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Google’s Head of HR on Talent Analytics

It's not just about how much HR data you have, it's about what you do with it

Laszlo BockUsing talent analytics to improve managers’ decision making is a big challenge for HR executives. In spite of the hype around companies using big data, only 15% of leaders we’ve surveyed, from front-line managers to CFOs, changed a decision in the past  year because of data from HR.

Laszlo Bock recently spoke with CEB Corporate Leadership Council about how Google uses talent analytics and how he strikes a balance between relying on data and relying on experience and judgment.

More insights and ideas on using HR Metrics.

Confidentiality and Transparency Required for Credible Talent Analytics

In particular we asked, “Heads of HR need a clear vision, the right people, and the right data to effectively develop and apply data analysis to business challenges. What do you think are the most important things to get right when building the credibility of talent analytics?”

“One of the bedrock principles of how we approach analytics relates to the privacy of the data we gather,” said Mr Bock.

“Employees are used to the fact that the HR department knows their personal information, where they’ve lived, spouses’ names, that kind of stuff. They take it for granted.

What they’re not as accustomed to is having a People Operations team know how they think, how they feel, what they love, and what they hate. There are two very strong principles that underpin any work we do here: confidentiality and transparency.

  1. Confidentiality means when we collect data on employees, there are at most one or two people in all of Google who could link a name to a particular response—and even those one or two people would have to jump through some hoops to do so. And for every survey we always give the option to participate anonymously.

    Even if Larry Page our CEO says, ‘Can you tell me what Vic Gundotra our head of social said about X, Y, and Z,’ we’ll say, ‘No we can’t share it.’ The team treats the sanctity of the data as truly untouchable.

  2. Transparency means we then share the results back and explain to Googlers exactly how they’re going to be used. We have about a 90% participation rate for our annual employee survey, called Googlegeist (The Spirit of Google). And it’s not just the company results which are visible to everyone.

    For example, on our intranet you can pull down results from the annual survey on my team and on me, and see all the details. My report will show the responses from the People Operations team [Google’s HR team] on how they are feeling about the company and their jobs.

    But it will also have data about how I’m doing personally. How is my leadership? Am I a good communicator? Are we doing the right thing for our users and for Google? Are we innovating quickly enough? So while you won’t see my personal views, you will see other people’s views about my performance and conduct. Employees can see this data for every management level of the company.”

This is an excerpt of an interview from the CHRO Quarterly, which examines the most important issues related to managing human capital. Articles feature the latest insights from around the corporate suite, new trends in HR, and personal stories from heads of HR at the world’s largest organizations. Also read the feature article of CHRO Quarterly to learn how to boost the Insight IQ of your workforce to transform big data into business results.

Download an excerpt of The Analytics Era: Transforming HR’s Impact on the Business to learn how leading HR functions are using talent analytics to increase Analytics Impact, improving their talent outcomes.

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25 Responses

  • Nigel Foster says:

    Like so many other management systems, what is at best an art claims to be a science. Perhaps the truth is that the real value of the systems and techniques described is that they encourage a more holistic approach to judging people. However, they can never replace experience nor, for that matter, intuition. There also seems to be an underlying principle that people can be adapted to best suit the job. Oh, brave new world. . .

  • FredS says:

    What happens if the big boss says “Give me this information or you’re fired.”, the government or police demand it, or somebody blunders and releases all that personal info?

  • Peter Copping says:

    In general Fred I would expect any company like Google would do a background check on any applicant, or even promotable employee, before they got to the ‘tests’, personal information, or no personal information,. The debate is about ought you to use it (eg social networking sites and more closed information) as well as the tests.

    Given that and given a company like SHL for example will have a tight control of the data and metrics they are measuring for their client, the issue is do those who actually make the decision really ‘believe’ in it? (see Nigel’s post).

    In a recent paper by Noon,Healy,& Oikelone ‘The Equality Efects of the Hyper-formalisation of Selection’ (British Journal of Management Vol24333-346 2013 described how HR in a large company had failed to get complete compliance to a system for managers) with knock on effects on the credibility of the system with existing staff.

    As with medical diagnostic systems these procedures and reduce false positives and negative, and do it better. But the results will not correspond ‘to experience or intuition’

    The question then is do they do a better job in selecting talent even if the are received with hostility by those who are called to operate them.

  • Kirk Clark says:

    As a past senior manager, one quickly realizes that too much data blinds you to simple truths. Individuals are not a statistical entity per se, better to have clear and purposeful missions and responsibilities, monitor consistently, breed in trust and good communications, establish purposeful feedback at all levels, minimize bureaucracy, etc. Innovation and leadership tendencies are difficult to data stamp and quantify, best served as direct observations.

  • Tim T says:

    @Kirk, Peter & Nigel: That’s what they used to say about baseball players too: They depended upon the intangibles and intuition or vibes from their scouting staff to influence their selection of players to sign.

    Nowadays, a thorough statistical analysis of the effectiveness of a player is standard in professional sport because it works.

    Perhaps what Google is doing with its hiring and evaluation practices is along the same lines: Hard data beats “intuition” almost every time.

  • Lmaras says:

    Nigel, you make the mistake many managers make: an ego based decision. Your intuition; my intuition….is often wrong. Many studies support the notion of science-based decision making. Decisions based upon gut feelings are often influenced by variables we aren’t even aware of, or will admit to.

    • FleshAndBlood says:

      Lmaras, I disagree with you. My gut, my instinct, my intuition have led me through the toughest decisions of my life. Living life according to the principles of Mr. Spock won’t get you very far in the many cases in life when you don’t have data to make “science-based” decisions. Science, data, and analytics do NOT have ALL the answers to life’s questions. Data alone is a poor way to judge humans in a department that is supposed to be all about humans.

