Keeping Up with Professional Development During the Pandemic

As many state and local governments recommend and require social distancing, many professionals are looking at other ways to continue growing and developing. Read this blog post to learn more.


Many employees need to accumulate credits to keep their professional credentials, and they may look forward to large gatherings with their peers each year where they can learn about the latest developments in their industry. But the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way employees and businesses are approaching professional development, with many opting—at least for now—for online learning.

"We've seen a large shift in the manner in which these things are being done," said Melissa Peters, an attorney with Littler in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Since March 31, the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to COVID-19. Within the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had urged residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to temporarily halt nonessential domestic travel and asked people everywhere in the country to carefully consider the risks before traveling.

"Some employers are going further and recommending that employees cancel or postpone all nonessential travel," observed Douglas Brayley, an attorney with Ropes & Gray in Boston.

The White House and many state and local governments have either recommended or required people to practice social distancing through April and even beyond—which is causing some business and professional associations to find creative alternatives to their in-person meetings.

Going Virtual

A webinar or videoconference may be a good alternative to an in-person meeting, Brayley said.

Elizabeth Wylie, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Denver, noted, "Many companies are bolstering their remote conferencing access to ensure it is adequate to meet the anticipated increase in needs in the coming weeks."

Kathleen Sullivan, chief human resources officer at law firm Clark Hill in Pittsburgh, said her firm is using webinars, videoconferencing and phone conferencing technologies. "Our goal is to continue to provide excellent client service while we ensure we are taking care of our employees," she said.

In response to limits on travel and social gatherings, some licensing bodies have eased up on their e-learning limits. For instance, the Indiana Supreme Court and other state high courts have temporarily waived distance-learning limitations for attorneys seeking continuing education credits.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has transformed its 2020 Talent Conference & Exposition to a virtual experience so attendees can stay current and earn professional development credits without leaving their homes.

"We've been working with public health officials and collaborating with the conference venue and vendors to make an informed decision based on the latest science, local public health guidance, and our ability to provide the HR community with the best event and professional development experience you've come to expect from SHRM, in a safe environment," SHRM said on its website.

Should Employers Reimburse Nonrefundable Expenses?

"There is not a uniform practice in terms of [employers] reimbursing for canceled or postponed trips," said Mark Keenan, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Atlanta. He said organizations need to make such decisions based on:

  • The health and welfare of their employees.
  • Whether such trips can be rescheduled or postponed with limited incidental additional expense.
    "However," Keenan said, "most organizations would still reimburse such trips as an appropriate business expense, and therefore should reimburse nonrefundable costs as they would with any other itinerary change."

If the employer paid for the professional development and travel in the first place, any cancellation costs would generally be absorbed by the employer, said Susan Kline, an attorney with Faegre Drinker in Indianapolis. "If it's something the employee signed up for as a personal matter for a weekend or vacation, employers might treat it like any other vacation."

She noted that some states, such as California, require employers to reimburse reasonable business expenses.

Peters said employers are making difficult business decisions as they struggle with the economic impact of COVID-19. "There are legal aspects, but whether or not you want to reimburse people for professional development should be aligned with the company's philosophy and business needs."

The best practice for each business is highly dependent upon its business needs, industry and workforce, Wylie said, and is subject to change as the recommendations of public health agencies evolve.

Stay Updated

"The employer community seems to be very proactive in communicating updates on the coronavirus and the impact on their workforces," Keenan observed. For now, he said, the best practices are to not panic and to monitor the CDC's website.

"The situation is evolving rapidly," Sullivan said. "It is important to stay up-to-date with the current information."

SOURCE: Nagele-Piazza, L. (13 April 2020) "Keeping Up with Professional Development During the Pandemic" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/keeping-up-with-professional-development-during-the-pandemic.aspx


Facial Analysis Technology in the Workplace Brings Risks

Technology is a forever-changing topic and a forever-advancing field. Most recently, facial recognition technology has been a topic of discussion when talking about technology. Read this blog post to learn more.


