Big data, big workforce opportunities

18 Oct 2016

The rise of big data has the potential to reshape how companies and countries optimise their workforce. From planning for employee retirement to equipping people with the right skills to prepare them for the future, the use of data has endless potential that is just beginning to be realised.

When the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), an advisory firm, polled 476 senior executives worldwide in 2015, almost nine in 10 said that the use of data and data analysis was vital or very relevant to their organisation. Human resources firms based in Asia also said that more firms have begun to use data analytics to make better hiring and training decisions.

At the basic company level, managers can use internal data such as point-of-sale information to determine when and where to roster sales employees. “You can also look at details such as your employee retention rate,” said Stanley Liao, regional head of sales and business development for Knowledge Management Solutions (KMS).

“If you run a multi-national company in the tech industry and your younger employees tend to quit earlier than expected, you can look at data such as the reasons that they gave for quitting, the work environments that they want and the kinds of companies that they tend to join after quitting, to try and fix the problem,” he explained.

The Singapore-based KMS provides data analytics and big data solutions to companies in the Asia Pacific, and has offices in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong. It has worked with more than 400 customers, including on workforce planning.

For companies that have a multinational footprint, the use of data can answer bigger questions such as where to site factories and whether to post employees to other countries. “If you know that you need certain skills in your factories, you can look at the statistics of university graduates in the different countries, the employment rates and other information to make siting decisions,” said Liao.

“You can also track how long expatriates tend to stay in a country, whether some nationalities tend to fare better in specific countries, what are the reasons they quit, how much money it takes to send an expatriate versus to hire a local. It takes a few months for any person to learn a market and get familiar with a role, and there is a breakeven point for any role or job. All of this information will help you to make better decisions,” he added.

Tapping both internal and external data can also help companies to trim their absenteeism and employee sick days, and improve their chances of hiring sought-after talent. ConneXions Asia (CXA), a Singapore-based firm, provides a platform to companies where employees can submit their medical insurance claims online. They can also use their benefits dollars for wellness purposes such as fitness packages and yoga sessions.

CXA founder and chief executive officer Rosaline Chow Koo said in the EIU survey: “It’s the data you need to understand – at the aggregate, anonymised level – what the lifestyle habits of your employees are, what the health screening results are, what the claims are, what’s leading to high costs. You can then set up a structure to reward people for getting healthier so you actually have a return on investment.”

For even more effective ways to use data, CXA is looking into developing indices of best practices that compare health data across industries and countries. With this information, CXA can help its clients to develop more tailored and effective ways to boost their employees’ health, well-being and productivity. “You can imagine the power of that data to show what works and what doesn’t work in terms of wellness programmes that move the needle, lower claims costs, reduce absenteeism and increase productivity,” she said.

At the country level, analysis of data can also reveal where the economy is headed, and what needs to be done to better prepare the workforce for that future. “Increasingly, with big data, we will have the ability to see where jobs are being created in a specific area,” said Ng Cher Pong, chief executive of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, at a recent panel discussion on the future of manpower and work organised by The Straits Times.

Olivier Legrand, managing director and vice president of Asia Pacific and Japan at networking website LinkedIn, added at the same panel: “The thing we can do for our workers is to give them actionable insights, to use big data to tell them what it is they should learn.”

As more companies and countries make use of data analytics to optimise their workforce, privacy concerns will inevitably come to the fore. Governments can also help by setting out clear guidelines for the collection and use of personal data. Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Commission, for instance, has a detailed checklist for organisations that spans both employee and customer data collection.

“Previously, companies were only collecting data from within their operations, such as sales transactions and customer information,” said KMS’s Liao. “Now you also have external sources, such as company websites, Facebook pages, LinkedIn and others. Companies that don’t learn how to cope with data management risk being left behind. Those that master it, however, will have a good chance of getting ahead.”