What are Big Data, HR analytics and artificial intelligence?

A mini-glossary for HR professionals

Growing numbers of new technical terms are emerging among professionals who work with the human aspect in organizations. You have probably already heard about Big Data, HR analytics and artificial intelligence. But what do these terms refer to? Will these advances really have an impact on the HR world? Are these passing fads or substantial changes that will revolutionize HR approaches? Here is a mini-glossary of a few terms that have emerged in the HR world and an indication of the importance we should place on them.

Big Data

The expression Big Data has already been around for some time. It refers to very large data samples that require special tools for processing. These are data that cannot be analyzed with conventional statistical tools.

In many organizations, the Big Data concept is already well established in many divisions other than HR. For example, organizations that produce raw materials have thousands of sensors all along their production line to measure output levels in their plants in real time. Organizations that distribute large quantities of products use Big Data to track movement of their products through their supply chain. Many marketing departments also analyze the vast quantities of information gathered from social networks to detect new trends and gain a better understanding of consumer behaviour. But in the strictest sense, Big Data is not yet a reality in the HR departments of organizations. Even if you have a company with 10,000 employees and you conduct an annual performance appraisal with each one, the data you compile will not be enough to qualify as Big Data.

This could change, however, in the coming years. We can now imagine sensors placed on all employees so that every minute, you can check their pulse, body temperature and skin conductance, in addition to gathering data on their movements within your facility using GPS sensors. You would then have a continuous flow of data that would be much more complex and difficult to analyze. In that situation, you would then truly be dealing with Big Data. If this strikes you as science fiction, note that starts-ups such as Humanyze are already planning to supply the hardware for precisely this purpose. In brief, there really is no HR Big Data within organizations—at least, not yet!

Finally, although Big Data is not yet a reality in HR departments, this does not mean it is completely absent from the human resources field. Sites such as LinkedIn have millions of web pages that can gather as much information as possible on potential candidates. This definitely constitutes Big Data.

HR analytics (human resources analytics, talent analytics)

HR analytics covers everything related to analyzing the human factor in organizations, such as determining the performance appraisal average for employees in a division of your organization. The same is true for calculating the turnover rate, number of work-related injuries, etc. Although this expression is fairly new, a number of you have been engaged in HR analytics for a long time!

But now there is a new aspect. Previously, a few people were involved in conducting this analysis. Today, growing numbers of organizations are creating a genuine HR analytics department. These departments not only conduct statistical analysis but also determine what data to gather and how best to do this. They are responsible for maintaining the quality and integrity of this data.

These departments are gradually recruiting people with an education specifically focused on data analysis: data analysts and data scientists. Udacity has even developed an excellent profile of the skills required for these positions. These specialists are capable of conducting more advanced statistical analyzes that are not limited solely to descriptive analysis, those designed to draw up a profile of the situation (e.g. what is the turnover rate in each department?). They can produce predictive analysis to be able to analyze the links between variables (e.g. is there a link between leaders’ personality and the turnover rate for their team?). This information helps leaders make smart business decisions.

Artificial intelligence

You will hear increasing talk of artificial intelligence (AI), a field that refers to the intelligence of machines and software. This is a vast field focused on automating processes such as reasoning, learning, perception and planning. When we think of artificial intelligence, we often picture androids and robots. But AI instead will become a feature of computers or even objects that already exist (e.g. a car that drives itself).

AI comes with a whole range of new terms. One of the best known is machine learning, also referred to as automatic learning or statistical learning. This field enables machines to learn on their own. Of the various methods for engaging in machine learning, deep learning uses networks of artificial neurons to allow machines to learn ever more complex tasks.

The impact of this emerging field on human resources is still not completely clear. A number of researchers believe that many intellectual jobs will be replaced by machines in coming years, which will definitely have an impact in recruiting, staffing and personnel management. We can even question whether certain human resources jobs will one day disappear. On this point, the magazine L’actualité has placed a tool online that lets you determine whether your job is at risk. And some changes are already happening. In developing our D-Teck solutions, we are using machine learning to create algorithms for skills assessment. We can well imagine how the human resources field will be influenced by these technological advances.

Digitizing the human factor

As you no doubt have noticed, all these terms are associated with the collection and analysis of data on human beings in organizations. This is not by chance, but actually reflects a revolution that will affect all fields, including human resources. This revolution is happening because new technology makes it possible to gather and analyze HR data with ever greater ease and speed. Welcome to the age of the digitized man!