10 reflections from the Wharton People Analytics Conference
The most successful female Olympian sprinter in history, a Nobel Prize winner and the CEO of Deloitte. The sixth edition of the Wharton People Analytics Conference provided a heady mix of outstanding speakers, cutting-edge insights, ground-breaking innovation and plenty to inspire a passionate and knowledgeable sell-out crowd.
In his opening remarks, Cade Massey encapsulated the two key drivers as to why he, Adam Grant, Laura Zarrow and the Wharton team created the conference - to share ideas and to build community. This is something the team has achieved with aplomb.
This was the third successive year I’ve attended Wharton PAC and incredibly, given the high bar set by the first two, the 2019 edition was the best yet.
The three main themes of the conference for me were diversity and inclusion (you cannot succeed with the former without the latter), the (mainly still as yet untapped) power of networks, and the use of nudges to drive better decisions and behavioural change. Throughout the two days, the majority of speakers outlined how one or a combination of these three themes (allied to people analytics) can help propel improvements in both business performance and employee experience/wellbeing.
1. HR IS RIPE FOR REVOLUTION…
…remarked Nobel Prize winner and originator of the ‘nudge’, Richard Thaler, in his insightful conversation on the main stage with Cade Massey. Thaler added that in his view most companies are still not paying as much attention to people analytics as they should be. It’s hard to disagree in spite of the significant growth in the adoption of people analytics in the last 18 months – and despite research showing that people analytics is the one skill most HR professionals want to learn in 2019. The HR profession needs to change. It needs to embrace digital and become more analytical to deliver greater business value. As Geoff Garrett, Dean of the Wharton School, remarked “organisations flourish when people within them flourish.” People analytics and science can help.
2. DRIVING CHANGE - ONE NUDGE AT A TIME
How can you drive change in a complex organisation? The science of the ‘nudge’ as popularised by Thaler outlines how a series of small incremental changes can deliver significant and substantial business results. Thaler’s interview with Massey provided several insights into how to use nudges wisely. These included:
Focus – ask ‘What are our biggest challenges?’ and ‘How can we improve this?’
Ease – if you want people to do something, make it easy
Test – '...everything you do, you should test'. You don’t want to nudge people unless you can be confident you are nudging people in the right direction.
Any doubts about the impact small changes can have was dispelled when six-times Olympic gold medal winner Allyson Felix explained to Daniel Pink (who gave an impeccable example of how to conduct an interview) some of the minor improvements she made to her training regime having won silver at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. The marginal gains Felix made helped her finally win gold in the 200 metres at the 2012 Olympics in London.
There was more on nudges throughout the two days. Kelly Monahan of Accenture (who together with Kimberly Fazio was the winner of the White Paper Competition), described how nudges played a significant part in successfully shifting technical managers at a professional services company towards providing a greater emphasis on coaching. We also heard from Stephanie Tignor on how Humu has built nudging into its employee engagement technology. I’ve seen similar functionality from the likes of Peakon and Culture Amp to name but two other providers. Together, technologies like these are helping people analytics teams and their organisations effect behavioural change when it comes to engagement and culture.
3. DRIVING BUSINESS RESULTS WITH NETWORK ANALYTICS
From a personal point of view, I was delighted to see Manish Goel on the main stage at Wharton PAC. I’ve been a board advisor at TrustSphere for a year and known Manish and the team since 2016. The market for Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) – both the active and passive variations – is heating up and is now being actively used by a growing number of organisations to help generate business value and improve wellbeing in the workplace. RJ Milnor provided a compelling example of the power of network analytics through his use of TrustSphere at McKesson. The insights that the analysis highlighted included: i) high performing sales teams build stronger and more balanced internal and external networks, ii) top sales representatives and sales managers form different network profiles from their peers, and iii) HiPOs develop stronger and more balanced networks than their peers. Together these insights have helped McKesson understand better the networking habits that help drives high performance in sales teams and managers.
4. DATA-DRIVEN DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
Diversity and perhaps more importantly inclusion were prominent themes throughout the conference. We all know (or should know) that the case for D&I is compelling – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because numerous studies suggest it can drive better business performance too. People analytics provides the means to highlight improvements that can be made in our companies and also prove the value. Examples over the two days included:
Stephanie Lampkin described how she was inspired to create Blendoor (which uses AI and analytics to reduce unconscious bias in hiring) by her own experience of applying to join a well-known technology company, which has a ridiculously low percentage of African-American women in its software engineering population.
