Three Steps To Help Managers Give A Damn About HR Metrics

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"Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn't mean we deserve to conquer the Universe."

- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Hocus Pocus, 1990)

This may seem an unkind quote, but the sentiment for those of us in the human resources profession is clear - we need to get over ourselves.For years HR thought leaders have been touting the use of metrics to elevate the profession, prove the value of the function or "earn a seat at the table" - a phrase that makes Jay Jamrog, i4cp SVP of Research, twitch at the mere utterance.

So in response to the call for more measurement, organizations have half-heartedly created roles with titles such as HR analytics/metrics manager, HR business analyst or (a personal favorite) employee insights specialist. If "half-heartedly" sounds harsh or judgmental as a descriptor for these efforts, let's look at some facts derived from multiple i4cp studies:

  • Most organizations don't measure human capital impact metrics to a high extent (HR Metrics Survey, March 2009).
    • The ROI of training - only 29%
    • Employee to productivity output ratios - only 28%
    • Quality of attrition - only 27%
  • Fewer than a quarter of companies (24%) make human capital decisions based on data (Predictive Human Capital Analytics Survey, April 2010).
  • Only 20% of organizations say they have a workforce measurement strategy to a high degree (Talent Management Measurement Survey, April 2010).

But I don't want to rehash a previous TrendWatcher,"The Crummy State of Talent Management Metrics (and What to Do About It)." What I want to share are insights on what we've learned about management, not necessarily leaders, and how they perceive human capital metrics.

Don't bring a sword to a gun fight. 
Remember the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the intimidating bad guy shows up, skillfully wielding a very large scimitar? And what does Indiana Jones do? With a don't-bring-a-sword-to-a-gun-fight sigh, he shoots the bad guy and goes back to the work at hand. In this analogy, you, my human resources compatriot - whether a strategic business partner, HR analytics director or even the head of HR - play the role of the dead guy. Why? Indys' face says it as clearly as any manager in your organization could: "I just don't have time for this."

Many HR practitioners hold the mistaken belief that wielding a slew of reports and pointing out minute distinctions between employee populations will garner respect and credibility. But, like the ill-fated baddy mentioned above, this faith in the efficacy of the tools of your trade is often misplaced.

Here is the base rationale for not bringing every metric in your arsenal when meeting with managers - it frustrates them. Either they believe you have valuable information that's hidden in reams of data or they believe you're all bang and no bullet, having no insights that actually impact them. Under either scenario there's a sense you are wasting their valuable time.

It's okay to give them a vacuum (or toaster or blender).
If you want to avoid a major pitfall when dealing with managers, keep this advice in mind: It's okay to present them with something simple and practical.

You see, unlike in sitcoms where the husband gets in trouble for giving practical household items in lieu of spectacular and romantic gifts, managers appreciate HR metrics that are useful and, more importantly, that they can act upon.

In a recent i4cp webinar, Quality of Attrition: Management's "Favorite" People Measurement, we revealed an important lesson about how managers interact with human capital metrics. Generally, managers don't understand (or believe) the majority of metrics HR provides to demonstrate the function's impact on achieving business goals. When asked directly what managers care about, the top two answers were "important positions" and "valuable people." In HR speak that translates to "critical roles" and "regrettable terminations." If prompted, managers agreed that high performers and/or high potentials were also "probably important."

What was most fascinating (but a little crushing) was that managers did not connect their input into the performance management process with the retention and engagement of important positions and valuable employees. In their minds, the performance management process was unrelated and primarily a mechanism for annual compensation awards.

Based on interviews and input from a working group of i4cp members, the Talent Management Accelerator, i4cp developed the Quality of Attrition Scorecard, an interactive tool that focuses on a few measures that managers feel are aligned to their operations, that are within their sphere of influence and that they can define parameters for to influence how the measures are calculated.

This tool taps into one of the real secrets of effective human capital metrics communication: What management values will not be defined and found in your HRIS system. To them, real value is unique to the function, influenced by the corporate culture and highly personalized by management. When HR shows up with data generated solely by the HRIS system, a system designed for HR processes, it is immediately considered suspect.

Say it in a language they can understand.
Here's another reason that managers disregard so many of the people measures HR produces: We don't deliver the information in their language. What most HR organizations do is the equivalent of proudly producing an equipment manual for a broken machine in Chinese, simply because the machine was manufactured in China.

A fatal mistake in many workforce scorecards and reports is taking labels directly from the HRIS system that are meaningless to management and are even confusing to the majority of the HR function.

In i4cp's Quality of Attrition Scorecard tool, the labels and the definitions are completely customizable. The tool is intended as a mechanism for partnering with management to create meaningful metrics - with the process being as important as the results. After all, there's nothing like creating a common language for a practical application tool to open the lines of communication and build acceptance.

This approach also helps in providing people data that references a manager's specific workforce segment, which is almost always more effective than utilizing third party benchmarks. To tell a manager that 20% of their workforce is in "important roles" but that only 12% of the attrition in their unit was from these roles (which is very good) - or, conversely, that 35% of attrition was from "important roles" - has more meaning than arbitrary targets or benchmarks that are defined by outsiders.

While often an overused adage, "less is more" is definitely a truism for effectively communicating workforce metrics with managers. This doesn't mean you can stop measuring the plethora of other human capital measurements - quite the contrary. These measures are still important to the HR function to gain insight into the workforce and to have appropriate data for key decisions. The mistake HR often makes is bringing everything to the table to demonstrate how smart or competent they are when, in reality, it undermines their credibility. Having the right data at the right time is the stuff of HR heroes.