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The 5 must-know data skills as a modern HR practitioner

The 5 must-know data skills as a modern HR practitioner

By Benjamin Caruncho III

HR is always, and should always be, data-driven. From recruitment to separation or growth, no HR decision is made without the evaluation of facts. Sources of these facts begin with the CV. After recruitment comes performance evaluations and compensation and benefits. Finally, the exit interview.

If HR professionals and managers have been making data-driven decisions then, why talk about it now? We can keep making our best bets on the “softer” aspects of HR as being the kicker of HR decisions on who gets recruited, gets his/her pay raised, and why. We’re humans dealing with fellow humans after all, not computers or robots following IF-THEN-ELSE decision patterns. We’re creative, we can lead by example, and at times, we can also be forgiving; things there will never be algorithms or mathematical expressions for.

In the Information Age, however, two things I know spell the difference between bad, good and best HR decisions. They are agility and technology. Companies will always find themselves competing with others in the same markets. Sometimes, racing against time to discover new opportunities by deploying their best people. Always, companies will compete with others to hire and retain the best talents. Competition is always tough.

For those still crunching their spreadsheets or calculators, here are the skills and knowledge you need to get better as a 21st-Century HR professional. Not all of them is technology-specific.

1. Knowing the differences between data, information and knowledge. 

When I was getting started as an IT instructor in college in 2004, my enthusiastic mentor told me what he had learned from the Ateneo IT Institute. At a time when many will grow old in their organizations and never know that data and information are different (and they still are), my mentor summed it up in a way I’ll never forget 15 years on.

  • Data is a singular basic fact about persons or things. It can be a name, a birthdate or a desired salary. What those are about is not yet the matter—but it will soon be.

  • Information is data within a context. In the context of recruitment, five shortlisted candidates with their name, skills and desired salaries data become actionable information.

  • Knowledge is information with a trend over time.

When I committed to designing a compensation monitoring spreadsheet, I was told by a senior member of management that there is no pattern on who gets pay raises, when, and how much. After the compensation monitor was completed with all the data of past and present employees during my time, I reported to management that it takes us an average of a year and four months to up the salaries of deserving employees. Give or take two months, depending on our cash flow and performance evaluations.

2. Knowing relationships among data 

HR is related to operations and finance. HR keeps the basic information about employees; it naturally starts with that. As time goes on, an employee’s ID number becomes the tie that binds them to quarterly performance evaluations, paid leaves, employment history and salary raises. It can be best explained in this “drill” involving a pair of sentences called business rules.

  • One Employee can have many Performance Evaluations. One Performance Evaluation [record] can only belong to one Employee.

  • One Employee can have many Training. One Training can be joined by many Employees.

  • One Employee can be head many Employees. One Employee can only report to one other Employee.

You don’t need to start thinking about complex relationships among sets of data. Just pick any two sets of data, which always begins with Employees. Take the Employees’ side, then connect to another. You will encounter relationships that vary depending on how many records from the other side does one Employee record have. It is also possible to encounter relationships between records of the same set, such as in the third example.

3. Know where data flows 

Again, HR is related to the other departments of your organization. Business processes determine data flows. Take payroll for instance. I once found myself requesting biometrics timekeeping data from someone who’s in charge of the device. I obtained raw files, with data formats not compliant with the payroll system that our Finance office has. I worked with two unrelated systems that required me to make validations, “data cleansing” (to comply with the receiving system), and reconciliations with an app that helps track leave use. The final timekeeping file then goes to finance.

I used to send out blank performance evaluation forms (in Excel) to project managers to fill and return to me. It is important to know which data gets sent to, or received by, whom, and what data transformations are expected to happen (such as an accomplished form).

4. Know the roles and access permissions 

HR data is highly confidential. No one can have an all-access pass to it. What you can—and should do—is to have a bird’s-eye view of the organization and the roles played by individuals and departments, and take stock of what sets of data and information you have. Then model those with a simple CRUD matrix.

CRUD stands for:

  • CREATE: whoever has this access permission can create new records

  • READ: can read or view

  • UPDATE: can make modifications

  • DELETE: can delete or purge such records

This becomes very useful for crafting company data policies and for investigating breaches. In your organization, these rules should be clear-cut, not invisible or metaphorical. Everyone should know who can do what action on a document, file or table of a database.

5. Know who consumes which report 

Lastly, all these gathered, processed and kept data will ultimately be consumed by decision-makers hungry for information.

Organizations will traditionally have three tiers: operational, tactical, and strategic. The supervisors or team leaders, the middle managers, and the executives. Team leaders consume information about specific employees and what projects and tasks they are currently engaged in. Executives want the fact-based summaries that are time-bound, categorized by area or department, and preferably visualized into charts, graphs, and other infographics.

This is where your spreadsheet skills come in. It pays to know sums and counts and simple statistics functions that often include measures of central tendency (averages and variance) and forecast models. There are many new tools and apps now that aid the new generation of HR professionals, but spreadsheet remain the “Swiss Army knife” of data processing, data reporting, and data modeling (forecasting, simulations, and other what-ifs).

New tools for an enduring practice 

I remember my first time to be handed a college course in Project Management. When I received the syllabus, the last teacher designed it based on the features and capabilities of Microsoft Project. The syllabus was called Project Management, but the outcome was about using the tool or app, not the hows and whys that keep projects on track in time and budget.

Same here in basic data literacy for HR. I am thrilled to see new tools emerge for an old profession, giving its practitioners boosts in productivity, decision agility, and insight. But don’t just learn the tools for the sake of complying with your superiors and putting it in your CV. It only so happened that new technology gave rise to apps and systems capable of gathering data like a dredger or a vacuum cleaner. Always be rooted in why we use the tools and its informational needs to arrive at the quantifiable HR insights we desire. You will then be on a path to being an effective 21st-Century HR professional.

Benjamin Caruncho III is a former HR officer of CTO Global Services, Inc., and a college instructor of Database Systems and its allied disciplines, with a combined 20 years served in the business and higher education sectors. He’s also a moderator of HR Shouts and Whispers.

He is currently the Education Technology coordinator of St. Paul University Quezon City, a new office created to help ensure the university’s academic continuity during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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