Cathy Engelbert is the first female CEO of one of the big four, and much of her conversation with Angela Duckworth focused on how people analytics and behavioural science has helped shift the needle on D&I at Deloitte. Engelbert spoke on how all Deloitte employees are required to take unconscious bias training annually. She also provided a number of examples on D&I initiatives the company has taken under her leadership such as i) extending and flexing maternity/paternity leave, ii) ensuring that leadership opportunities are being provided to all, and iii) introducing a wellness program (Vitals) that highlights business trips and time away from home. Other illuminating insights from Engelbert included her assertion that unless leaders work together ‘symphonically’ across the organisation then you are not going to be able to build culture – and that D&I is not just a HR initiative but one that needs to be embraced by the whole leadership team.
Andy Porter and Shuba Gopal described a project they undertook at the Broad Institute on gender pay equity, under the premise of ‘equal pay for comparable work’. They explained the importance of looking beyond the ‘easy metric’ and instead understanding the difference between unadjusted and adjusted pay gaps, as well as the need to understand representation. Not only was this an impressive project, but the way they democratised the data and communicated it within the Institute to foster discussion was a terrific example of how to imbue change through the insights from people analytics.
5. THE ETHICS OF PEOPLE ANALYTICS
Following on from last year’s fascinating discussion between DJ Patil and Charles Duhigg, which featured the topic prominently, came a panel on the ethics of people analytics chaired by Lyle Unger and featuring Arvind Narayanan and Meg Mitchell of Google. With the adoption of people analytics continuing to grow, the amount of data rising exponentially and emerging sources of data making what we analyse much broader, ethics will continue to be at the forefront of concerns about the extent to which we use data to make people decisions. What’s at stake if we get it wrong could be the future of the whole field itself.
Adam Grant put this into context in his closing remarks when he described his biggest fear about the field. I’m sure he spoke for many in the audience by raising his concerns about how far some analytics is moving ahead of science particularly in the field of hiring and selection. Grant had some pretty strong words here emphasising that vendors need to first validate that these tools reliably predict performance, and that failure to do was not only scientifically irresponsible but immoral too. It will be interesting to see if any vendors take up Grant’s challenge of open sourcing their data so it can be subject to review.
Back to the panel. Unger, Narayanan and Mitchell had plenty of words of wisdom around the wise and ethical use of people analytics. These included:
Principles – it’s useful to have a set of principles on ethics that your company agrees upon. Some companies have even co-created an ethics charter for people analytics together.
Data use – it’s not enough to decide whether a model is ethical, but how it is going to be used and applied
Segment – go beyond looking at overall accuracy and segment further by location, population, group/sub-group etc
Trust – a good question to consider before you build a model (and before you use a model you’ve built) is whether it will impact worker trust. If so, perhaps you shouldn’t use it.
Don’t be creepy – don’t use the data outside the context of what it was intended for. Determine whether a predictive model could be done better and more carefully by a human rather than by a machine.
Transparency – look to involve workers and worker representative groups at the outset, and communicate widely on purpose and benefit (to company AND to worker)
For more on the wise and ethical use of people analytics, please refer to my recent collaboration with Dawn Klinghoffer (who leads People Analytics at Microsoft).
6. LEADERSHIP IN THE DIGITAL AGE: TRANSPARENT, AUTHENTIC AND RESPONSIVE
Cathy Engelbert also provided a powerful insight of what it means to be a leader in the digital age. The rise of employee activism means that leaders need to be more transparent, authentic and responsive. Engelbert gave an example where an employee group went to the New York Times in an effort to force Deloitte to stop working with one US Government Agency. This meant that not only did Engelbert and her team need to work through the night to prepare a communication to employees before the New York Times sought comment, but that they also knew that they would have to provide a copy of the email to the newspaper. Engelbert added that one of the hardest challenges for leaders is striking the balance on when is the right time to add your voice, explaining that if you use it too often your impact will be diminished.