Facial recognition technology has been under the microscope as organizations and lawmakers re-evaluate its use in the wake of global protests about racial injustice. Technology giants Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all recently announced that they would stop selling facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States, citing the technology's potential for violating human rights and concerns about racial profiling.

Recent research has shined a light on some inherent dangers of using the technology. One study by MIT and Stanford University found that three commercially released facial analysis technologies showed skin-type and gender biases. The study found that the technology performed better for men and lighter-skinned people and worse for darker-skinned women.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as other human rights groups and privacy advocates also have raised concerns about privacy and surveillance issues tied to use of the technology.

Evaluating Job Candidates

Some vendors in the human resources industry have long used facial analysis technology to help evaluate video interviews with job candidates. These artificial intelligence (AI) tools scan facial expressions and movements, word choice, and vocal tone to generate data that help recruiters make hiring decisions. Vendors say the tools can help reduce hiring costs and improve efficiencies by speeding the screening and recruiting of new hires.

But experts say that if these facial analysis algorithms aren't trained on large or diverse-enough datasets, they're prone to consistently identify some applicants—such as white men—as more employable than others. For example, the MIT and Stanford study found that one major U.S. technology company claimed an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent for a facial recognition algorithm it designed. Yet the dataset it was trained on was more than 77 percent male and more than 83 percent white.

Josh Bersin, a global HR industry analyst and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy in Oakland, Calif., said some HR vendors have embedded facial analysis technology into their video-interviewing tools with the goal of identifying job candidates' demonstrated stress, misrepresentations and even mood.

"These vendors have tried very hard to validate unbiased analysis, but they are taking risks by doing so," Bersin said. "The best solution is to use these tools very carefully and make sure you perform tests across very large samples before you trust these systems."

The use of facial analysis technology to evaluate job candidates is "very problematic," said Frida Polli, founder and CEO of the New York-based assessment company Pymetrics. "The science of the technology in terms of what it really says about someone is extremely new and not well-validated, and certainly not well-validated for HR uses," she said.

Results should be viewed with a skeptical eye if the technology is used for any assessment of job candidates' character or behavior, said Elaine Orler, CEO of the Talent Function, a talent acquisition consulting firm in San Diego. "The technology solutions aren't accurate in this area, and they leave too much to chance in terms of creating false positives or negatives," she explained. "To understand micro-expressions, for example, would require a deeper understanding of that one person's behaviors and not just a crowdsourced base line of everyone's expected expressions."

Some experts say facial recognition technology isn't without value in the workplace, especially in the age of COVID-19. Orler said using the technology as a biometric tool to grant access to parts of a building or as a touchless replacement for time clocks can be a good solution to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

"Badges and other products that hold credentials often need to touch products that have been touched by others, and fingerprint scanners also have such dangers," she said.

Legal and Privacy Concerns

The use of facial recognition technology is now governed by laws in a growing number of states. Kwabena Appenteng, an attorney specializing in workplace privacy and information security with Littler in Chicago, said most employers are now aware of the landmark Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) that requires companies implementing facial recognition technology in that state to obtain consent from subjects and to provide a written policy about how collected data will be stored, protected and used. Appenteng said more states—including California and Texas—also now require employers using the technology to satisfy certain compliance obligations.

Illinois and Maryland also have placed restrictions on facial analysis technology specifically for use in evaluating job candidates. California and New York have proposed similar legislation to regulate the use of artificial intelligence in assessing job applicants, said Monica Snyder, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Boston and New York City and a member of the firm's data security and workplace privacy practice.

Illinois enacted its Artificial Intelligence Video Interview Act earlier this year, a law that requires companies using the technology to notify applicants in advance that the technology will be used to analyze their facial expressions, to obtain consent for its use, to explain to applicants how AI works and to destroy video interviews within 30 days if a candidate makes such a request, Snyder said.

"Employers need to tread carefully on how they use this technology," she said.

Appenteng said there's also the issue of getting employee buy-in for using facial recognition technology since many may consider it a risk to their privacy. "Employers may therefore want to consider providing their employees with a notice that explains facial recognition technology in easy-to-understand terms to placate any of those employee concerns," he said.

