Little did Eric Thomas know that a chance encounter at a conference would change the course of his professional career.
While attending the Workforce Planning & Analytics Conference in San Francisco in 2010, Thomas — who at the time worked in workforce planning at Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — listened to a session by Michelle Deneau, then a newly hired human resources business intelligence leader at software firm Intuit Inc.
During the session, Deneau gave an overview of how to build an HR analytics function. An industrial organizational psychologist by trade, Deneau had started at Mountain View, California-based Intuit that July with plans to build an analytics unit there. Thomas was intrigued.
“It wasn’t just data for data’s sake,” Thomas said. “It was the way she thought about how an HR data team worked side by side with the business. … That was really the key for me.”
He wanted in.
“I approached her when she finished presenting,” Thomas said, “and I told her I was the analyst for her.”
Shortly thereafter Thomas secured a job as a member of 8,000-employee Intuit’s growing HR business intelligence team, which since 2010 has found its stride in providing a more sophisticated approach to HR that executives say has saved the company money and driven business results.
The need to establish a data-driven approach comes as HR departments look to gain more credibility with the business. And as technology has enabled more departments to collect workforce data, talent leaders in recent years have made a push to turn talent data analysis into a valued discipline.
As the person brought on to lead Intuit’s HR analytics push, Deneau has seen the unit through all its ups and downs — from the early months of Excel spreadsheets and validating data over disparate systems to the millions of dollars invested in Intuit’s data warehouse and HR analytic technology build-out.
That’s in addition to the continuing task of having to work with and educate the company’s HR business unit leaders on how to make the most of the data — something Deneau said has become both one of her favorite parts of the job and the most challenging.
“We don’t just launch data over to them and wish them the best of luck,” Deneau said. “We like to go with our data and help them interpret and understand how they’re using it.”
Colored by Numbers
Use of data in business decision-making is as old as the Industrial Revolution, if not older. According to HR research and consulting firm Bersin by Deloitte, the wave of business analytics started with oil, steel and railroad companies in the 1900s, as logistics and supply-chain data helped such firms manage production.
For Intuit, the need to emphasize a data-driven approach to HR came on the heels of the company’s desire to make its products more mobile, global and social. At the turn of the decade, the maker of popular financial software products like QuickBooks and TurboTax wanted to shift business to meet technological advances and globalization.
“That was going to require a very differentkind of workforce,” said MichaelMcCreary, the company’s vice president of HR services and insights, who oversees the workforce analytics team. “That was going to require a very different way of recruiting that workforce, developing that workforce, and managing that existing workforce to either change or evolve.”
In 2010, McCreary, then a consultant with Deloitte, was working with Intuit’s Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Sherry Whiteley to “reimagine” HR at the company.“I think we were calling it the HR evolution of what her new organization would look like,” he said.
Part of their conclusion was the need to form a centralized HR business intelligence unit. McCreary, who joined Intuit in September 2011, and his team at Deloitte wrote the job description for the position that would lead this function. Deneau was hired in July 2010.
Deneau’s first task coming in was to evaluate the status quo. What she found was both good and bad — the good being Intuit’s already robust level of engagement survey data; the bad being the lack of workforceanalytics around basic things like head count.
After hiring two analysts to get the team up and running, Deneau’s initial directive was simple: Do nothing. “When I came in, they gave me what we kind of called a 100-day no-fly zone to really get to know the needs, the state of the data, what kind of reports the team was doing,” she said.
Outside of producing very basic list reports — birthdays, work anniversaries, number of people located in the company’s Mountain View office, for example — the team spent its first couple months meeting with HR leaders to understand their needs. Additionally, the team started to explore and evaluate the quality of the data it had to work with.
What they found wasn’t pretty. “One conversation that always tends to come to mind early on was with our VP of HR,” Deneau said. “She said, ‘You know, it would just be great if I could get a head count report, maybe by location.’ This was kind of where we were at.”