You can have all the metrics in the world, but if leaders are not working symphonically across the organisation then you are not going to build culture
7. ARE WE MEASURING PERFORMANCE CORRECTLY?
Marcus Buckingham had some pretty candid observations about how organisations are (incorrectly in his opinion) measuring performance, leadership effectiveness and potential. In what proved an enjoyable tête-à-tête with Adam Grant, Buckingham eschewed many of the programs that are commonplace in our organisations. On potential, Buckingham observed that the way we select HiPOs has “created a form of apartheid within our companies.” On ratings, Buckingham stressed that these are more a measure of the rater than the ratee, citing studies that shows that the rating from the previous year strongly correlates with the rating an employee will be given the following year. On feedback, Buckingham emphasised his view that the belief people want feedback is actually a lie. Instead, Buckingham believes the focus should instead be on cultivating people’s strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. When the Wharton team get around to releasing the videos of the sessions from the event, I highly recommend watching Buckingham’s and Grant’s conversation so you can make up your own mind. For now, have a read of Buckingham’s recent HBR article penned with Ashley Goodall ‘The Feedback Fallacy.’
Buckingham worked with Deloitte to help overhaul their performance reviews, so there was a nice segue way to Cathy Engelbert's session where she outlined why Deloitte had replaced its ratings-based performance management system. The move was controversial especially as the change applied to partners as well as employees. In explaining the transition to a feedback-based model, Engelbert revealed that she believes potential is as important, if not more so, than performance.
8. PLENTY OF OUTSIDE-IN INSPIRATION
One of the distinguishing features of Wharton PAC from other people analytics conferences I’ve attended is the the amount of learning from outside of the field. As well as speakers like Allyson Felix, Richard Thaler and Cathy Englebert, this extended to other areas where we can learn from and apply to the field of people analytics:
Meg Popovic and Ceci Clark spoke to Daniel Coyle about how they foster high-performance and athlete well-being at the Toronto Maple Leafs and Cleveland Indians respectively. Insights included the separation of wellness from fitness, the importance of asking questions and creating the space so the player can be themselves – all lessons we can take into the workplace.
Sebastian Wernicke delivered a discerning and amusing analysis of what makes the ultimate TED Talk. Insights included: the average number of words spoken per second is 2.5 words, the optimal length is 13 minutes and 46 seconds, top ranked talks cover themes such as emotion, psychology, ethics and greed, and preparation time for a 15 minutes talk is a staggering 150 hours. Storytelling and effective communication are essential ingredients for people analytics.
Ayreann Luedders demonstrated that the use of Virtual Reality in the learning space is a (pardon the pun) reality in her outline of how Walmart rolled out VR across their 200 training academies in 2018. The numbers are impressive. 470,000 associates were trained using VR in 2018, with over one million set to be trained this year.
Rita Singh provided powerful evidence of how humans can be profiled from their voice. For example, analysis of one of Adolf Hitler’s speeches from 1935 provides a strong indication that he had Parkinson’s. As we begin to analyse voice in the workplace, it opens up a whole new series of questions on ethics e.g. bias on accents and the fact we can deduce elements such as BMI by analysing voice.
Cade Massey cited building community as a driver for Wharton PAC being created andEva Murray has certainly done that with #MakeoverMonday, a Twitter community created to enthuse and improve the data visualisation community. As Eva rightly said, analytics communities foster a sense of belonging, can connect analytics teams within companies, accelerate learning and help develop professional networks.
9. IS IT BETTER TO LOVE TO WIN OR TO HATE TO LOSE?
In a departure from his usual approach to closing the conference, Adam Grant answered questions posed from the audience. The question from Jennifer Kurkoski (“What concerns you most about the growth in the field?”) has already been covered earlier under ‘Ethics…’ Inspired by Allyson Felix describing her sense of relief – as opposed to euphoria – when finally winning an Olympic Gold Medal at the third attempts (and echoed by the reaction Richard Thaler said he had on learning he had won the Nobel Prize), Grant also said he’d love to see a study on whether you want the person who loves to win or instead the person who hates to lose. He hypothesised that this likely depends on the task and the person, but a deeper understanding of when you want each motivation could be interesting. I wonder if we’ll see someone presenting on this topic at Wharton PAC in 2020?
Organisations flourish when people within them flourish
10. MORE GOLD MEDALLISTS AT WHARTON PAC
Allyson Felix wasn’t the only gold medallist on stage in Philadelphia. One of my favourite features is the competitions at Wharton PAC as they shine a light on innovation in the field as well as showcasing new talent. For 2019, the number of categories rose to four and the standard was consistently high.
