New Year, New Words

Every year, the researchers at Oxford English Dictionary — the self-styled “definitive record of the English language” — choose a single “Word of the Year.” Selfie, a self-portrait usually taken with a mobile phone and posted to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, topped the list in 2013.

According to dictionary editors, it’s more than a popularity contest, although researchers did find an astonishing 17,000 percent increase in use of the word selfie. Rather, it is, forgive the pun, a snapshot of our culture that year. In that regard, selfie is a pretty good indicator, showing our obsession with technology and need to jack into the digital world wherever we go. It also catches a bit of our character, displaying an embarrassing penchant for narcissism.

While there is no definitive dictionary for talent management language, an informal vocabulary to describe the work we do exists nonetheless. I’m going on record with my guess for the 2014 word of the year: analytics. By no stretch a new word, analytics is primed to enter countless more talent conversations thanks to the rise of big data.

Sometimes a word we add is a genuinely new term — such as the word “stratactical” I first heard a couple of years ago. A bit clunky for sure, but the intent was to describe the combination of strategic, forward-thinking work and tactical, in-the-trenches mentality that is a hallmark of an effective talent manager.

More often than not, however, newly added words are simply a new way to describe the same old thing. What used to be personnel is now human resources; when many talk about cloud software, what they mean is much the same as the less imaginative software as a service that has been used for several years.

Sometimes the new vocabulary helps. A word can clarify a challenge and provide a rallying point to marshal the industry’s collective resources to lead the charge. In other cases, a word can distract and complicate.

Analytics — the analysis and modeling of data to generate ideas and guide decision-making — does both. On one hand, the word clarifies the challenge ahead for traditional people-centric, data-phobic HR organizations that find themselves swimming in an ocean of employee data and buffeted by business leaders looking for bigger, faster and stronger talent management initiatives.

On the other hand, the word can needlessly complicate efforts to do what we should have been doing all along — engaging in evidence-based management of meaningful talent problems. When faced with a real talent challenge, such as the steady loss of high performers, talent managers may be tempted to use analytics as justification to buy a new system or software rather than invest time and energy in crunching performance numbers, poring over exit interviews and talking to managers to solve the problem at hand. Not all analytics problems are technology problems.

But technology has given rise to new opportunities. Data collection systems and analysis tools are coming of age, and big data has already transformed finance, marketing and supply-chain operations — think just-in-time manufacturing and Amazon.com’s recommendation engine. It is starting to permeate our personal lives in the form of fitness, diet and shopping apps and personalized regimens. People management is one of the last frontiers of massive, analyzable data, and it is quickly coming into sharp focus.

Just like “selfie,” analytics says something larger about where we are as an industry, what we’re thinking and how we think. It shows that our heads are in the right place in 2014, aiming to meld people management and data science to tackle thorny organizational problems. But we’ve got to do the homework, spell out the challenges and define goals to bring rigor to that approach and make sure analytics isn’t just another word that HR uses. Anything else and we’d just be twerking.