Should People Analytics Take Over Human Resources?


Hello people analytics practitioners, this is a public service announcement:

You are not a neutral arbiter of data. When leading people analytics, you are a stakeholder, not just a data provider. You are in the arena. The decision making arena, that is. Risk, uncertainty, accountability. If these words are foreign or scary to you, then that is a problem. 

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Why have so many folks in people analytics gotten laid off recently? As the expression goes:

“If you’re not at the table, you’re likely on the menu”

One reason, among many, as to why people analytics teams aren’t at the decision-making table is because they don’t see themselves as the people who should be making decisions in the first place. Do you want to know how to avoid being laid off?

First, we must look at reality: people analytics sits squarely at the intersection of internal politics and power within the Human Resources function. It is not a neutral player in the game. We are at a critical juncture in the history of people analytics. It’s time for people analytics to step up or step down. Many prominent members of the community have been culled in the last few months. Let’s stop the trend, and turn over a new leaf.

Historical Context

People analytics, although a relatively “hot” field currently, according to LinkedIn, has quite a long history building to this moment. David Green does a good job of summarizing the history of people analytics in an article called “A History of People Analytics in Five Ages”. In the article, he outlines the five epochs of people analytics: 

  • The Age of Discovery: 1911 – 2010
  • The Age of Realization: 2010 – 2015
  • The Age of Innovation: 2015 – 2020
  • The Age of Value: 2020 – 2025
  • The Age of Excellence: 2025 – 2030s

According to the article, we are currently in the “Age of Value.” I would argue that people analytics is not living up to this “Age.” In this instantiation of people analytics, we are not producing enough value – with a few exceptions – and we are shirking our responsibilities.

What was the reason a people analytics team was created at your organization? Was it because the HRIS team got tired of pulling reports from your HCM/ATS? Was it because the HR leadership team heard what Google was doing 10 years ago and wanted to copy it? Or was it to make real business decisions? The answer to the bolded question is likely the precursor to whether your people analytics team is delivering value today.

If people analytics is to live up to the “Age of Value” – and grow into “Excellence” – we must master power and politics, and ultimately make decisions.


Do you have power? Can you make a business decision or are you only decision support? Power is about the ability to make real decisions. Control. In a recent chat I had with Ryan Hammond on the People Analytics World podcast, we discussed that people analytics does not have the power to make decisions at most organizations, and it often backs away from the opportunity when it arises.

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The wisdom I gathered from the conversation with Ryan was this: when you have the opportunity to make decisions and take accountability, take it. Making decisions and taking ownership can be addictive, and it repositions the future of people analytics to being one of a business leader, rather than another “decision support” function.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the preeminent researcher on the use of power in the workplace. Dr. Pfeffer’s books, Power and his most recent 7 Rules of Power, are guides to the steps of gaining (and losing) power as a leader. Here are his seven rules for power:

  • Get out of your own way.
  • Break the rules.
  • Show up in powerful fashion.
  • Create a powerful brand.
  • Network relentlessly.
  • Use your power.
  • Understand that once you have acquired power, what you did to get it will be forgiven, forgotten, or both.

No one ever told me this. Use your power. I’ll write it again, use your power. Most new people analytics teams are powerless. Creating a new team is the most fraught time in the lifecycle of the group. I wrote a whole series about it. It’s hard. One of the reasons why it is difficult is because other HR stakeholders realize that their power is under threat because the people analytics team has something they don’t: data. Those stakeholders are worried people analytics will expose or upstage them. Or they fear that people analytics will swing the balance of power away from them. They often start to push back.

READ: What CEOs Want from CHROs

You may be wondering, “Do I have power?” If you do, you likely know it. But, if you’re still unclear, here are some signs:

Signs of Power

  • P&L responsibility 
  • Headcount and team size 
  • Budget and resources
  • Technology
  • Reporting to the CHRO
  • Having a “Seat at the table” for decision making

Are you lacking any of the signs of power? Let’s try to change that. 


“With great power comes great responsibility” – Uncle Ben from Spider-Man

Politics is the act of individuals or parties engaging in conflict and debate in the hopes of amassing power. People analytics likely won’t waltz into HR and take over. It will require savvy and decorum often not associated with analytical types.

Recently, Bruce Marable wrote an article, “Will People Analytics Ever Rule the World?” Much to my chagrin, his answer was no. It’s not that I believe people analytics employees should rule the world. Rather, they should, at minimum, be the CHRO’s right-hand person for making decisions, diagnosing problems, determining the course of action, and driving change. This is not someone else’s responsibility.

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On the Directionally Correct podcast, Amit Mohindra wisely spoke about the role of politics and power in people analytics as indicated in this video clip:

“You have to understand who’s got the power. When you’re starting a people analytics function you don’t have much power, but you have the potential for power. At the end of the day you will have a lot of it, because knowledge is power. And you know potentially everything that is going on in the world of HR. And you have to be prepared for that”  – Amit Mohindra

Be prepared for it. Seek it. Learn to play the political game. Also, it should go without saying, but don’t be a sociopath either. Maintain your virtues (as I’ve written about before), even while playing the political game. 

Abraham Zaleznik wrote the first treatise of Power & Politics in Organizational Life in Harvard Business Review in 1970. My hope is that this article can serve as the treatise for people analytics to assume its responsibilities for power, politics, and decision making in HR. 

As I’ve written previously, you and I know people analytics can be better. We all know we can be better. I am committed to making the future of people analytics better.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Will you come be unreasonable with me? Let’s create a people analytics movement. Let’s change the world. Let’s do better. Who’s with me? Let me know in the comments. 

**I also want to give a special shout out to Amit Mohindra and Ryan Hammond for having public conversations with me on this topic which gave me the inspiration and courage to write this article**

Photo by PhotoMIX Company for Pexels

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