3 Challenges for People Analytics from Adam Grant

One of my personal highlights of recent years has been my annual pilgrimage to the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia.

Wharton PAC as it is affectionately known is now in its sixth year and brings together an eclectic mix of practitioners and academics at the cutting edge of people analytics.

Perhaps uniquely Wharton PAC also offers plenty of outside-in inspiration on how other fields such as sports, medicine and government have used analytics to drive high performance, change lives and create innovation. It is this – and the knowledgeable and passionate attendees – that makes the event special.

Last year, despite being delayed in London by a deluge of snow on the East Coast, I managed to get to day two of Wharton PAC.

In his closing remarks 12 months ago, Adam Grant issued three challenges to the people analytics field, which you can also watch the video that follows below. These were:  

  1. Bring your data to life to challenge intuition: Bring people analytics to life through visualisation particularly with regards to data that surprises people and challenges their intuition. People analytics will be much more strategic and much more useful when your audience takes away something they didn’t know before.

  2. Research the importance of sequencing: Timing when to do our tasks is important, but so is the sequence in which we do them. Research shows that if you do a repetitive but important task directly after an exciting one, focus, motivation and quality of work can suffer. The ‘when’ question shouldn’t be restricted to the time of day when to complete a task, but also ‘when’ you do it relative to other projects. Grant urged more study from the people analytics field with the implication being that this could drive insights to improve performance, engagement and wellbeing.

  3. Study the effects of our behaviour on others: Whilst it’s important to use people analytics to support hiring and understand team effectiveness, it’s just as important to learn about the impact our own behaviour and the effect it has to the performance and wellbeing of other people around us. This moves beyond trying to surround ourselves with the ‘right’ people to creating behavioural insights to help us become the ‘right’ people.

It will be interesting to hear Grant’s view on how much progress (or not) he believes the field is making in each of these three areas. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a growing number of examples covering his first and third points.


Bringing your data to life to challenge intuition

A case study I speak about regularly is a study that Nielsen did to understand the causes of attrition in one of their consumer business units in the US. They found that for every 1% decrease in attrition, they could avoid $5 million in business costs. The people analytics team tested the two most common hypotheses the business believed was causing attrition. Their analysis disproved the first hypothesis (that female associates were more likely to leave than male associates) but did prove a correlation with the second hypothesis (employees working remotely had a higher attrition risk). However, they also found something the business hadn’t expected – that a lack of internal mobility was a big driver of attrition. Indeed, they found that someone who had been given a lateral move was 48% less likely to leave than someone who wasn’t given a lateral move.

In terms of bringing this to life, Nielsen created a video that highlighted the factors that contributed to attrition and the actions taken to remedy it. As the external version of the video shows below, these two recommendations were i) lateral moves became part of talent reviews with the CEO, and ii) an existing program called Ready to Rotate, which allowed associates to identify that they are ready for a lateral move, was rejuvenated. The video is a really innovative way of communicating the insights from a people analytics project and the project itself is a good example of how to surprise people and challenge their intuition.    

This program enabled Nielsen to save more than $10 million in the first eight months alone, increase the number of lateral moves, and was subsequently rolled out across the company.

Study the effects of our behaviour on others

As Grant said himself in his closing remarks at Wharton PAC last year, Microsoft has undertaken a number of studies to understand how managerial behaviour impacts on their team. The two examples he gives are especially striking. First, managers who spend Sundays sending emails to their team cause each team member 20 minutes of Sunday work. The second study showed that if a manager sits and multitasks in a meeting then your team is 2.2 times more likely to multitask too. As Dawn Klinghoffer, Head of People Analytics at Microsoft, advises in her recent article with me her team found that this has an impact on employee perception of work-life balance. So, Microsoft did something about it and built this insight into MyAnalytics, so now when employees are getting ready to send an email at 10pm in the evening, a little notification pops up and asks if you are sure you want to send that mail – potentially reducing the impact that after-hours email might have on an employee.

Looking forward to Wharton PAC, 2019

This year’s Wharton People Analytics Conference looks to be every bit as enticing as the previous ones I’ve attended.  

The sessions I’m particularly looking forward to are:

  • The discussion on day two between Richard Thaler, the 2017 Nobel Prize Winner, and Case Massey on Behavioural Economics and Improving Decision-Making. Thaler is widely acknowledged to be the leading proponent of ‘nudges’ and will certainly talk to the third of Grant’s challenges.

  • People analytics offers a wonderful opportunity to prove that not only is diversity and inclusion the ‘right’ thing to do, but that it is good for business too. As such the session Moving the Needle on D&I using Data Science and Behavioural Science featuring Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte, and Angela Duckworth promises to be a highlight.

  • Ethics continues to be one of the most important facets of people analytics and perhaps the field’s biggest challenge, so the panel featuring Meg Mitchell from Google with Arvind Narayanan and Lyle Ungar on the Ethics of People Analytics will be of huge interest.

  • As Grant mentioned in his closing remarks last year, he’s seen “executives get mesmerised by the spider web graphs they see in network analysis,” and the growth of ONA has accelerated over the past 12 months. Having had a sneak preview of the session from Manish Goel (CEO, TrustSphere) and RJ Milnor (McKesson) on Driving Business Results Through Network Analytics, I can promise those attending that they won’t be disappointed.

  • One of the most advanced organisations I’ve seen when it comes to people analytics is Walmart, so the session with Ayreann Luedders on how the world’s biggest company is Using Virtual Reality for Employee Training should be one to watch.

  • As ever with this conference, there is plenty of outside-in inspiration on what other fields are doing with data and analytics. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing insights from athletics (from Olympic Gold medallist, Allyson Felix), baseball (Cleveland Indians) and ice hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs).

  • The Start-Up Competition features my good friend and fellow Liverpool supporter Andrew Marritt, so I’ll be supporting him from the sidelines and hoping that Organization View comes out on top in a highly competitive field also featuring great solutions like Worklytics, Atipica, OrgMapper by Maven 7 and PayAnalytics.


Stay tuned for my key takeaways from Wharton PAC 2019

Look out after the event for an article I’ll write on the key takeaways from Wharton PAC 2019, and if you’re going and fancy meeting up for a coffee then please get in touch.




David Green is a globally respected writer, speaker, conference chair, and executive consultant on people analytics, data-driven HR and the future of work. As an Executive Director at Insight222, he helps global organisations create more cultural and economic value through the wise and ethical use of people data and analytics. Prior to joining Insight222, David was the Global Director of People Analytics Solutions at IBM Watson Talent. As such, David has extensive experience in helping organisations embark upon and accelerate their people analytics journeys. You can follow David on LinkedIn and Twitter and also subscribe to The Digital HR Leader weekly newsletter.


David will be chairing and/or speaking about people analytics, data-driven HR and the Nine Dimensions for Excellence in People Analytics model at the following events until the end of October 2019.