Your Days Are Numbered

Don’t ask me how I did it, but I made it through college without taking a math course.

To be clear, it wasn’t just math that sent me running. It was numbers. I sweated through one day of Introduction to Accounting before hightailing it to my adviser’s office to change my schedule.

Words were what interested me. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish a mean from a median even if you summed it up for me.

My innumeracy once was a point of pride, but I regret it now. Big data saw to that. But it’s not just the rise of data as an important business tool that has made me see the light. I’ve come to realize that, much like words, statistics are a way to tell a story. I can relate to that.

Collected properly and used wisely, statistics reveal hidden details and unlock new meaning. They summarize and quantify the huge amounts of data that surround us and harness those numbers to help us make better decisions. But used improperly, statistics can be damaging. They are not an express lane to the truth.

In his book Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread From the Data, Charles Wheelan offers an example of that point to which most of us can relate: the grade point average (GPA). As a measurement, GPA is a handy tool to sum up a student’s academic performance. By assigning a numerical value to the letter grades students receive and then averaging it across all the courses they take, we get an easily understandable assessment of performance and potential that we can use to compare Student A with Student B.

But as many students have figured out, the GPA system can be gamed. It doesn’t account for the difficulty of the courses, nor does it necessarily reflect the academic rigor of schools. Students who take easy courses can end up with a higher GPA than their peers who challenge themselves with difficult material or demanding instructors.

So if you use GPA as a measure of success — or as a criterion for hiring — you could end up with lower achievers rather than the high achievers you hoped for. It’s a simple example, but it illustrates the problem: Data requires context. Here’s both the challenge and the opportunity. As talent managers, we are context-rich. We’re full of the sort of nuanced information and detail that brings the meaning behind the data to life. But we often lack the ability to read data and use statistics to uncover meaning.

If you’ve been reading this magazine for a while you won’t be surprised to learn that the practice of managing talent — attracting, recruiting and developing the sort of people who drive your organization’s growth — is increasingly scientific. Between pre-hire screening and assessment, ongoing performance monitoring and management and rigorous career development, we generate a staggering amount of data about our workers, whether they are on the manufacturing floor or the executive suite.

But how much has that data changed what we do? If our brethren in IT are any indicator, not much. According to a survey of IT professionals conducted by big data management company Infochimps, more than half of data analytics projects fail because organizations lack the expertise to synthesize data and provide business context for it. In a report called “From Value to Vision: Reimagining the Possible With Data Analytics,” researchers from MIT Sloan Management Review found that only 11 percent of companies are using analytics for competitive advantage and to drive innovation.

Whether you are data agnostic like me or someone who revels in the numbers, there is undoubtedly significant value that is just ripe for the taking from all the data we collect. And talent managers are in the prime position to put all those statistics and numbers in context for better decision-making.

We are on the front line of many important decisions, providing business partners with advice and counseling on a range of topics from who to hire to how to boost performance and how best to accelerate high potential development. With a little bit of education, we can unlock the potential of numbers to drive results. That’s a course I’d sign up for.