How To Give All The Wrong Answers

As per my last post,at the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan.  Being with family for 2 weeks is quite an expose into mannerisms that each of us have.  I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother.  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?”  Luckily, we had my mother there fueling the ridiculous line of questioning.  90% of the time, her answers had nothing to do with the questions he was asking.

  • “Why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, let me tell you, when I was growing up, I used to play with my cousins there.”
  • “Mom, why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, did you see that beautiful view over there?”
  • “Mom, can you please just tell me why were are going to [city_name]?” “Don’t worry, you will love it.  It’s beautiful there.”

There are two items I’d like to diagnose.  First, are we actually listening to the question?  Second, did we understand the question?

The first is fascinating to me because I’m not sure we actually are listening.  Many of our reporting organizations are pure intake, create, output engines.  We grab the data that is asked for, create the report and send it out hoping we got it right.  Basically, we are spec takers.  Second question follows right after the first.  Much of the time, we don’t know why report requesters want the data at all.  We could be asking ourselves why they want to know, and if the data we are providing helps them solve a problem.  If we are really cool, we could be asking if they are even trying to solve the right problem or not.

Here are a few questions you should explore when data requests come your way:

  • How are you going to use the data?
  • What is the core problem you are trying to solve for?
  • Are there other data elements or analysis that we have that can help further?
  • Are there other correlated problems that we should try to answer at the same time?

For all intents and purposes, this post is the exact corollary of the prior on how to ask the right questions.  The problem with being a non-strategic reporting organization is that if the wrong questions get asked, the output is doomed to be the wrong information as well.  But even works, sometimes the wrong question gets asked and we still give the requestor the wrong data back.  All this does is create turn – another report request, or bad data going to managers (who in turn trust HR a little less the next time around).

In the case of my brother, he asked the wrong question in the first place.  It would have been much more advantageous had he explained why it was important for him to prepare the children for the outing, have the right clothes, have enough food along, and maybe get them extra sleep.  I’ll never know if my mother would have given him the right information in return, “yes it usually rains on that side of the island, it’s 40 minutes away, and we will be in a friend’s house so they can’t get too wild.”  But the crafting if the right answer is a tight collaboration of both sides creating understanding of what the objectives are.


How To Ask All The Wrong Questions

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.


What is HRIS?

I’ve been exposed to a lot of HRIS organizations over the years, and some of them are great while others  seem to underperform to me.  They all seem do to roughly the same things, but they seem to have varying degrees of effectiveness.  My thought is that while the basic tasks are the same, there is an underlying philosophical position that either exists or does not – and it’s this philosophical position that determines if an HRIS function is a great one or not.

The basic functions are pretty clear:  HRIS often facilitates analytics, records functional requirements, leads technical vendor selections, implementations and upgrades, etc.  I’m going to suggest that while most HRIS organizations do most of these functions and more, some might exclude a bit here and there, and so there isn’t total consistency across HRIS functions, which is ok.

The philosophical position that sometimes exists and sometimes does not, is less about task and more about belief.  HRIS is about understanding what happens when HR executes programs and how these things impact data.  Along with this understanding comes a completely different set of activities than those above.  Rather than being responsive, HRIS becomes an advocate for the enablement of HR’s future strategies: data governance, technology road maps, creating data quality are all keys to how HRIS will push forward technology rather than simply responding to the complains about how awful it is.

HRIS does not just take care of our technologies and help us understand data.  They should be the stewards of data as we create business process transactions in the entire HR environment.  They should understand that engineering processes in a particular way will drive higher data quality, and infuse these principles into all of our functional process mapping activities.  HRIS should anticipate needs from HR strategy and be among the first to understand how those strategies can be enabled with data and technology tools.

When HRIS understands that they are about how the functional is tied data, we become more action oriented than response oriented.  We often mistake HRIS as an organization that makes connections between the technologies when in fact it’s about connections between technology and function.