In a February 2015 opinion piece published in Forbes, contributor Josh Bersin wrote that the “geeks” had arrived in the world of human resources.
He was referring to a move in corporate HR departments toward data-driven decision-making about hiring, promotions, and other aspects of worklife.
This attention to data- or evidence-based decision-making known as people analytics does have a home in HR—but it certainly isn’t confined there, says Laura Zarrow, senior director of Wharton People Analytics (WPA).
“It’s at the intersection of psychology, behavioral science, and management,” explains Zarrow. “We combine the use of data analytics and field experiments to learn about how we can help people be better versions of themselves. And that can include things like habit-formation, grit, improving leadership and management, building teams, and overcoming unconscious bias.”
The vast potential for people analytics—and its applicability across disciplines—has found a home in WPA, a Wharton-based initiative that merges scholarship and research with real-world applications.
WPA’s five faculty co-directors—Wharton professors Matthew Bidwell, Adam Grant, Cade Massey, and Katherine Milkman, as well as School of Arts & Sciences Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth—have collaborated in different ways over the years. Coupled with Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett’s commitment to advancing business analytics, and the success of the annual student-run People Analytics Conference, the timing was right to create an institutional presence.
For research projects based within WPA, investigators partner with either an outside for- or nonprofit organization.
“We’re working with a living, breathing live organization,” says Research Project Manager Reb Rebele. “They’re wrestling with an actual question that they’re interested in and we see a fit where doing original research will help them to answer that question, and at the same time advance general knowledge.”
Not only does this approach help companies and organizations resolve thorny issues or shift to new ways of thinking, but it results in knowledge that can be shared in classrooms—which, in turn, can help inform the newest crop of graduate students eager to make their marks in the professional world.
Zarrow says they hope to create more pathways for students to get involved in professional practice. They took a first step this summer, sponsoring a student to participate in an internship that included six weeks with the consulting firm McKinsey and six weeks with Teach for America. This enabled the student to develop projects in both a profit- and mission-driven organization, discovering the different strengths and systems in each.
“We’re constantly working to bring this research into the classroom and the student experience to inform the development of the next generation of leaders,” says Zarrow. “At the heart of our Penn mission is the creation of new knowledge to be put into practice. Given that our work is done in conjunction with professional organizations, it’s integral to our approach that the insights move rapidly into practical application.”
In a current project, researchers are unpacking how to measure and reduce the influence of unconscious bias in the workplace against women and other minority groups.
“There’s a body of research on unconscious bias, but there’s more work to be done,” says Rebele, who adds that a typical project can take a year or more. “We try to tackle big, challenging questions, and we’re trying to do so with a rigorous scientific approach.”
An initiative like WPA isn’t likely to be found at other schools at this stage, in part because people analytics is an emerging practice.
“This is data-driven decision making, which is at the heart of what Wharton does,” Zarrow says. “It’s bringing that evidence-based decision-making to management, to leadership, to teams, and to individual behavior in ways that it really hasn’t been applied broadly before.”
Rebele hopes to encourage more collaboration around people analytics, and for the annual conference each March to be a place where people can push forward new ideas.
“There’s something really exciting about the fact that this is such a natural continuation of research that has been happening for years, and yet it has the feeling of being something new and fresh,” Rebele says. “It’s a continuation of trends we’ve seen of interest in behavioral science and the way organizations are thinking about people.”
Zarrow notes that using data to make decisions can shake up the power structure—which can be illuminating and unnerving for people who typically just rely on habits, patterns, or instincts.
She emphasizes that this field is ultimately about people.
“We all get excited about data but it’s essential to remember that the data is about people and you are using it to make decisions that are affecting their lives,” she says. “It’s the drive to help people be happier, be better, live better lives. You can’t remove the people part from people analytics.”