The technology infrastructure providing the team with Intuit’s workforce data was equally unimpressive. “We were using Excel,” Deneau said. “Workday was our primary HR system, and Workday has some reporting capability built in. But mostly what we were doing at that point was Excel into PowerPoint — a lot of managing things in Excel — and then we were doing presentations where we would export charts and tables.”
Adding to this headache was the fact that Intuit had yet to establish a centralized data warehouse. So Deneau and her team had to manually pull data from disparate systems to conduct analysis and produce reports. “We would do things through VLookup and duct tape,” Deneau said half-jokingly.
“The data was pretty much a big mess,” Thomas added.
Data in Action
Data quality in HR wasn’t just an Intuit problem in its early analytic years but one the industry as a whole is still trying to overcome, said Al Adamsen, executive director of the Talent Strategy Institute, a talent management consultancy that specializes in workforce analytics.
“With analytics, ultimately what we’re trying to do is instill confidence among decision-makers,” Adamsen said. “That’s all predicated on having a level of trust in the data and a trust in the analysis that was done with that data.”
And like Intuit in 2010, most companies that have yet to get HR analytics up and running still store people management data on multiple platforms in varying locations, Adamsen said. Furthermore, in a company in which employees number in the thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — who knows if such data are 100 percent accurate?
Still, having trustworthy data doesn’t necessarily mean having perfect data. “There’snever perfection,” Adamsen said. “There is ‘good enough,’ and certainly in my view, Intuit has achieved that state of ‘good enough.’ ”
Part of getting Intuit’s data to be good enough required the team to establish standard HR reporting metrics. “We had at least 20-plus different versions of voluntary turnover calculations,” Deneau said. “So starting to standardize some of those things were some of the first actions that we took.”
Deneau said to establish standard HR metrics, the team took a multipronged approach. First, it met with the company’s HR unit leaders — what calculations did they use for turnover and attrition? It then took intoaccount the kind of HR data Intuit had on these measures as well as how such measures were calculated in the industry at large.
Once standard reporting metrics came into view, the analytics unit had to establish credibility so HR unit leaders would come to them with their needs.
“We were spending lots of time with them and understanding their needs,” Deneau said. “And the team worked very diligently toward getting good data into their hands. So as we built credibility as a team, people just started to come to us.”
At first, building this credibility required the analytics function to take proactive measures by going to each HR business unit and saying, “how can we help,” Deneau said.
Deneau said the team also initiated both formal and informal training for HR leaders to help them interpret the nuances of workforce analytics. In addition to conducting classroom training sessions throughout the year when new metrics or reports go live, Deneau said the analytics team engages with HR leaders informally to help further the mission of the department.
Thomas described the early credibility charge as one in which the function aimed to achieve “small wins.” “You know, demonstrate to them [HR unit leaders] we’ve taken a good, clean look at this data, we’ve defined it,” Thomas said. “If we presented a rate, like an attrition rate, we were able to back it up. After time, they began to trust it more.”
Slowly those small wins started to add up, and about 18 months into the analytics team’s conception, Deneau said it began producing reports for Intuit’s CEO, Brad Smith. Requests from HR business units also started to roll in at a faster clip.
In fact, the request volume had gotten so large that the means for producing reports — Excel and PowerPoint — became insufficient. At about the 18- to 24-month point, “we were really starting to hit the tipping point of not being able to keep up with demand,” Deneau said.
That’s when Intuit’s HR leadership team decided to make a $3.5 million investment to upgrade its workforce analytics technology. Out were static Excel spreadsheets and charts; in was a comprehensive data warehouse, with business intelligence software QlikView built in to help consolidate data from different sources.
Moreover, Intuit brought in contract developers to improve the database build for the analytics team, Deneau said. The new capability infrastructure allowed the analytics team to push reports out to multiple HR business units while integrating data from Workday and survey reports. Its proprietary workforce analytics platform went live in April 2014.
