You’re not as big as you think

HR likes a fad, like a fat boy likes the cake shop and similarly gorges and over indulges until all proportion and perspective is lost. Sadly I’ve witnessed a few of these over the years and my fear is the latest one is the much misunderstood and misused term “BIG data”.

I’m certainly not anti data, or anti analytics. And I’ve said before that an HR person who “doesn’t like numbers” is a bad HR person.  I just think the idea of data being BIG in HR is a bit of a myth.

Why? Well, let’s start with the numbers:

59.3% of all UK employees are employed in SMEs, each employing less than 250 employees.

18.8% of the remaining 40.7% of those employees are employed in the Public Sector the majority of whom are in parts of the sector with no integrated HR or employee data management systems or holistic analytical capability.

Which leaves us with 21.9% of the UK’s employees very few of whom are employed in organisations of significant scale. So if they want to be playing with BIG data, they’d need to be capturing a shed load (and a half) of employee data sets.

Which, I can tell you, most of them aren’t.

So what happens? Instead of focussing on the real questions and issues, we make daft statements such as, “talent analytics and big data are must have capabilities in HR”  when the fact is that most organisations don’t have anything vaguely approaching big data, in fact, they have relatively small data.

And then our press, our journals, our conference organisers and our professional bodies create the impression that everyone else is doing something, when the reality is that they’re not. Yes organisations may be doing data analysis, but that’s no different this year than it was last year or the year before.

My advice to you is to stop worrying about big data in HR. You don’t have it now and you probably never will. Instead focus on small data and BIG THINKING, taking the information that you have and being really curious and inquisitive about what you can learn from it.

The real magic happens when insight and intuition come together to create the perfect harmony of head and heart, of thinking and feeling, of gut and brain.

Not when you try to play keepy up with an imaginary trend.

Because at the end of the day, we are dealing with real people, not fads, and that’s where we make a difference.


  1. GrumpyLecturer · October 13, 2014

    The discourse on the Social Sciences gaining respectability has been going on since Durkheim, Weber and Marx. Research methodology in this area has been fraught with attempts at achieving ‘scientific respectability’ which many still argue can only be achieved through quantitative research i.e. HR emphasis on ‘Big Data’.

    See in which Atkinson’s (2005) statement that:

    “…positivism and its concomitant quantification are worthy adversaries, indeed making it a struggle, for many, if not most, social scientists aim for scientific respectability. And respectability is assessed most often through the lens of positivism”.

    is critically analysed.

    The qualitative (Constructivism/Interpretism) v quantitative (Objectivism/Positivism) debate has never been fully resolved and moreover quantitative methodology has failed to generate ‘general social theories’ as yet.

    • Neil · October 19, 2014

      Whenever you comment, I feel like I’m back in University. I’m a qual and quant guy. I swing both ways.

  2. Mat Davies (@RafaDavies) · October 13, 2014

    I wouldn’t mind making a couple of points here, Neil, if I may.

    I think you correctly observe there is a confusion here between poor data management and analysis around employees in an organisation (if I had a £ for every time someone said “our data is awful” then I probably wouldn’t be in HR) and the real changes that are taking place in industry and government around “Big Data”- namely, the migration away from traditional data processing techniques.

    These are now possible because technological advances and computing capability to analyse, capture, search, share, predict, invest etc.thereby enabling much larger data sets to be analysed and breaking out smaller pieces of data or sets of data to understand correlations, trends and so on. This can be trends in business, socio-economic changes, solving crimes, working out buying patterns etc etc. This is proper Big Data and it is a very real thing: you only have to look at the spending of organisations and government to understand this.

    There’s a broader point that you make around the propensity of HR to jump on a bandwagon. There’s little doubt that Big Data will have an impact; it just won’t be in the way that those that think they are sounding clever (they aren’t) think it will and, like you, I do wish they would stop. Them being wrong doesn’t mean Big Data isn’t a “thing” though.

    Lovely blog, as always.

    • Neil · October 19, 2014

      You make good points Mat and thank you. I think the my main argument is that most organisations don’t have enough data for it to be considered “big”, they could be doing the analysis without the technology.

  3. Gareth Jones · October 14, 2014

    You are right when you highlight the faddiness of HR, this years big data is last years whatever. And yes, most companies are either too small or have poorer quality data to draw any meaningful insight from it. However, it’s not the organisations own data that matters here. It’s as Matt says, the new data sets, the large, disparate and previously unattainable data sets that, when analysed and process using new technologies and machine learning, can and will influence the way we manage organisations and talent.

    In my view, it is the ignorance of the relevance of these data points/sources and what they reveal – the patterns, that is the biggest problem. More snake oil, more quacks 😉

    • Neil · October 19, 2014

      I don’t disagree. But these aren’t organisational challenges, other than in keeping our eyes open to the trends.

      • Gareth Jones · October 20, 2014

        No this is indeed true. But this stuff can solve many of the organisational challenges we face, and have faced for a long time. The data sources outside of the organisation are as important as the ones from within. Just because the emerging trend in big data, or whatever lable we chose for it, is not a massive, chin rubbing organisational challenge in itself, doesnt meant its not as important. Ognorance is HR’s achiles heel!

  4. Henry · October 17, 2014

    Grrr. It’s infuriating. I find myself agreeing with you. Must break that habit. I’m sure it can’t be good for me.

    • Neil · October 19, 2014

      It isn’t. Apparently I’m the UK’s second largest cause of self loathing.

  5. Arun Krishnan · January 19, 2015

    I completely agree with your contention that HR doesn’t really requre “Big Data” for the most part. People have somehow conflated “Analytics” with “Big Data”. If we think of an organization like a car, data would be like petrol/gasoline, Hadoop would be like the “funnel” or “nozzle” that enables one to get the data to manageable proportions and “analytics” would be the engine that uses the data. People unfortunately pay way more attention to the “funnel” than to the “engine”.


  6. Pingback: Talking HR Data & Analytics at #HRAnalyticsLDN | T Recs

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