People Intelligence – Top 5 Predictions for 2021

Sarah Katherine Tucker
Sarah Katherine Tucker

Last year was pivotal for the world of work in many ways – most organizations were forced to adopt a remote way of operating, the employee experience went completely virtual, and the continued rise of HR analytics solutions powered by AI surfaced new information about how work was getting done in the midst of the global pandemic. To be certain, in 2020 we witnessed an accelerated maturity of the people function within organizations of every size, industry, and geographical location – and we’re just getting started. As remote work remains the MO and the Human Resources/People Operations function continues to secure budgetary spend for greater productivity and performance insights about their people, we’re confident 2021 is ushering in some positive transformation around people intelligence. 

As in years past, we will continue to see a focus on program and process improvement, technology enablement, and a maturation of data-driven decision making across organizations of every size. Organizational effectiveness is more important than ever, and given the vast amount of change that has occurred within the world of work in the last ten months, it has become critical for HR/People Ops leaders to understand and leverage their people intelligence data (for good) in order to make forward-looking business decisions. As we embark on 2021, we’re looking forward to the evolution of people intelligence in these key areas: 

1. New Processes and Systems Reduce Inherent Bias, Resulting in Actionable, Objective Data 

Last year brought the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront of nearly every business leader’s list of priorities. A commitment to equitable hiring and pay practices, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and open conversation about the state of DEI are a few of the positive outcomes of a greater social awareness. Looking ahead, it will not just be DEI leaders, but employees (regardless of level), who challenge their organization to continue investing in the betterment of workplace behaviors, practices, and regulations as they relate to DEI. 

For HR/People Operations leaders, the focus on DEI initiatives should prompt a close examination of people practices and programs in order to minimize inherent bias and produce objective people intelligence data. From recruitment to L&D, performance management to succession planning, it’s important to understand the gaps in your current processes that may introduce the risk of bias and prevent your organization from making data-driven decisions. 

This year, HR/People Operations leaders will seek to implement technologies and tools to aid them in mitigating bias in critical processes such as hiring and performance management – two areas highly prone to human bias. Coupling these systems investments with training around inherent bias and promoting inclusion will help ensure equitable and inclusive practices. Be assured this isn’t a one-time initiative that checks a box, DEI is a business imperative for all organizations seeking to attract and retain great talent. 

2. Further Democratization of Data Across Organizational Functions  

We previously posited that 2021 will be the year of the data-driven company and for forward-looking companies that currently or aspire to lead with data, achievement of this goal will be fueled by two investments: 

  • Fostering a data-driven culture: The mindset that accompanies a pivot to being data-driven must be embraced by all, and that starts at the top. Once leadership is in lockstep, efforts to become data-driven typically begin within one function, on a single team, and this can, and does, create a silo within the organization. To truly become a data-driven company, the access to people intelligence insights must proliferate all teams – and that’s a culture shift. 
  • Ensuring data literacy across all organizational functions: Shifting to a data-driven culture is a transformational change that cannot be achieved without enabling all employees to become data literate. Assessing the level of data literacy and aggressively closing the gaps will ensure companies are continuing to mature along the democratization curve. Organizations must be transparent and open when it comes to data accessibility and mitigate against data misinterpretation. In order for organizations to succeed in 2021, leaders within every function must understand the mechanics of making decisions grounded in data and fact. 

3. Employee Engagement Metrics Stitch Together the Employee Lifecycle 

For many years organizations have crafted initiatives and programs to drive employee engagement and in 2019 even Gallup was surprised by their own research that revealed 35% of workers in the U.S. were “engaged,” the highest rating since the survey’s launch in 2000 – then there was a pandemic. Organizations concerned about culture and the employee experience began measuring and monitoring through more in-depth engagement surveys and frequent pulse surveys in an effort to ensure engagement remained high while global outlook was low. 

What we learned within this growing trend is that point in time measures of engagement produce short-term initiatives, which are difficult to show demonstrative progress on moving employee engagement forward over a longer period. What should, and will, replace these (still valuable, but unsustainable) insights are measurements and metrics throughout the employee lifecycle.  

4. Data Storytelling Supplants Subjective Narratives 

Going forward, the term “this feels off” should be reserved for your gut instincts, but always confirmed by data. By all means we trust a gut feeling as it’s our physical body acknowledging something just isn’t right. As leaders, we trust those feelings because of their intense chemical wiring in our body. However, we oftentimes find we cannot express that feeling in words because our gut is not connected to the language processing center in our brain. Therefore, the words “this feels [insert attempt to describe the sensation in your gut]” often become the basis for decision making and the main character in the underlying (subjective) narrative that guides such decisions. 

The essential behavioral change that must come about in 2021 is the “trust but verify” response to your gut reaction. This change will be facilitated by AI-augmented people intelligence platforms that not only aggregate the data your teams are generating from the tools they use daily, but provide a real-time portrait of organizational and individual health. This valuable snapshot tells the story behind the data in a manner you can understand, giving you actionable insights for forward-looking decision making. And while you may “feel” as though Team W is underperforming, you must point to that from a place of objectivity. The subjective narrative is dead and good riddance. 

5. Leadership Coaching Bookends Traditional Leadership Training 

Last year, despite the pandemic, organizations continued to invest in leadership development and training as the need to upskill, reskill, and enable the workforce became evermore apparent. Many platforms capitalized on the pivot to virtual learning, including LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and Coursera – all established well before the pandemic, but rightly placed to snag L&D budgets once the world went remote.  

Also emerging at a key time were coaching platforms such as BetterUp and LeaderEQ, which brought executive coaching to leaders across the globe in an easily accessible format. This innovation comes following the (thank goodness) destigmatization of executive coaching as “reserved for underperformers.” In this day and age, everyone needs a coach. Period. Whether you’re a leader navigating significant organizational change, a new manager that desires to become a great leader, or somewhere in between, executive coaching (with the right partner) delivers tangible results. 

The next evolution of the powerful remote learning and coaching movement will be the conscious and intentional integration of the two initiated by organizations seeking to invest in their people over the long-term. We’ve already witnessed the fruitful combination of the two as organizations promote from within and the ROI will continue to materialize as more companies embrace a new way of approaching L&D for leaders and managers. Your people intelligence data should guide these investment decisions as it helps you understand leader succession planning and skill gaps within your current manager population. It’s absolutely not enough to train your people anymore – you must set them up for success with an accountability and application support system such as that of a certified coach. 

All of these predictions signify a welcome approach to leveraging people intelligence data to further cultivate your greatest asset, your people. These aren’t big company predictions or priorities, they’re for every company. We look forward to witnessing how organizations continue to leverage the power of people intelligence to fuel their growth in the new year! 

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