Transforming HR into Employee Success

You don’t need me to tell you that the working world is changing and changing fast. The rate at which technology moves is accelerating, driving many job skills into rapid obsolescence. Hopping from job to job is no longer viewed as a stigma but as a common strategy for career advancement. Millennials and their younger counterparts are entering the workforce with different expectations for their employers, demanding to receive more feedback and engagement with management as well as to be supported along their desired career path. If millennial workers don’t find what they seek at their current company, they have no qualms about moving on. The competition to attract and retain qualified job applicants is fiercer than ever.

For these reasons and more, the traditional HR department is no longer enough. In today’s job environment, HR needs to be less of a simple recruiting engine and more of a strategic resource that’s aligned with the CEO’s agenda and manages the entire employee experience. Getting a body into a seat doesn’t begin to cover the responsibilities of the current-day HR team.

HR Meets Big Data

Another force at work in this era of rapid change is the rise of big data and using data analytics to drive decision making across different departments within an organization. Marketing, finance, product, and other business units are already collecting loads of data and digging into it to better understand customer preferences and trends as well as where opportunities exist for greater efficiency and productivity. It prompts the question: can HR leverage data to understand employee behavior, mitigate dissatisfaction, reduce turnover, and in general, nurture happier and more engaged workers?

The answer is an emphatic, yes. HR can reap the benefits of data analytics, and it’s already happening under the emerging label of “people analytics.” But introducing data analytics into the HR function requires a shift in company culture and leadership focus. While the opposite may at first seem true — that analyzing data removes even more humanity from HR — the shift to data-driven HR is really about treating employees as customers who can bring value to the company overall.

Not surprisingly, Google has been a leader in the trends of putting data toward the HR function and evolving HR to address the total employee lifecycle. Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations and author of the book “Work Rules,” has become one of the most influential voices on the topic. As more companies get on the bandwagon, new job titles are popping up. At Airbnb, for example, Mark Levy had been Chief HR Officer (CHRO) but is now Global Head of Employee Experience. And here at Udemy, I just moved into what had been the VP of HR role but is now called VP of People, heading the Employee Success team. This fits perfectly with our philosophy that employees aren’t just humans who serve as resources; they’re the key to our success at every turn. So if we can’t help them reach their individual goals and meet their individual definitions of success, we won’t get far in fulfilling our business goals for success either.

A Smarter Way to Evaluate Employees

It’s not a contradiction to think that we can understand complex, variable human needs and wants by parsing hard numbers. How else can you look across an organization and know how and where to scale if you don’t have data? At Udemy, we’re just embarking on the people analytics journey, but our first steps have already yielded results. As a data-driven organization, every department wants to see how they’re performing internally and benchmark themselves against similar companies. When we run surveys, it’s not just to make the executive team feel good; we uncover real insights into what’s working and what’s not for people’s daily routines and long-term ambitions. We put KPIs around recruiting just as we’d do for a sales funnel, building at the top and then defining key metrics as people come on board and move through further in.

Another interesting thing we’re seeing — people are actually asking for performance reviews! This tells us that our employees, most of whom are millennials early in their careers, are craving a more formalized feedback loop. That’s not necessarily something that fits with our image of the scrappy, seat-of-our-pants startup. Then again, this is a generation that’s used to sharing opinions and getting responses on social media all the time, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’d want to bring the same avenues for expression and validation into their workplace.

Elevating HR from a recruiting center to an employee success engine makes sense for businesses of all sizes, not just startups and other companies in high-growth stages. The principles are the same for large, established enterprises, even if the numbers aren’t. And if the right kind of data analysis expertise doesn’t already exist in house, more companies are coming on line to provide products and services dedicated to this space. VoloMetrix can help extract data intelligence from employee calendars and emails, while Culture Amp lets you conduct surveys to assess satisfaction and engagement (we have used Culture Amp at Udemy).

Putting People First

If it used to feel like “it’s all about the people” was just corporate lip service, the good news is that CEOs are truly becoming attuned to how changes across the business landscape tie into the HR function. And they’re recognizing the value-added role HR can play when it moves beyond just interviewing candidates and helping employees set up direct deposit. People analytics tools will be critical in getting the most from the new Employee Success department.

Lisa Haugh
About the author: 

Lisa Haugh serves as Vice President of People and General Counsel at udemy, a San Francisco-based online learning marketplace, where 12 million+ students are taking courses.  Her career includes executive assignments with Achievers, Extole and Livescribe.  Follow Lisa on LinkedIn.