SOURCE: Zielinski, D. (09 June 2020) "Facial Analysis Technology in the Workplace Brings Risks" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/facial-analysis-technology-workplace-brings-risks.aspx


A new tool for employee temperature checks ensures safety and security of workers

As employers begin to move employees back into the workplace, they have to be mindful of new legal guidance that has come from the CDC and HIPAA. In regards to new legal guidelines set into place, employers and management teams will now have to check employee temperatures. Read this blog post to learn more.


Temperature checks will be mandated at workplaces once employees return to the office, due to legal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but privacy concerns could heat up among workers concerned for their security.

“It’s now permissible to take employee temperatures, but if employers store it and keep track of it, there’s no exemption from HIPAA and identity laws,” says Dan Clarke, president of IntraEdge — an Arizona-based tech company.

IntraEdge developed a kiosk that privately takes employees’ temperatures, and only shares the results with the employee, keeping any health information concealed from HR. Instead, managers are simply notified if the kiosk gave their employee permission to enter the office, or not, which completely eliminates the potential for HIPAA violations, Clarke says. The kiosk, called Janus, can also prevent sick employees from entering the office if their temperature is too high.

Clarke spoke in a recent interview about how Janus can help employers protect their workforce, while adhering to privacy laws.

How does Janus help prevent the spread of COVID-19?

If we want to limit exposure to COVID-19, we can’t assign someone in the office to take everyone’s temperature; it’s not efficient and it puts more people at risk. Employers need a digital solution, one that puts them in compliance with HIPAA and privacy laws.

Janus uses an accurate thermal camera to take the temperature of the user. Before using it, employees would need to sign up online and provide information to confirm their identity. After that’s done, they’d go to the kiosk and present their identification through their phone. The kiosk will ask them a few questions about how they’re feeling and the camera will take their temperature. The normal temperature range for each employee is personalized based on the individual’s age and medical history. Many people don’t realize our normal temperature increases as we age. If an employee reads at an unhealthy temperature, they’re not allowed inside the office.

How does this help employers stay compliant with HIPAA and other privacy laws?

Employers don’t have access to their worker’s medical history, or the temperatures read by Janus. The kiosk doesn’t display an employee’s temperature on screen. Instead, the employee will receive a text message telling them their temperature and whether they’re allowed inside the office. Printouts are also available for employees who don’t have smartphones.

Is HR or a manager notified when employees aren’t allowed in the office?

Janus doesn’t share with HR what employees’ temperatures were, only if they were given a “yes” or “no” to enter the office. They can receive a text message whenever an employee is given a “no.” This helps employers stay compliant with HIPAA and privacy laws because they never see the full results, and they’re not stored. But it also helps them keep track of their workforce.

It can also be programmed to notify a security officer that someone didn’t pass the temperature check to ensure compliance. We can also program the kiosk to distribute security badges only to employees who pass the temperature check.

Before coronavirus, employees sometimes came to work sick out of fear their colleagues/managers would question their dedication to their job. Do you think this product will help change that after the crisis is over?

I think the crisis is changing the perception of remote work enough that people will be comfortable saying they’re going to work from home when they don’t feel well. Janus can definitely help enforce it, if the employer chooses, but we wanted to ensure it was useful for employers after the crisis is over. It can also be used to clock employees in and out for work and as office security.

SOURCE: Webster, K. (08 June 2020) "A new tool for employee temperature checks ensures safety and security of workers" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/a-new-tool-for-employee-temperature-checks-ensures-safety-and-security-of-workers


How to Monitor Your Employees — While Respecting Their Privacy

A recent survey found that 55 percent of millennials that had partaken in the survey plan to leave employers that prioritize profits over people. Read this blog post to learn more.


Even before Covid-19 sent an unprecedented number of people to work from home, employers were ramping up their efforts to monitor employee productivity. A 2018 Gartner report revealed that of 239 large corporations, 50% were monitoring the content of employee emails and social media accounts, along with who they met with and how they utilized their workspaces. A year later an Accenture survey of C-suite executives reported that 62% of their organizations were leveraging new tools to collect data on their employees.

