At the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan. When I say family vacation, I mean not just my wife and me, but my brother’s family along with my parents, visiting all of the senior members of the family (an important thing in Asian cultures). There is an incredible exposure of habits and an interesting (but sometimes undesirable) analysis of where my brother and I got those habits from. I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother. Let’s just say that getting 2 grown sons, their spouses, and our parents together creates a certain amount of strife.
Let’s also just say that my brothers’ hauling around of two young children may have added to the stress – he really needed to understand the daily schedules and what was going to happen when. Back to the questions: my brother would constantly ask my mother things like “why are we going to [city_name]?” instead of “what are we planning to do when we get there?” and “how much time will I need to prepare the kids to sit in the car?” (more on my mom’s response in the next post)
The problem in the questions was not the question itself, but in the thought process. All too often, we ask questions about what we think we are supposed to know. We want to know about turnover, headcount, spending per employee. This is information that is useful, but does not actually inform us about what our next actions are. Being “strategic” to me means that we have a plan, and we are actively managing our programs towards that plan. If we’re using data that just skims the surface of information, we have no ability to adjust direction and keep going in the right direction.
I’ve often heard storied about HR executives who go into the CEO office for a meeting to present data, and all they get are questions back that cannot be answered. Some HR teams go into those meetings with huge binders (sometimes binders that I’ve sent with them), and those teams come out still not having answered the questions. The problem is not with the data. The problem is that the team has not figured out what the actionable metric is, and what the possible actions are. No CEO cares about the data – they want action that ties back to what the strategic objective is. In other words, why do they care?
Here are a couple things you can do to craft better questions:
- Always think about the root of the question: HR tends to analyze at the surface more than some other functions. We have finance doing complex correlations and marketing doing audience analysis. We’re reporting headcount and turnover to executives. What kind of crap is that?
- Be a child: Ask why/what/how up to 3 times. Why 1: “Why are we going to [city_name]?” Why 2: “Why do I want to know what we are going to do there?” What 3: “What do the kids need to be prepared with?”
- Take action: If you ask a question that can be answered in such a way that you can’t take action, you asked the wrong question.
- Create an intake form that customers can request through: make sure you ask the right questions here to ensure they think through the process and understand what they need.
Many of the organizations I consult with have some pretty robust analytics organizations. When I dig under the covers, they are reacting to create ad hoc reports for managers and HR business partners. Once a quarter they scramble to create a CEO report card to depict the state of HR programs. This state is sad to me. We should be doing deeper analysis and diagnosis on a daily basis. If we asked the HRBP’s what/why that wanted data for, we’d probably find there is a huge amour of quality analysis being performed in silos that could be leveraged organizationally.