Lessons for Social Sector Managers from Prasad Setty, Head of People Operations at Google

How social entrepreneurs or nonprofit managers can use robust data to understand their employees' experiences and advance the organzation's mission through People Analytics.

March 14, 2018

If you’re a social entrepreneur or a nonprofit manager, your employees are critical to fulfilling your mission. Yet, few managers in the social sector collect and analyze robust data on the flow of people in and out of their organization. While the social impact field is often hyper-focused on tracking metrics for funders, we spend far too little time thoughtfully using data to understand the experience of our employees.

This is no longer true in the corporate sector. Increasingly companies ranging from Capital One to Google are pioneering the field of people analytics--applying a data-driven approach to understanding and managing the experience of people at work. As a recent publication from Wharton put it: “For the first time in history, business leaders can make decisions about their people based on deep analysis of data rather than the traditional methods of personal relationships, decision making based on experience, and risk avoidance.”

Robust data--if applied appropriately to the decisions we make about employees---can help us reduce bias, kickstart important conversations about equity, and lay the foundation for fairer treatment of individuals in the workplace. “Everyone wants to know that the decisions that affect their employment experience are made with fairness and rigor,” says Prasad Setty, the Vice President of People Operations at Google, “Having better data can go a long way to ensuring this.”

Even if you work in a nonprofit organization or social enterprise, your job application process is likely powered by a third party platform that collects lots of data on your behalf

Prasad oversees Google’s People Analytics work and is a pioneer in this field. He got his start as an engineer but quickly realized that applying an analytical lens to human resources could be his professional sweet spot. From his vantage point at Google, Prasad says People Analytics is about “about helping organizations make better people decisions.”

 

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Consider for a minute. As a manager, how many times you have wrestled with questions like:

  • Who should we hire?
  • Who should we promote?
  • Who should we assign to this particular team?

Social Entrepreneur Contemplating People Analytics

These types of questions feel ambiguous and risky. The success of your team, organization and social mission often hang in the balance when these types of questions are considered collectively. Yet, if you’re like most people, you rely on instincts, gut feelings, or selective recall when you try to make these consequential choices about who to hire, promote, and assign.

Don’t just produce data for the sake of producing data

“In a lot of places, people decisions happen through emotions or politics,” Prasad say, “Yet, in an innovation organization like Google, we believe that people decisions are no less important than the business and product decisions we make. Companies and organizations of all sizes need to look for objective information and seek rigor when making choices that affect their people, not just using anecdotes or selective examples.”

3 Exercises for Social Enterprises and Nonprofits to Start Applying People Analytics

So, if you’re eager to get started applying data to your human resources processes and people decisions, how can you get started? Prasad doesn’t think you need the scale and resources of a company like Google to get your data-driven practices off the ground. He counsels that social enterprises and nonprofits can take steps to apply people analytics to their own projects, even if they are far scrappier than Google.

Think about it. Almost every organization is now sitting on troves of data that largely goes unused. Even if you work in a nonprofit organization or social enterprise, your job application process is likely powered by a third party platform that collects lots of data on your behalf. And you likely even have data analysis capabilities in house—whether those are people who sit on your finance team or in your impact management practice. What would happen if you deployed some of those skills to analyzing your people decisions? How much smarter could you get about your human resources?

“Find the people with the fluency with data and steer them towards the people side of the house,” Prasad advises social entrepreneurs, “Make People Analytics part of your HR team. Focus your staff on using data to understand the decisions that are most important to business leaders. Don’t just produce data for the sake of producing data.”

...make sure your leadership team is prepared to receive negative results with an open mind and take practical actions to address any surprising findings

If you want to get started implementing People Analytics at your organization, Prasad has three recommendations for what you should do first:

ONE

Map the flow of people into and out of your organization: Think about all of the critical, high-level decisions that get made about your employees at all stages of their “lifecycle” with the company. This should start with the minute they enter as candidates applying to a job and extend to the minute they leave the company for their next opportunity. Get out your markers and a piece of paper or post-its and actually start to draw this out.

“Your flow of people should range from when people get hired to your onboarding experience to the contributions they make on the job to their compensation to their employee experience to their professional development to grooming for future roles to when they decide to leave the organization,” Prasad explains.