The winners were as follows:
Iceland’s PayAnalytics emerged from the pack with founder Margrét Bjarnadóttir giving a compelling presentation of her company’s technology that is designed to help customers close the gender pay gap. The four other finalists also warrant a mention: Organization View(see Andrew Marritt’s outline of his presentation here), Worklytics, OrgMapper and Atipica.
White Paper Competition
The inaugural edition of this competition proved particularly popular with the people analytics leaders I spoke to as it featured real case studies practitioners had undertaken within their organisations. Kelly Monahan (Accenture) gave a terrific presentation on the use of behavioural science to help technical managers pivot towards coaching to take away the spoils. I enjoyed each of the other four finalists too: GM (Michael Arena and Nathaniel Bulkley) on using network analysis to enable adaptive space, IBM (Brian Johnston, Jonathan DeBusk and Pankaj Srivastava) on using machine learning to support reskilling, Uber (Schinria Islam and Dan Willard) on workplace inclusion, and Microsoft (Ankit Tandon and Spencer Buja) on understanding and measuring the productivity of software developers.
Research Paper Competition
The winner here saw a fascinating study by Roman Galperin and H. Colleen Stuart into the gender bias that exists even in expert-based roles such as patent examination. Two findings in their research were i) female patent experts take an average of two months longer than their male counterparts to get to a specific grade, ii) decisions by female experts are less likely to be accepted.
This competition saw student teams compete to submit analyses and recommendations for the Nurse-Family Partnership, with the winners coming from the University of Pennsylvania. Congratulations to Connor Joyce, Eric Lyons and Amarachi Nasa-Okolie. I’m sure a successful career in people analytics awaits each of them.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2020
As well as Lindsey Vonn, who is slated to speak at Wharton PAC next year, one other thing we can look forward to in 2020 is research on what it takes to run a successful and thriving people analytics team. Laura Zarrow announced that the Wharton team was taking this on as a research question and I for one will be eager to see the results, not least to see how this shapes up in comparison to the Nine Dimensions for Excellence in People Analytics Model, I launched last year with Jonathan Ferrar.
A huge congratulations again to the Wharton People Analytics team, particularly the students who did much of the organising of the conference and the creation of the program. Hats off to conference chair Tyler Caldwell and the team.
Summarising the key takeaways from a conference so rich and diverse in content is a real challenge, and I hope I have done Wharton PAC justice here. The only way to enjoy the full experience is to actually go to the conference in person, and I strongly recommend that everyone working in or interested in people analytics should try and get along to Wharton PAC at least once in their careers. Next year’s conference is on 2-3 April 2020.
Finally, the best conferences put networking at the front and centre of proceedings, and this is something at which Wharton PAC excels – as Cade Massey commented it is a team sport to advance analytics. Unfortunately, my memory isn’t quite what it was so apologies in advance for not mentioning everyone, but other than those already mentioned I particularly enjoyed talking to: Sally Smith, Andrew Marritt, Lu Chang, Angela Crossman, Courtney McMahon, Nigel Guenole, Sheri Feinzig, Geetanjali Gamel, Phil Chambers, Caroline Pennartz, John Pernsteiner, Greg Newman, Rebecca White, Don Gray, Alex Currit, Michael Arena, Priya Bagga, Philip Arkcoll, Annabel Koh, Arun Sundar, Brad Hubbard, Arun Chidambaram, Sebastian Munoz, Scott Parrigon, Jeffrey Lee, Karyn Marciniak, Justine Harmant, Tyler Orr, Chongro Lee, Lei Pan, Ray Yang, Dirk Petersen, Dafna Aaronson, Olga Antonova and Meghan Anzelc.
FOR MORE ON WHARTON PAC
The conference always inspires a number of blogs and articles and add these as they appear here:
Read Takeaways from the Wharton People Analytics Conference 2019 by Chris Lyons on the Worklytics blog
Have a look at Chongro Lee's piece entitled Conference review: Wharton People Analytics Conference 2019, Philadelphia
Allyson Felix speaks to Adam Grant in a special edition of his Work in 60 Seconds series recorded at Wharton PAC – see Allyson Felix on Motivation
Keep an eye on the Wharton People Analytics Conference YouTube channel for videos of some of the speeches from the conference
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.
UPCOMING SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS
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.
24-25 Apr - People Analytics & Future of Work, London