“Data beats intuition” says blogger Sheri Feinzig

“There’s so much potential for improving the work experience and simultaneously driving better business results, simply by applying a research and analytics approach and mindset to Human Resources.” – Sheri Feinzig, Director, IBM Smarter Workforce Institute

Spring always brings a sense of renewal as we say goodbye to dark, cold weather and look forward to the warm days ahead. It’s a good time to think about what you do every day and whether your work aligns with your interests, passion and skills, or if it might be time to seek renewal in different work. If you’re like the next featured blogger in our Blogger Beat series, you might approach an important decision like that with a systematic ranking spreadsheet of pros and cons to help you make the right decision.

Meet Sheri Feinzig, Director of the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute. She has always had a keen appreciation for the scientific method and data analysis, and has had the good fortune of being able to apply them in various jobs throughout her career. As she says, “intuition and observation can be great input for forming hypotheses, but conclusions and decisions should be founded on data-based hypothesis testing. It’s all about the data.” In college, she was fascinated by psychology but also felt pulled toward business. She was fortunate to discover the field of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, which is essentially the study of people at work, and went on to earn a PhD in this discipline from the University of Albany, SUNY.

Tell us a bit more about yourself. Who are you? What do you do in your spare time?
I’m a researcher at heart. I believe in the value of research-based evidence to support decisions and actions. New ideas are great and necessary, of course, but I believe they should be tested in a systematic way before large-scale implementation. What if things don’t turn out exactly as planned? What adjustments might be needed? Were there any unintended consequences? I tend to apply systematic thinking to my personal life as well. I have been teased by family members for my use of pro/con lists when making decisions!

In my spare time, I really value being with family. One of my favorite activities these days is helping my kids study for quizzes and tests. They really appreciate the opportunity to test their knowledge and build their confidence, and I get to relearn some of the great things I was exposed to back in the day.

I also enjoy running, reading, gardening, traveling, baking and photography. Any opportunity to combine those interests (e.g., running while traveling, photographing what I bake) is a bonus.

Why do you like to blog about workforce analytics?
There’s so much potential for improving the work experience and simultaneously driving better business results, simply by applying a research and analytics approach and mindset to Human Resources (HR). Yet according to multiple studies, much of that potential remains untapped. I’m hopeful we can convince more HR leaders of the value of workforce analytics, and that it’s worth taking the plunge. It would be wonderful to see a shift from viewing workforce analytics as a “nice to have” to a “must have,” where HR leaders can’t imagine how they ever did their jobs without it.

How would you explain workforce analytics to someone who knew nothing about it?
Imagine there are two outlets of a retail store – same brand, similar locations, comparable consumer profiles. Yet, one outlet is performing far better than the other. Why? Is it due to a higher skill level of the staff at the better performing outlet? A better store manager? A better staffing and scheduling process? You could guess what the reasons are, but you might not guess correctly. A better approach is to test your guesses with data. For example, you could survey the employees at each store to understand their engagement levels. You could interview the store managers about staff skill levels. You could randomly sample customers from each store and ask them about their shopping experiences. By forming hypotheses (which are well-informed guesses), and collecting and analyzing data to test your hypotheses, you will be much more likely to figure out what’s really causing the difference in store performance. This is just one example of how analytics can help solve business problems.

Are there other experts, bloggers, articles or books that you find interesting in this space, or that you have drawn inspiration from?
I recently finished reading Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock, the head of Google’s People Operations. It’s a great read and very informative. In the spirit of sharing what works well for Google, the author explains the company’s HR practices, what they’ve learned along the way and what may be helpful for other organizations to consider adopting. Industrial/organizational psychologists are cited throughout, and there’s a clear message around the need to research, experiment and analyze to inform decisions and actions. Bock also stresses the need to recognize that you’re dealing with people, and people decisions cannot be reduced to an algorithm. That’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Where do you see technology creating the greatest impact?
Technology for managing and analyzing vast amounts of data continues to improve. This gives us the ability to analyze unstructured data in real time, which is incredibly powerful for identifying emerging issues and trends. And, as cognitive computing becomes more widespread, the opportunity for technology assisted problem solving is enormous.

Can you share a personal “aha moment” about the value of an emerging technology?
I was attending a client meeting a few years ago, and the discussion was centering on the possibility of a cognitive assistant for truck drivers. I was having trouble envisioning the value of this particular use case until the client described, from the driver’s perspective, the scenarios typically encountered. For example, if a driver experiences a mechanical problem with the truck, that driver might not be comfortable calling into a supervisor to discuss the problem. But if the  “supervisor” is actually an electronic assistant, any potential embarrassment factor vanishes, and the driver can freely ask any questions at all. That was an “aha” for me.

Can you share a funny story about when you’ve been wrong about a technology trend?
I never thought I would see the re-emergence of vinyl records once digital music took over the world. But vinyl is back in vogue, and even teenagers know what it is.  I’m missing my old record collection now!

What’s next for you?
I am co-authoring a book with my colleagues Jonathan Ferrar and Nigel Guenole on the topic of workforce analytics. We’re incredibly excited about it.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you for this opportunity to share a bit about myself. It’s been fun!

Read Sheri’s posts on the IBMCAI blog and connect with her on Twitter @s_feinzig and LinkedIn.

Learn more about putting analytics to work in HR by watching this video

Originally published on the IBM Center for Applied Insights blog Mar 2016

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