Data can help you paint a bigger picture not only of the interests and skills of your existing employees, but also the gaps in your current teams

Figure out what you think your organization’s 10 most important decisions or “moments” are in this employee journey. Then take an audit of the information or data you actually have about important facets of each moment or decision. For example:

  • Do you actually know how many women apply to your jobs vs. men?
  • Do you know the reasons why employees leave less than one year of employment?
  • Do you know what traits the most successful managers at your company have in common?

A Nonprofit Workers Desktop with People Analytics paperwork, coffee and laptop

What are your biggest questions about these key decision points? Figure out what data you already collect about each moment—and then assess whether you have opportunities for future data collection. For example, if you’re not yet completing an exit interview for people who are leaving your company, maybe you could consider starting this practice to collect better data.

Ideally, you should decide what decisions you will be able to make as a result of having this data in advance, and be prepared to respond if you receive negative or surprising information. Mapping the “talent flow” through your organization might reveal painful truths, but getting a handle on this data sooner rather than later can help promote a healthier workplace culture which leads us to Prasad’s next recommendation….

TWO

Conduct a culture survey to understand the health of an organization. Google implements a survey called the “GoogleGeist” periodically to get a sense for how satisfied people are at work. This survey is designed to “get a read on the health of the organization at any given state,” Prasad says.

You can read more about the GoogleGeist here.

Then, try your hand at developing your own organizational pulse survey using tips found:

Again, before you implement your survey, make sure your leadership team is prepared to receive negative results with an open mind and take practical actions to address any surprising findings.

THREE

Figure out “what is driving every single person’s journey”. At Google, Prasad also uses data to “understand what every single person in the organization wants to do and how you help them get there.” Of course, old-fashioned conversations and one-on-one meetings will go far when it comes to understanding the motivations of your direct reports, but if you’re managing a large team, or have several layers of management between you and junior level employees, using periodic short surveys to get a sense of your employees’ interests and aspirations can help you craft strategies to keep them motivated.

...always be focused on the decisions that having this data will help you make more productively or effectively

This data can also help you gather further insights about how to best tap into their talents and passions. Data can help you paint a bigger picture not only of the interests and skills of your existing employees, but also the gaps in your current teams so you know how structure recruiting processes to attract other candidates with diverse--but complementary—styles of working and viewing the world. In general, using both a data-centered and human-centered approach to better understand how your employees work and what motivates them will make your organization stronger.

Complementing Data with Human Judgement

Prasad has learned some hard lessons about the most effective ways to combine data and people decisions. One of his cardinal rules is that data should lead to action, rather than just result in the production of more data. “Avoid just producing data for the sake of data,” he warns.

Instead, you should always be focused on the decisions that having this data will help you make more productively or effectively.

Sometimes this means that you should narrow your focus and just select a few key metrics rather than trying to analyze every single dimension of the employee experience (which would be impossible anyways!)

He advises that your focus should not be on substituting data for human judgement. Instead, the act of interpreting data is still going to “require thoughtful discretion to be applied.” This is very different from how Google approaches others decisions—like determining what ads to serve up as a result of a particular search query. In the case of ads, the tech company can rely exclusively on algorithms. Prasad has learned over time that when it comes to things like hiring and promotions, the perspectives of other people in the room still matter. When he first started in his role, Prasad decided to implement a strategy where promotion decisions for the engineers at Google would be made by algorithms. Unsurprisingly, this quickly backfired.

“We learned that leaders didn’t want algorithms to replace human judgement,” Prasad explains, “So we’re not in the business of substituting for the humans who make decisions. We just want to help them make better decisions. I learned that people should make people decisions. All of our work should be to assist human decision-makers.”

To this end, he suggests that robust and rigorous data should be the starting point for a conversation, but not the only thing that gets factored in when considering the experience of people at work.

As the psychologist Adam Grant likes to say, “We spend a quarter of our lives in our jobs” and yet few of us have rigorous, objective data to understand that experience—both how it compares to that of other people and how it could be improved. The emerging field of People Analytics offers us one way to help us understand how we spend much of our lives and how we interact with the people we manage and collaborate with on a daily basis. In the social sector, having more rigorous data to inform how we grow and develop our people will better position organizations to create lasting social change.

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