LaptopsBig data is all the rage these days. The HR crowd, those perennial trend followers, could not help but take notice. This is the answer to your prayers, we are told. Data software quantifies what is by default elusive and subjective: – i.e., candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, all packaged in a single spreadsheet. Give me an HR professional who wouldn’t dream of that.

Well, it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s much more complicated. As all statisticians know, data can only tell you what is already there – it’s not always the best fortune teller around. It spots patterns, but future trends often are harder to capture. So data holds some predictive power, but you shouldn’t count on it for everything.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out in his best-seller The Black Swan, history is often made by those events that cannot be predicted. All the data available on April 13, 1912, showed that the Titanic was unsinkable. Then it hit the iceberg.

Taleb uses black swans as a powerful metaphor for his theory. For many centuries, people thought that only white swans existed, and they used the phrase “black swan” to denote an impossible event.

That is, until one day in 1697, when the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh came across a black swan in Australia.

What Does This All Mean for Data-Hungry HR Professionals?

In terms of talent acquisition, data can tell you who an employee currently is, but it can’t always tell you who they can become. If you are using software to assess whether a candidate has the skills or experience needed to fill a position, data can possibly tell you whether or not they fit the bill. It can also help you save time by taking irrelevant applications out of the picture.

But if you are looking for someone who will take your business to the next level, beware: There is a limit to what you can learn about a candidate’s potential from data alone. As Meghan Biro puts it for Forbes, data-driven approaches could miss a future Steve Jobs out there. Let’s call this the “data trap” for convenience, although data geeks have come up with another term for it.

DeskAnd it gets worse. Some pretty knowledgeable experts out there think that data is only good when it is small, as opposed to the big data that has captured HR’s attention. In order to be meaningful and useful, data needs context. Unfortunately, we HR professionals rarely have all the data we need to decide what is noise and what’s not. For example, data can’t help us see whether someone is good at time management or teamwork if we don’t have all the data about working conditions in their previous jobs – but more traditional methods can often, though not always, do the trick.

Think of a sales candidate who, according to your software, had not met his targets in his previous job. But what if the reasons for this had nothing to do with his competencies and everything to do with an awful product or poor management? There are tens or hundreds of factors you need to take into account before making decisions, and you rarely have all the data needed.

Of course, one may argue that data is just a tool, not an end in itself. But as it happens with all trends, if taken at face value, data can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So better to use it as medicine: cautiously and incrementally.

At the end of the day, HR is and will remain the art – or science for some – of dealing with human beings. Whether we like it or not, we are not a predictable, fully rational species. Oftentimes, the greatest things in the workplace come from that little pinch of irrationality.

So data can go a great way toward optimizing recruiting, but it can’t ever replicate what recruiters do. At least not until the day when robots are hiring other robots.

Until then, we can keep looking for black swans.



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