These statistics were gathered before the coronavirus pandemic, which has made working from home a necessity for thousands of companies. With that transition having happened so rapidly, employers are left wondering how much work is actually going on. The fear of productivity losses, mingling with the horror of massively declining revenues, has encouraged many leaders to ramp up their employee monitoring efforts.

There is no shortage of digital tools for employee monitoring — or, as privacy advocates put it, “corporate surveillance.” Multiple services enable stealth monitoring, live video feeds, keyboard tracking, optical character recognition, keystroke recording, or location tracking. One such company, Hubstaff, implements random screen capture that can be customized for each person and set to report “once, twice, or three times per 10 minutes,” if managers so wish. Another company, Teramind, captures all keyboard activity and records “all information to comprehensive logs [that] can be used to formulate a base of user-based behavior analytics.”

Despite the easy availability of options, however, monitoring comes with real risk to the companies that pursue it. Surveillance threatens to erode trust between employers and employees. Accenture found that 52% of employees believe that mishandling of data damages trust — and only 30% of the C-suite executives who were polled reported themselves as “confident” that the data would always be used responsibly. Employees who are now subject to new levels of surveillance report being both “incredibly stressed out” by the constant monitoring and also afraid to speak up, a recipe for not only dissatisfaction but also burnout, both of which — ironically — decrease productivity. Worse, monitoring can invite a backlash: In October of 2019 Google employees went public about spy tools allegedly created to suppress internal dissent.

Tempting as it may be to implement monitoring in the service of protecting productivity, it also stands in stark contrast to recent trends in the corporate world. Many organizations have committed to fostering a better employee experience, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. There are not only strong ethical reasons for having one’s eye on that ball, but good bottom line reasons as well. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey from 2019 found that 55% of millennials plan to leave employers that prioritize profits over people. Retention — which should be a priority for all companies, given the high expense of making and onboarding new hires — becomes difficult and costly for companies that don’t reflect those values. Given the risk of alienating employees coupled with the possibility of error and misapplication of these tools, it is quite likely that, for many, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.

Even so, some companies will still find it worth the tradeoffs. Justified fear of a collapsing economy reasonably drives employers to monitor their employees to ensure they are being productive and efficient. Indeed, they may even have ethically admirable aims in doing so, such as for the sake of their employees’ health and the health of the country as a whole. Furthermore, if the tools are deployed with the goal of discovering which employees are in need of additional help — more on this below — that may be all the more reason to monitor. But if your business concludes that it ought to monitor employees (for whatever reason), it is important to do so in a way that maximally respects its employees.

Here are six recommendations on how to walk this tightrope.

1. Choose your metrics carefully by involving all relevant stakeholders.
Applying numbers to things is easy, as is making quick judgments based on numeric scores spit out by a piece of software. This leads to both unnecessary surveillance and ill-formed decisions. It’s simply too easy to react to information that, in practice, is irrelevant to productivity, efficiency, and revenue. If you insist on monitoring employees, make sure what you’re tracking is relevant and necessary. Simply monitoring the quantity of emails written or read, for instance, is not a reliable indicator of productivity.

If you want the right metrics, then engage all of the relevant stakeholders in the process to determine those metrics, from hiring managers to supervisors to those who are actually being monitored. With regards to employee engagement it is especially important to reach both experienced and new employees, and that they are able to deliver their input in a setting where there is no fear of reprisal. For instance, they can be in discussion with a supervisor — but preferably not their direct supervisor, who has the authority to fire or promote them.

2. Be transparent with your employees about what you’re monitoring and why. 
Part and parcel of respecting someone is that you take the time to openly and honestly communicate with them. Tell your employees what you’re monitoring and why. Give them the opportunity to offer feedback. Share the results of the monitoring with them and, crucially, provide a system by which they can appeal decisions about their career influenced by the data collected.

Transparency increases employee acceptance rates. Gartner found that only 30% of employees were comfortable with their employer monitoring their email. But in the same study, when an employer shared that they would be monitoring and explained why, more than 50% of workers reported being comfortable with it.

