player or a coach to talk us through how a statistic like ‘wins-above replacement’ can affect real-time decisions during a game, we need to communicate with organizational stakeholders about their people-related data.
Before we can analyze data, we need to listen to organizational stakeholders. This is why the first step in Goldstein and Ford’s model is gaining organizational support. Human capital consultants and people analytics pros are often referred to as ‘facilitators’. It’s our job to make things easier. If your job is to make things better in an organization, you have to listen to those who work within the organization to identify the problem and formulate a solution. If you really listen, then organizations will ask you to stay.