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Why HR’s Data Fails Its Business Partners – and 5 Ways to Do Better

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D.HR professionals thrive or flounder based on their ability to provide credible and useful talent data to senior business partners. Because of this, detailed knowledge about how senior leaders view the information they get from their HR counterparts is essential for avoiding the too-common trap of unknowingly under-delivering—and for taking responsive steps to improve HR’s influence.

We combined responses from HR professionals in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 with a targeted follow-up survey to senior leaders to answer the question: When and how does HR’s data fall short in the eyes of key business partners? More importantly, what do those who ARE succeeding do differently?

First we asked HR professionals to evaluate their contributions to business by placing themselves into one of three roles:

  • Reactor—Ensuring compliance with policies/practices; providing tools/systems when asked.
  • Partner—Openly exchanging information about current issues; collaboratively working toward mutual goals.
  • Anticipator—Using data to predict talent gaps; providing insights linking talent to business goals.

Then we asked the same question to a parallel group of senior leaders from the same organizations, leading to a matched set of 113 HR-senior leader pairs.

These viewpoints contrasted sharply in most cases—22 percent of HR professionals considered themselves Reactors versus 43 percent of senior leaders, and 60 percent of HR viewed themselves as Partners compared to only 37 percent of senior leaders. However, these groups largely agreed on whether HR was an Anticipator—18 percent for HR and 20 percent for senior leaders; that is, HR respondents vastly overestimated their ability to become Partners (many were instead seen as Reactors), yet were largely accurate about being Anticipators, for the 1 in 5 that reached this status. These roles are a major driver of whether HR data is being used and valued—only 29 percent of senior leaders relied on HR Partners’ data to a great extent when making strategic talent decisions, compared to 55 percent for Anticipators’ data.

To better understand what Anticipators, Partners, and Reactors do differently, we looked at the specific terms that senior leaders chose to describe the data they receive from HR counterparts they categorize into each role—we sized terms by how often they were used, and these are presented in the graphic below. Most notably, “Future-oriented” surged from Partner to Anticipator, whereas “Relevant” and “Frequent” were actually used more often to describe Partners than Anticipators. Reactors, unsurprisingly, were seen as perpetually too little (“Infrequent”) and too late (“Past-Oriented”).

How They See You

Drawing on these senior leader perspectives, this research has five implications for HR professionals seeking to advance their standing and value with crucial business partners:

  1. Focus on sharing talent analytics that look forward and are strategic, rather than backward and operational, such as projected talent needs, business outcomes of talent programs, and “what if” scenarios for optimizing talent program impact.
  2. Don’t limit your thinking to whether a particular datapoint will be seen by business partners as being immediately relevant. To be an Anticipator leading the way, the value of your data may take time to become evident. Often, data that prove to be the most valuable over the long term face initial (and temporary) resistance because their relevance isn’t clear.
  3. Downshift the frequency of data you provide to business partners if, by doing so, you can place a heavier focus on the quality of the data and its implications for business planning. Data frequency alone isn’t a differentiator for how senior leaders perceive value.
  4. See partnership as a waypoint rather than a destination. Many HR professionals who see themselves as Partners are viewed by senior business leaders as mere Reactors, showing that HR Partners are often poorly calibrated on how they are viewed by the business.
  5. Initiate an open dialog with current or targeted business partners on their views of the talent data you’re providing them to make sure your perceptions match theirs, and if not, how to get them back in sync.

HR’s oversight includes data—often extensive, global, and diagnostic—on an organization’s most valuable asset, its human capital. Yet, in many cases the full value of these data goes unrecognized by senior business partners. Analytical, forward-facing talent practices are a consistent differentiator for HR Anticipators, by far the most influential role HR can play, and the role least at risk of the dangerous overestimation of business value many HR professionals fall prey to.

Want even more late-breaking leadership research to inform your talent practices?

Get an expanded version of our research on how senior leaders view HR. In addition, we’ve just launched six other findings, digging even deeper into our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 database spanning more than 2,000 organizations, 1,500 HR professionals, and 13,000 leaders:

  1. The Leadership Agility Tightrope: Mastering the Art of Change – What makes leaders agile, and what are the consequences of an agile leader stuck in a sluggish organization?
  2. Leadership Development Methods: One Size Does Not Fit All – What leadership development methods matter more for senior leaders? Do technology-based methods live up to their hype?
  3. Engaging Leaders in the Information Age – If not all competency models are created equal, what’s the right level of detail needed to get them to deliver strong returns?
  4. To Grow or to Grab? Risks and Rewards of Internal Versus External Leader Staffing Strategies – Does “growing your own” work best? Is it possible to hire TOO many leaders from the inside?
  5.  Behind “The Best”: Talent Practices of Top-Ranked Organizations – How do top-ranked companies manage their talent differently to get them on the “Best Companies” lists?
  6. Developing Across the Entire Pipeline: A Key to Financial Success – Few organizations successfully execute full-pipeline leader development. What’s the payoff for those that do? 

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

For more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including the full set of 25 highly-actionable findings about the current state of leadership, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent, see

Posted: 07 Jul, 2015,
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