3. Offer carrots as well as sticks.
Monitoring or surveillance software is implicitly tied to overseers who are bent on compliance and submission. Oppressive governments, for example, tie surveillance with threats of fines and imprisonment. But you don’t need to pursue monitoring as a method of oppression. You would do better to think about it as a tool by which you can figure out how to help your employees be more productive or reward them for their hustle. That means thinking about what kinds of carrots can be used to motivate and boost relevant numbers, not just sticks to discourage inefficiencies.

4. Accept that very good workers will not always be able to do very good work all the time — especially under present circumstances.
These are unique times and it would be wrong — both ethically and factually — to make decisions about who is and who is not a good employee or a hard worker based on performance under these conditions. Some very hard-working and talented employees may be stretched extraordinarily thin due to a lack of school and child care options, for instance. These are people you want to keep because, in the long run, they provide a tremendous amount of value. Ensure that your supervisors take the time to talk to their supervisees when the numbers aren’t what you want them to be. And again, that conversation should reflect an understanding of the employee’s situation and focus on creative solutions, not threats.

5. Monitor your own systems to ensure that people of color and other vulnerable groups are not disproportionately affected.
Central to any company’s diversity and inclusion effort is a commitment to eliminating any discrimination against traditionally marginalized populations. Precisely because they have been marginalized, those populations tend to occupy more junior roles in an organization — and junior roles often suffer the most scrutiny. This means that there is a risk of disproportionately surveilling the very groups a company’s inclusivity efforts are designed to protect, which invites significant ethical, reputational, and legal risks.

If employee monitoring is being used, it is important that the most junior people are not surveilled to a greater extent than their managers, or at least not to an extent that places special burdens on them. For instance, it would be particularly troublesome if very junior employees received a level of surveillance — say, sentiment analysis or keyboard logging — that only slightly more senior people did not. A policy that says, “This is how we monitor all employees” raises fewer ethical red flags than a policy that says, “This is how we monitor most employees, except for the most junior ones, who undergo a great deal more surveillance.” Equal application of the law, in other words, legitimately blunts the force of charges of discrimination.

6. Decrease monitoring when and where you can.
The impulse to monitor is understandable, especially in these times. But as people return to their offices — and even as some continue to work from home — look for places to pull back monitoring efforts where things are going well. This communicates trust to employees. It also corrects for the tendency to acquire more control than necessary when circumstances are not as severe as they once were.

At the end of the day, your employees are your most valuable assets. They possess institutional knowledge and skills others do not. You’ve invested time and money in them and they are very expensive to replace. Treating them with respect is not only something they deserve — it’s crucial for a company’s retention efforts. If your company does choose to move ahead with surveillance software in this climate, you need to remind yourself that you are not the police. You should be monitoring employees not with a raised baton, but with an outstretched hand.

SOURCE: Blackman, R. (28 May 2020) "How to Monitor Your Employees — While Respecting Their Privacy" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/05/how-to-monitor-your-employees-while-respecting-their-privacy


Work from home forever? Businesses are divided on that

With many businesses working remotely still due to the coronavirus, many businesses are debating on if working from home will become permanently and are even divided on that decision. Read this blog post to learn more.


The work-from-home movement is gaining steam in Silicon Valley as a flurry of companies — big and small — are embracing remote-working policies beyond the pandemic. But even as some executives extol its virtues, other tech leaders aren’t so sure, opening a growing divide inside the industry over the future of work. It’s a worthy debate.

On Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his company will start allowing some existing employees to work from home permanently. He said Facebook will also “aggressively open up remote hiring” for engineering talent in areas it doesn’t have an office, saying as much as 50% of the company’s employees could eventually work remotely within 10 years. In similar fashion, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke said his e-commerce software company will allow its employees to work from home indefinitely, adding he expects that most of his staff will work remotely going forward. The days of “office centricity is over,” the executive posted on social media. The two companies join Twitter, which said last week it will let employees work from home as standard practice as well.

