Big Data: What it Means to HR

Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Business Technology [ 0 Comments ]

big data and HRMost of us read or heard about the story last year where Target Corp found out that a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.  This was part of a series of revelations regarding Target (also Wal-Mart, Yahoo!, Google, and many others) and how they mine huge volumes of data to find  personal information that can give them a competitive advantage –

In this case, it turns out that the purchase of a couple of items that are not of the same genre will give a certain % chance that the buyer is pregnant.

And while you may not be using big data in the way that Target has, there are a number of ways that you can use it for human resources.

Let’s start at the beginning:  What the heck is Big Data and why is it different than what I get from my enterprise data warehouse? 

What is Big Data?

Big Data comes down to a couple simple factors:

  1. The use of external data sets in your analysis.  With your data warehouse, you have many data sources, but chances are almost all of the sources are internal to your organization, or the external sources are very small (such as for benchmark purposes). The fact of the matter is that there is so much data out there on the web; you would not want to try and load it all into your data warehouse.
  2. Big data does not have to be cleansed or normalizes in order to be used.  Our own data warehouses tend to be scrubbed so thoroughly in the ETL process to make sure everything is mapped, defined and perfectly clean so we can get accurate reporting out of it.

Why Do I Want This In HR?

The fact of the matter is that even with all the benefits, payroll, ESS, MSS compensation transactions going on in HR, several million rows just is not enough for big data.  I mean, Target was talking about petrabytes (that’s a trillion) of data that they comb through – they generate as many transactions in an hour as most of our organizations have in a year.

We also have a very insulated view of ourselves in HR.  We definitely don’t want to share that data (this is ok), and we also resist being categorized by saying how unique our organizations are (this is also ok).  Perhaps there is a place for big data in sales, and operations but not HR?

Let’s think again.  Maybe running a turnover report is never going to be big data, but what if you could run external community metrics around your employee population to get a more predictive assessment of turnover?

Consider pairing your data with detailed community census data that gives better details, such as: your turnover sucks for 45 year olds holding PhD’s. You can use external data to figure out where they are going and why, and then put an action plan together that prescribes the solution to it all.

Another example to consider: Let’s say that you’ve been successfully using social recruiting for the last few years.  By extending this one step further and partnering with all the job boards that make aggregated data available you could analyze who your ideal candidates are and compare that with the candidates you are getting.

While you may not use big data in the same way that corporations like Target do, there are some ways external data can transform how we think about HR problems and provide creative ways for us to utilize a future focused diagnosis rather than only looking to the past.

Photo credit:

Wes Wu is a Managing Consultant at Knowledge Infusion (an Appirio company) who specializes in helping companies strategically plan HR Technology and Service Delivery.  In his spare time, he writes the blog at and rides his bike.  Reach out to him through twitter @systematicHR or the new snail mail at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>