In time, the analytics team also got bigger. With the new technological capability, Deneau said the workforce analytics team added to its head count by developing interns into full-time analysts (the team now has eight analysts). It would also inherit the workload of Intuit’s survey team that tracked things like engagement.
At about the 1½-year mark since its 2010 launch, Intuit’s HR analytics team got to the point where it was producing standard workforce analytics reports on a monthly basis. The goal is to eventually produce them weekly.
With its technological heft more sophisticated, Deneau said Intuit’s workforce analytics team started to take on more complex problems.
More recently, for example, the team has had success using the company’s engagement survey to identify insights that have helped change manager behaviors.
“One of the questions is very much around ‘I see a path or I know how I can grow my career at Intuit,’ ” Deneau said of the survey. “And, typically, if a manager receives lower scores, they would dismiss it by saying, ‘Oh people who don’t get promoted don’t think they can grow their career; everyone who we move around laterally doesn’t view that as real career development.’ ”
“So we decided to test that hypothesis this year,” Deneau continued. “We found that people who moved laterally — they took a different job or they expanded their role or moved into a different job altogether — they also felt really positive about their ability to grow their career.
“So, suddenly, the manager is saying, ‘No, no — people only see mobility as up; the laterals are all lying about not being able to grow their careers.’ We basically got rid of that rumor or myth. People that move laterally they feel really good about their career path at Intuit as well.”
Based on this finding, Deneau said the team looked at how time in a given role influenced employees’ career-path satisfaction. As it turns out, once an employee got to around the three-year point, career-path satisfaction “dropped off a cliff,” Thomas said.
Deneau added: “And when we layered in more data, we were able to then say, ‘Oh, these are the people that say they have not had a development conversation with their manager. So they’ve been in their job a while, [and] their manager is not talking to them about their career path at all — of course they don’t feel good about their options and opportunities at Intuit.’
“And it led to a very actionable plan for a lot of leaders to be able to say, ‘I know what I need to go do: I need to go run a report about everybody who’s been in their job for two years and make sure I’m talking to them about what’s next.’
Another problem the HR analytics team recently helped solve came on the recruiting front.
As maker of tax software TurboTax, Intuit conducts seasonal hiring to help support the influx of customer needs throughout tax season. And as the company’s workforce analytics function has grown, it has used its workforce data to project hiring needs during this period.
The 2013 tax season left Intuit unusually short on seasonal staff. According to Deneau, Intuit’s vice president of the TurboTax unit wanted to increase hiring to fill the gaps. But using the function’s predictive modeling, Deneau said they were able to glean that the earliest the company would be able to get a new batch of people hired and through training would be April 17 — two days after tax season.
Deneau said because of this, Intuit was able to avoid a $500,000 investment in these new seasonal hires. “Those are the kinds of things that we were able to point to and say, ‘Hey, a half a million dollars — that’s really not small potatoes.’”
Data in the Future
It’s these kinds of results that have McCreary excited about the potential for HR analytics at Intuit.
“I think, unlike other HR functions, we’re not just interested in reporting transactions,” he said. “We actually look at key performance indicators that help us glean insights to take action.”
With the HR data team firmly in its fifth year, McCreary said he’d like to see it become even more focused on using data to help change manager behaviors.
“If I can show and delineate that when people use our HR applications — like when a manager does their HR stuff, if you will — and how their team is performing, I might be able to start to change manager behaviors or identify managers that are weak before it turns up in attrition,” McCreary said.
What does the function need to get to this point? “More data,” Deneau said. “We want more data in our platform so we can continue to measure the HR function effectively.”
As for advice for other companies looking to start a workforce analytics team, Deneau said having the right talent in place is important, but making sure that talent has the proper level of business acumen is most important.
That means not just data for data’s sake, but making sure the approach with which the HR analytics team takes is guided with a business-first mindset.
“I’ve seen teams start and fail because they don’t make that connection,” Deneau said. “You really have to be able to articulate the business value.”
“We love analyzing data,” Deneau added. “But it doesn’t always mean it’s practical or relevant to the business.”