In an exclusive interview, Anthony Bruce, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, speaks with Akankasha Dewan about HR's journey from being an intrinsic to a data-driven function, and how it can harness the full potential of data today.

You have been in PwC as a HR consultant for over 15 years. How has HR as a function changed in this time?

I think it has become more important and harder to deliver value. There are lots of organisational standards now.

HR today has to deliver on a more strategic agenda in a cost constrained environment - including adhering to more quality management and programme management standards.

HR leaders also have to work with and understand the impact of digital and data analytics.

How would you summarise the value of people analytics for any organisation? 

I think there’s an increasing demand for organisations to understand their people as demographics change and as the workforce needs and desires change.

We believe that people analytics will help organisations better understand their people, understand what they want and how to engage them.

So it helps organisations become more predictive.

Yes, data helps you look around the corner.

We believe that people analytics will help organisations better understand their people, understand what they want and how to engage them.
It helps you anticipate potential issues, and critically to plan for them – the likelihood of people leaving, whether somebody would make a good employee or not.

Essentially, it can help you take risk out of your business, take cost out of the business, and help you make better decisions.

Various reports have emerged that HR professionals are currently struggling with collecting and interpreting large volumes of data. Is this a trend you have observed?

Yes. It’s a trend, but it is not just limited to HR. I think you see that in other functions too.

We should avoid letting the absence or quality of data become an excuse, and encourage organisations to think big and start small.

Companies need to build confidence in using the data collected and get people to start believing in it.

That will improve the quality of the data, and it would mean HR doesn't spend all it’s time fixing the data.

To do these things, would you be able to name a few key skills or capabilities which HR today needs to be able to execute these things successfully?

So, in no particular order, you would need a deep understanding of the business and what the key business issues are.

You also need an ability to answer the “so what?” question once you get the data.

You need to be curious, and be able to challenge status quo

Finally, there are technical skills associated with extracting data, and with utilising visualisation tools.

But how open are HR professionals to using data and leveraging on it?

People believe HR has not been the most numerate function, that it’s much more about people and you can’t quantify people. Therefore, you can’t put numbers around HR.

I disagree. I’m seeing leading organisations move a long long way from that.

What they are doing is to bring people in from outside HR. They are not waiting for 10 years to train people, but are involving people from outside the process (from IT, marketing).

Companies need to build confidence in using the data collected and get people to start believing in it.
It's useful if you can get people who can do this, because the smarts and the insights you need are less about HR knowledge.

So, if an HR director is about to embark on a big data project, what element should he/she take into consideration?

Be very clear on what the business problem that you’re trying to solve is – that is the most important thing.

The second thing I would say is to focus on the data quality and the analytics you are going to do around it.

Thirdly, the visualisation of the outcome. Because when you create some deep insight based on some good quality data, around a business issue, you can visualise it in a compelling way.

So, I would say, get the data right. Locate it around the business issue, have some well proven analytics and visualise it in a compelling way and help people engage in it.

How can HR professionals use confidential employee data professionally, without infringing on any privacy issues?

I think this is a very good point and we say this is about trust. It’s about building trust or about maintaining trust and that’s focusing on transparency of data.

It also involves ensuring that people understand what you’re using and why you’re using it.

Our surveys tell us people are willing to share if they trust that it is confidential and are clear what is In it for them.

Where is HR heading towards? What does the future hold for HR?

I think you can answer that in a couple of different ways - and I think you can say oblivion.

If HR doesn't adapt, if it doesn't keep close to the business, I think the role will become diminished and it will become a compliance role.

However, since I’m an optimist, I think there is huge value wrapped up in the people in organisations, and HR has a key role in unlocking that.