Turning small data into actionable insight


We’ve all come across that annoying small dog on the beach that’s always yelping. It makes a lot of noise, and certainly catches our attention. This ‘small but loud’ syndrome encapsulates the role that small data is playing in businesses at the moment: it captures attention, but doesn’t really lead to anything fruitful or constructive in the long run. This is simply because businesses don’t realise the value of the data they have in their possession; and secondly, how to turn this data into actionable insights.

But first, let’s define small data.

Big data (that now familiar term) has become so ubiquitous that every business feels obligated to pronounce how they are going to use it to improve performance. That is also true for human resources (HR) departments, which is where most of a company’s money is spent. There is even a Big Data Week, whereby dedicated events about big data are held around the world.

Yet in our view, the conversations and hype around big data miss a far more relevant idea: the real opportunity is not big data, but small data. In other words, not a centralised ‘big iron’, but a decentralised ‘data wrangling’ of sorts. To borrow a phrase: not "one ring to rule them all", but "small pieces loosely joined".

Once you have these small but very revealing small pieces in your possession, as a leader, you can begin to develop a strong people analytics strategy to guide key decisions within management and HR. Such a strategy draws on data-based insights which can reveal so much of what is really going on on the ground: which types of projects your employees are best at; which employees are likely to leave or stay; or how effectively teams work with their managers. Such insights can unlock future possibilities for better decisions in every function, from operations to sales and finance.

Today, most businesses don't realise anything is missing within their people strategies or HR functions until they actually discover these golden nuggets of information. Take Google, for example, who has effectively leveraged people analytics to improve the workplace across a number of areas, drawing on both quantitative and qualitative data to optimise and enhance different aspects of its people processes and to create its unique and broadly-admired work culture. Maybe this is why they have been ranked the number one place to work for the last five years!

The reality is, however, that local business owners are under time pressure and often don’t know where to start with a people analytics strategy. It need not be that scary, time consuming or expensive…

Here’s a practical guide to changing your business from within, using data:

Start small

Don’t rollout a big, ugly HR platform that never gets any adoption. Start with a simple platform that collates necessary data you need immediately. Adopt a minimal viable product (MVP) approach when deciding on a people analytics strategy. Look at how Facebook started- it was originally just a simple news feed for Harvard students.

Now (June 2017), it is a worldwide social network with 1.94 billion monthly active users.

Arguably, if Facebook launched today with all the features it currently has, it would be an absolute flop. It would be too confusing and overwhelming. Nobody would know where to start; or why to even use it?

Be human

Explain why it’s important for employees to help with information collation, and be authentic with the communication. Employees will see right through you if you aren’t genuine. Remember the time when Enron had a nice sounding value statement with four values (integrity, communication, respect and excellence)? Clearly, it didn’t mean much.

Listen and watch your users

Most companies implement systems and get frustrated when users aren’t using them the way they wanted them to. This requires eating humble pie on regular occasions.

However, if you take a step back and watch users and ask them the right questions, you might end up getting better results. A good example of this is when we initially launched Hi5. On the Hi5 platform, there was a form field that was open and filled the whole screen. We noticed a big drop off of users when they got to this screen.

When we questioned the users, they said they didn’t have the time to fill in the field, as they had to think carefully about what the recognition was for. However, once we decreased the field down to 144 characters, it didn’t require much thought and the user felt it was easy and quick to do. Engagement levels instantly went up!

Be responsible

This is the most common mistake we find companies make. They run surveys and waste employees’ time, but then they often don’t give feedback and insights back to the company. What’s more important is to act on the feedback as soon as possible. In my view, this is how Google has remained at the number one position for so many years. If you read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules you will gain insight into how Google got this right.

In closing, it’s worth noting that most organisations have no people strategy in place at all. This is a worrying trend. While businesses may look solid from the outside, a closer look at their inner workings usually reveals a very fragile foundation.

Most of the time, it’s because leaders just aren't investing time into their people. Most companies invest in sales, ERP and project management solutions technology – but are missing the opportunity to invest in people (which is their biggest asset). As business luminary Richard Branson once said: “Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business. It’s as simple as that.”

Gary Willmott, Founder of Hi5

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