  • Fred McZone says:

    This is typical of HR; i.e. somehow believing that they are the basis for an organization’s success. Sure, consult with the hiring managers and provide training but at the end of the day it is them – the hiring managers – that must make the hiring decision and manage and develop their staff.

  • Adam N says:

    I’m afraid Fred McZone has a typical attitude of the wider public who misunderstand what HR is about and trying to do.

    HR never claims to be the basis for an organisation’s success; we are an advisory and support function, just like IT and Finance.

    However, the biggest asset of any company is the people it employs. HR are professionals who can help people manage and understand that asset to its maximum potential, and that is what the Google HR team does incredibly well.

    Many people seem to believe that managing people is something everyone should innately be able to do, but that isn’t the case. Helping managers understand best practice and how to apply it and, as Tim T and Lmaras state, overcoming the urge to take our ‘gut’ and ‘intuition’ as gospel. We can all too easily dismiss something or someone of value over a minor value judgement that we form in the first few seconds of seeing it.

    I would liken it to looking after your car. Most people could try and maintain it themselves, but everyone would recognise that it is good to be able to take it to a mechanic to get an expert opinion. HR are the people mechanics for business.

    • FleshAndBlood says:

      The problem with many HR departments these days is that they are forgetting the human part of human resources. HR specialists who rely solely on websites and software to arrive at lists of job candidates clearly don’t take the word human too seriously. A good friend of mine was recently denied an informational interview at a hospital that interested her because the HR specialist she spoke with “only deals with people through the website.” Boy, there’s a human touch for a human resources specialist.

      Oh, the humanity.

  • DaveMakie says:

    This sounds very military. Probably best applied there, where signing the dotted line means your life, your data, belong to your employer.
    Of course you would expect pushback from both Managers and HR Officers who see the possibility of being replaced by big-data analytics.

  • Wlsu Vlaasi says:

    Hiring is all pretty much nonsense. Hiring is done on the basis of whether someone will “fit in”, and that usually means they look, talk, and dress like the other people in the company. And are of the same age. And of course, that they are attractive.

    There’s also the halo effect, which I’ve seen the advantage and disadvantage of. If they think you are golden? You can do no wrong. If they aren’t charmed? There’s nothing you can do to convince them otherwise.

  • Bill Sweeney says:

    Using analytics for personnel evaluation is neither a silver bullet nor the end of the world as we know it. Good data analytics should be used by managers reflectively. Ask yourself “If my intuition differs from the system why is that?” This can help you see your prejudices AND it can help you see data that may not have been gathered/considered. BTW – having your HR person give you a different read on your people also helps.

    Also consider that we (the users of the data) are all different and different approaches are needed. Consider the following example: I’m an analytical sort – so an analytical approach to putting has helped me tremendously. My most frequent partner is a “touch” player.

    Evaluating people is hard – use all the tools at your disposal and constantly examine your decision making to see if you can improve.

  • Mike Kennedy says:

    Well said, Bill. A lot of comments here seem to be reflective of the real world nemesis of an analytics-driven approach: fear of accountability. Managers like to make ego driven decisions like they always have. Its hard to convince traditional thinkers that this stuff, if used correctly, is a win win for the business (better decisions) and employee (better work environment). Google is missing a huge opportunity. Using this data for the Googlegeist survey benefits hr but doesn’t really help the business. So much more can be done like modeling top performers, reducing attrition, minimizing risk and more, but Google like many companies is not sophisticated enough to see the opportunities talent analytics offers.

  • Jeff Mike says:

    I think a review of the “Hype Cycle” might be warranted. It’s a mostly marketing phenomenon associated with the introduction of new technologies. It goes like this “X technology is going to change/save the world, then X technology is disappointing, then appropriate applications become clear for X technology and it takes its place in the real world.

    Advanced data analytics are a new tool and should be studied and applied. As much as some computer scientists and misanthropic cynics would like to automate decision-making in our socially-constructed world, it will never happen. At the same time, “gut” feelings have their own limitations and the technophobes could learn something as well.

    At the end of the day, big data can be another tool in decision making, but if you know how big data and psychometrics work you will realize that “tendency” does not mean “certainty” though more information can get you closer. People do not regress to a mean in real life – at least not all the time. And context matters.

    And please quit blaming your lack of career success or management abilities on HR. Some are good, some not so good. Use your brain.

  • Burt Ward says:

    Does this avoid the stereotypical, repetitive, and draconian questions such as, 1) What do you think your strengths are, 2) tell us a situation where you handled a crisis, 3) how do you deal with problems with employees, 4) why should we hire you 5) how many windows are in NYC?

  • dermot says:

    This sort of thing reminds me of how I felt when I read Super-Cannes by JG Ballard. It all makes me shudder.

  • Muhammad Shah says:

    Analytics = hiring with a reliable second opinion. Those who hire, promote or develop people based on gut feeling or intuition are simply deluded into thinking that they know what the organisation or business needs not only now but in the future.

    Analytics support business/HR decision making, Fact!

    Those who reject it outright simply stifle innovation.

  • Adey J says:

    Give me this information or I will ‘hire at will’.

    The US needs employment rights not massive data sets that can be wielded against employees. This information is never going to benefit people, make them more secure and help develop skills.

  • Jim Best says:

    I wonder if the CEB Leadership Council spoke to Mr. Bock on his views of using social network analysis to evaluate the social capital of Google employees, that is, how employees are connected to colleagues in the organization? Some configurations are more effective for collaboration and innovation than others and complement the traditional focus on just human capital (skills, experience). The rub, however, is that making a social network visible is not a traditional area of an employee’s information readily available to management. How would Google handle confidentiality and transparency in that case?

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