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Experimentation and Discovery: How Science Can Help you Transform HR

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) launched a new website earlier this year called We Know Next.  They describe the site as the leading resource for business executives, policymakers and human resource leaders to explore and discuss the latest workforce and workplace trends—providing the in-depth research and insights needed to adapt and take advantage of what’s next.  It’s a worthy endeavor on SHRM’s part and I”m happy to support it.  I am fortunate to have the opportunity to contribute a monthly blog post to this site.  The following post is my first contribution and was posted yesterday.  You can find the original posting here.  

Experimentation and Discovery: How Science Can Help you Transform HR

For being a profession with heavy detail and conformity requirements, I’ve always wondered why we aren’t better at using the rigor of science within our work in Human Resources.  It would seem to me that the structure and process of the scientific method would appeal to us since we spend much of our time working with structure and process all day long. 
And yet, when we look at how we approach our work in HR, there’s not as much science involved as there should be. Science, afterall, is really the practice of studying the nature and behavior of the universe and trying to organize that into a system of explanations that helps make sense of it all.  I would argue that HR is really the practical application of science of the workplace. 
Because my undergraduate degree is in Biology, maybe I am biased to view my work a little differently than others.  I was trained in college in the process of scientific discovery, which is informed by the scientific method.  This is the same scientific method that we all learned about in our grade school years but have probably long since forgotten.  Here is a refresher of how that process works. 
 The Steps of the Scientific Process:
  1. Observation.  Science starts with observation.  This requires the scientist to have a curious mind and an insatiable appetite for discovery and learning.  A great scientist is constantly observing their environments and recording these observations.   Often these observations are focused on a particular area of interest, but can also be very broad.  These observations, over time, provide the foundation for their experiments.
  2. Hypothesis.  Based on their observations, the scientist will then create a hypothesis.  A hypothesis is the scientist’s assumed explanation of what he has observed.  Newton hypothesized about the force we now call gravity based on his observations of objects falling to the ground.  The hypothesis really is a best guess as to why something is happening. 
  3. Prediction.  Once a hypothesis is formed, the scientist will make one or more predictions based on that hypothesis.  These predictions are the answer to the question: “If my hypothesis is true, what would I expect to happen if X scenario occurred?”  One hypothesis will generally yield several predictions. 
  4. Experimentation.  The scientist now conducts tests (experiments) to see if these predictions are accurate.  If the first tests reveal that the predictions were accurate, generally several more rounds of testing are conducted to gain confidence in the results.  If the subsequent testing reveal the same results, then the scientist may declare that their hypothesis was true (in science, they call it a Theory).  If any of the testing reveals the predictions are false, then the scientist will take those results and consider them with their initial observation and formulate a new hypothesis, essentially starting the process again from the beginning. 
Do you remember memorizing these steps in grade school?  It’s a great process because it’s really a reflection of how we learn as humans.  And, it’s a terrific framework for how to improve your systems and processes within HR and elsewhere.  Let’s look at how this might play out. 
Here’s the scenario.  There’s a lot of discussion within your organization about social media.  There are a lot of opinions about how the organization should approach it, but no one seems to have the answer.  They look to you to make a recommendation.  You decided to take a scientific approach to determining the solution.
 Here’s how you might approach it using the scientific method. 
  1. Observation.  You start exploring social media technology to become very familiar with how and why it works.  You pay close attention to how people are using it.  Every time you have an interaction with an employee in your day to day work, you ask them what sites they use and what their thoughts are on social media, specifically at work.  You also do some searching online to see how your employees are using these sites and which sites they are using.  In addition, you probe the company leadership about their perspectives and opinions on social media.  Finally, you seek out examples form your company and competitors where employees are using social media in their work.  You gather a lot of information.
  2. Hypothesis.  Based on all of your observation, you formulate this hypothesis:Your organization would gain significant benefit from allowing employees open access to social media at work given the proper guidelines and training.
  3. Prediction: Based on your hypothesis, you formulate a couple predictions.
    a.     If we give employees open access to social media and provide them with guidelines for appropriate use, there would be no   productivity loss and minimal issues with inappropriate use by employees.
    b.     If we give employees open access to social media and provide them with training on how to use it to create value in their job, the performance of the organization will increase in a measureable way. 
  4. Experimentation.  You then implement your plan with a department who is interested in helping you test your hypothesis (an early adopter).  Before you begin the test, you establish the timeframe of the test and specific targets for how you will measure success (in this case, productivity levels and incidents of inappropriate activity by employees on social media sites).  At the end of your test, you compare your results to your predictions.  If you have favorable results, you either do another test in another department or you present your findings to the organization’s decision makers and recommend rolling the test out more broadly.   If the test results weren’t positive, then you collect your observations of what happened and formulate a new hypothesis to test. 
This may seem really obvious or simple on the surface, but my experience has been that we simply don’t apply this kind of rigor to our work in HR (at least not in most cases).  All too often, we race to implement a solution without having any type of hypothesis or predictions against which to compare results.  When you skip these steps, it’s really difficult to articulate if your solution worked or if it flopped.  As a result, our credibility within our organizations has suffered.  All of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history have been a result of following this simple process.  Why not use it to create some significant breakthroughs in HR?
Human Resources is a complex and dynamic body of work.  People and conditions are constantly changing.  In order to bring some order to this chaos, try bringing a little more science to your approach.  

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Jason Lauritsen