Numbers alone don’t tell the Full Story!

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HR as a function has in the past had a lot of pressure put on it to create accountability in order to earn a seat at the table. Lack of measurability of return on investment (ROI) has been a pressure point for the longest time. The huge interest and growth in the People Analytics space is a result of this emphasis on measurability and accountability. And in most part, I do believe that the tangible numbers and the analytics have a role to play. In fact, I attended the Wharton People Analytics Conference 2017 hosted by Adam Grant and Cade Massey in Philadelphia in March and based on my interactions and observations, here is what I would like to share.

#1: Numbers don’t reveal the whole story

While numbers are important, they may tell you only a part of the story. The over-emphasis on numbers risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, HR first and foremost is dealing with people, and people are much more complex than a number on a dashboard.

The risk of generalising and stereotyping candidates or employees based on tangible and measurable statistics can lead to an incomplete assessment of a person.

This may well be one reason why HR has been one of the last functions to take on a data-driven approach.

#2: Hard numbers – only when combined with soft, qualitative insight – can give you the full story

Most engagement studies, pulse surveys, and climate questionnaires tend to elicit rational and conscious mind responses. Most of such studies can, in fact, suffer from the following limitations:

  • There are limits to self-awareness, of habitual behaviour, cultural norms, heuristic decision-making (mental shortcuts to make quick decisions sometimes by ignoring a part of the data), personal traits and motivations;
  • A lot of stored information in the brain is visual or kinesthetic and needs to be surfaced before it can be put into words;
  • There just aren’t enough words for some of the more complex situations and feelings we encounter;
  • There are things we intuitively know how to do, but don’t know how we know;
  • Memories can be partial, fluid and can change during the process of recall;
  • The verbally based processes of research can limit the potential for imagination, creativity, and synthesis;
  • People need to present themselves as rational, logical, successful and so on, to protect their self-esteem;
  • Behaviour is affected by context (which is often not captured).

As demonstrated in the picture below, we are so much more than what is visible to the world at large. What we see is often just the tip of the iceberg.


In order to tap into true feelings and perceptions, one needs to go deeper.

Numbers can explain the extent of an issue but to understand the depth of an issue, one needs to use qualitative insight.

#3: Trained and experienced qualitative researchers can bring an added dimension to your findings

I come from marketing and advertising, having worked with companies like Unilever and Ogilvy. I have also been a ‘qualie’ myself. But at the Wharton People Analytics conference when I spoke with leading edge (and many global) HR and D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) practitioners, only a few spoke about using qual research to add to their understanding. More importantly, those who had used qual research were often using other HR consultants and sometimes team members to conduct the qualitative research. As someone who has evolved from marketing to HR, I would like to highlight the richness of findings possible with qualitative research. Qualitative research is, in fact, a highly developed field in the area of consumer marketing. It is time for HR to get acquainted with qualitative research methodologies like projective techniques, semiotics, textual analysis, ethnography and so many other very useful methodologies that can help reveal what your team members truly feel about a situation, or in fact your ‘internal’ brand. After all, the quality of the research findings is only as good as its methodology.

#4: Aligned brand thinking needs qualitative insight

In today’s highly connected business landscape, internal communication often becomes external thanks to leaked emails, videos, and documents. And where social media sites like Glassdoor actually encourage employees to review their employers and their organisation cultures, the distinction between the internal and external is getting blurred.

I’ve spoken about the importance of brand alignment across a company brand’s various facets and audiences in my previous blog, and in my opinion, companies can no longer afford to keep marketing and HR separate.

Yes, one function might be more external focused and the other more internal focused but they now need to have stories that are synergistic.

There are many perspectives as to the actual magnitude of people analytics. David Green has curated a list of blogs and articles inspired by the event, so I shall include those here as well:

To sum it up, my key takeaway from the conference is that numbers are not enough. Infusing data with proper qualitative research is the key towards fully understanding the dynamics of your workforce. To develop brand stories that resonate with your audiences (internal or external) that feel authentic, rich and compelling, you need to take advantage of evolved qualitative research methodologies just like how consumer goods brands have always done. But this time, it’s your turn Mr. CHRO.