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Data Driven Leader by Jenny Dearborn, CLO and SVP at SAP

Jenny Dearborn is the Chief Learning Officer and Senior Vice President at SAP. As global Chief Learning Officer for the 67,000 employees at SAP, Jenny leads an internationally-acclaimed and award-winning team recognized as the #1 performing corporate learning department in the world by eLearning Magazine.

Jenny is a recognized thought leader in human capital management and general business, and is a regular contributor to Forbes, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post and Fast Company, among others. She has been named as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology by the National Diversity Council, and she was the recipient of the Silicon Valley Women of Influence Award for 2014 and the Silicon Valley Tribute to Women in Industry Award for 2013. She is the Executive Producer of the Game Changers: Women in Business series on the Voice of America Radio Network. 

Although Jenny has deep roots in Silicon Valley, with degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State and Stanford University, she has a strong focus in international business and has traveled extensively in her career. Jenny is on the Board of Directors at the Association for Talent Development, Institute for Corporate Productivity, TheatreWorks and The Commonwealth Club.  Through the Fortune Most Powerful Women Network, she is a mentor for the U.S. State Department to female entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Q. What kind of restraints and roadblocks do HR professionals frequently run into when trying to implement data-driven analytics within an organization?

First many HR professionals are not educated or trained in analytics and therefore rely on their emotional intelligence and intuition to solve people issues in their organizations. When a HR professional does decide to undertake a data analytics project they often run into issues with incomplete or unreliable data, they are told by data protection specialists or attorneys that the data is confidential and cannot be shared, even inside the organization. And finally they launch an analytics practice within the confines of HR and don’t include other business leaders so their results are looked at with suspicion.

Q. The key to receiving any data at all is having engaged employees participate. How can HR professionals create an environment for more engagement among employees?

HR professionals must be willing to explain why they are collecting data and get employees outside of HR involved early in the analytics project. Too many HR organizations launch people analytics projects without a clear idea of the business outcomes that are being addressed and ultimately improved. Including persuasive leaders and influencers early in the formative stage not only keeps the initiative founded in the key performance indicators of the business but encourages employees to not only participate but also contribute to the analysis of the data and the buy-in of the outcomes within the organization.

Q. Data gathering can sometimes be perceived as invasive or “creepy.” How can HR professional avoid having their data-analytics dishearten employees in this way?

First data analytics should always be focused on improving the organization, not identifying individuals who are failing. The goal should be on highlighting improvements not failures. Data that is readily available without compromising confidentiality, integrity or common sense should be the focus of early analytics projects. Negative data should be used as trend identification not a “witch hunt” to single out those who are struggling. In addition always thank about how you would explain to your people how you obtained your data and be comfortable with your process. If you are not sure you are likely approaching the “creepy” zone.

Q. Gathering data seems like the most important step, but you explain that data feeding and data cleaning are the keys to being a truly data-driven organization. How so?

Data by itself in interesting but if it is not accurate or timely it can lead to erroneous outcomes and potentially disastrous decisions. While your data will never be perfect it is important to take the time to verify that it is accurate and also is measuring what you intended it to measure. Resist the temptation to use data just because it is there or someone provides it to you. Always ask about the reliability and validity of the data and set aside data sets that seem too good to be true.

Q. What specific kinds of analytics should HR professionals research?

Of course people analytics is essential to a successful program but financial, market trends, and key business analytics are important as well. To effectively measure impact, HR professionals need to be able to relate people performance to business performance. This is where having a strong relationship with your finance, IT and marketing peers is essential to a robust program.

Q. How can an HR professional better assess whether or not a HR-implemented course or software achieved its defined goals and objectives?

Courses and software are essential tools in the analytics journey but they are not a substitute for sound business objectives and a strategy with the end in mind.  Too many analytics projects fail because the team relied too heavily on someone else’s process or third party software. A powerful people analytics program is a blend of good strategy, good data, and a good software solution to help bring it all together in a coherent manner.

Q. Is it helpful or harmful for a non-analytic savvy HR professional to hire one or more data analysts to perform the heavy lifting?

It is essential to have someone who is a data analytics expert. This however does not need to be a full time person, nor does it need to be someone exclusively from the HR domain. Many successful organizations started with a domain expert in HR, coupled with an analytics expert from the business such as marketing or operations, and someone well versed in data analytics theory. Too many organizations try to go on their own and take smart HR professionals and ask them to become analytics experts. This is too often a failed experience. As the Harvard professor Clayton Christensen said in his Innovators Dilemma research “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Engage early with an analytics expert even if only for a short term.

Q. Other than HR professionals, who else would benefit from reading this book? Why?

Any people leader who wants to be able to identify the traits that lead to success in their team by learning how to identify future top talent in the interview process by asking relevant questions, or want to have their teams excel and create meaningful impact to the organization’s bottom line would benefit from this book. It is not a HR book it is a book about accelerating the effectiveness of your people.

Q. How can HR leaders take their first step to work with their company CEOs and C-suite leaders to gain access to the right kind of analytics right now?  

The quickest way is to partner with others in the organization who are already using analytics as part of their roles today. Many marketing organizations have been using analytics to understand customer sentiment, market dynamics or early trends. Often sales operations teams are using data to predict quota attainment or territory assignments. Don’t try to go it alone. Getting your business peers involved early is the key to a successful people analytics program.

Q. Your books differ from others in the HR space by beginning each chapter with a fictional narrative. Why do you believe this kind of story telling better serves readers?

Too many books on HR talk about how one organization did something that was a success for them but has little if any transferability to other organizations. Our book is intended to be both a teaching opportunity but more importantly one that the average person can relate to. Pam and her team while fictional, are a composite of successful and hardworking people that David and Jenny have met throughout their careers. The intent of using the narrative is to help readers relate to their own situations by hopefully seeing themselves or their organization in the story of Exalted.

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