Looking forward, not back

Workforce planning is becoming more and more sophisticated. Tools such as big data let us better identify and act upon patterns in our workforce, whether it’s in retirements, expansions, or the need to improve skills.

Many of the tools we use in this have their roots in the social sciences. So is it time to look to the social sciences again to further improve our approach?

The data trap

Big data is an incredibly powerful tool. It can find patterns that the naked brain cells of the human mind might never notice. It can calculate degrees of correlation, predict the outcome if ongoing trends continue. It can help you to see the woods, not just get stuck looking at the trees.

But it also has two significant limitations, and if we are not aware of them then these can become traps.

The first limitation is that the data is based on looking back, not forwards. It can predict what will happen if existing patterns continue, but not new patterns.

Second is that the data can say what has happened but not why. Just because there is a link between two numbers does not mean that one causes the other. Assuming that the relationship is as expected can lead to errors.

What the data doesn’t show

There are some current examples of problems that data won’t predict if you keep looking at it in the same way. Retirement peaks, for example, can be predicted, but only if you look out for anomalies in the data and specific issues coming down the pipeline.

Looking more widely, there are changes happening in the workforce as a result of longer lives, better healthcare and changes to patterns of retirement. Looking at quantitative data on what has come before will not tell us how this is going to play out, or what the impact will be. There simply is no precedent to look back on.

Similarly, shifts in the way that worker view themselves and what they expect of employers, as explored by writers like Seth Godin, will affect the way that we work. But large pools of quantitative data cannot tell us what the outcomes of these unprecedented changes will be.

Looking forward to looking forward

There are ways to deal with the data better.

One important step is to better understand the potential of the technology and techniques that you already have. Nobody uses the tools they have perfectly, but regular conversations between IT and HR departments can help to find ways for the technology to make your analysis, and so your predictions, more accurate. It may be a humbling conversation, with both sides acknowledging the limits of their current achievements, but it can be an incredibly valuable one.

The ability to synthesize different sets of data is also very important. Looking at each part in isolation gives only an incomplete picture. Developing the ability to see the interactions will allow managers to think about the big picture and to understand each issue in context.

What data you bring together in this way is important. Just looking at what is happening within your firm is not enough. As one global tech company discovered, looking at the broader context of patterns in the national and global workforce, such as upcoming shortages of graduates in particular areas, can be vital to seeing problems coming and preparing for them.

But ultimately what is needed is to look at qualitative data, the sort of information examined by ethnographers and anthropologists. This is the descriptive data, the things that cannot easily be calculated or analyzed by computer, but that can show the links of cause and effect or help managers to make imaginative leaps to new potential futures.

We should not abandon big data and what its number crunching can give us. But we need to use it in more sophisticated ways, and to use other types of data too.

Originally appeared on TalentCulture: http://www.talentculture.com/leadership/looking-forward-in-workforce-planning/

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