Not everyone in technology is on board. Take-Two Interactive Software CEO Strauss Zelnick said on an investor call this week that he believes sustained strong productivity will get more difficult the longer people are forced to work from home, adding that “there is no substitute for in-person collaboration and connection.” That follows comments from Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella, who expressed concern in an interview with the New York Times last week that early positive remote-work productivity metrics may mask underlying deficiencies, in terms of managing and mentoring employees. He also raised worries about potential burnout and mental-health issues. “Maybe we are burning some of the social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?” he asked.

There’s something to be said for this pushback. Sure, there are many pluses to offering off-site work flexibility — including better employee retention and the ability to hire from a more diverse talent base in other geographies — but corporations should realize the work-from-home trend isn’t a panacea. In fact, there are significant drawbacks and challenges that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As Zelnick pointed out, there are unquantifiable benefits derived from being in the same physical location. Scheduled videoconferencing meetings don’t engender the same spontaneous creativity compared to the many back-and-forth brief conversations during a typical day at an office. And nothing beats face-to-face interactions for building the relationships and trust required to persuade your colleagues on big decisions.

It’s notable that even as Facebook projects confidence and forward-looking thought leadership in its charge toward its new work-from-home culture, it is implementing the change slowly. Zuckerberg said only the company’s senior engineers with strong performance reviews will be initially allowed to apply for remote-work flexibility, adding it will be a measured transition before extending the policy to non-engineers.

To be frank, it wouldn’t surprise me to see many of these companies slow down their transitions to remote working. After all, the world is only a few months into this massive remote-work experiment. The initial productivity benefits may dissipate and significant negative consequences may well appear over time. Best not to rush into any drastic decisions.

SOURCE: Kim, T. (26 May 2020) "Work from home forever? Businesses are divided on that" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/articles/work-from-home-forever-businesses-are-divided-on-that


Bots Help Government Tackle COVID-19 Challenges

As many are fighting the battle with various programming software applications, at this time it is helping various agencies with coronavirus data collection. Read this blog post to learn more.


The war against the coronavirus is being fought with science, social distancing, health care … and bots, software applications that run repetitive tasks over the Internet. Public-sector agencies are programming bots to speed the collection and analysis of data about coronavirus infection rates, transform paper-based procurement processes into digital ones, and help employees conduct business when in-person contact is no longer an option.

Robotic Process Automation in the Public Sector

Federal agencies are deploying robotic process automation (RPA) to overcome process or administrative hurdles. The General Services Administration (GSA) used the technology—which automates manual, repetitive tasks through the use of bots—to help track the spread of COVID‑19 in counties across the United States where the GSA has buildings.

Jim Walker, director of public-sector services for UiPath, a New York-based RPA platform provider, said the GSA used bots to gather and update COVID-19 infection data when agency employees became overwhelmed as infection counts rapidly rose. Walker said the GSA has trained about 50 of its employees in the use of RPA to create bots for the agency.

In another case, a government agency in Ireland used RPA to help process the burgeoning number of unemployment benefit claims. When laid-off workers submit an unemployment claim, a bot conducts optical character recognition on data and determines where a person has been employed. When employment and benefits eligibility are confirmed, the bot can deposit benefit funds directly into employee bank accounts.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) deployed a bot to check on employees working from home. "Previously, the CMS would send out e-mails to confirm the health and welfare of its remote workers but would receive many thousands of e-mails a day in return," Walker said. "A small CMS team was tasked with reviewing those e-mails and creating regular status reports, but it became hard to keep up."

CMS deployed a bot that automatically checks the databases employees regularly access to perform their work. If an employee hasn't logged on for a specified period of time, the bot triggers a welfare check, Walker said.

Creating and Deploying Bots

Experts say RPA platforms can often be quickly installed. Because many basic RPA bots are of the "no-code" or "low-code" variety—meaning they require little or no software coding skills but rather, they function in drag-and-drop fashion—they often can be created, tested and rolled out in a matter of weeks, depending on the use case.

But experts say RPA platforms still require enterprise-grade security protections and the oversight of a designated team to manage bot development and deployment across the organization.

"If the automation challenge is COVID‑19-related, you don't have months or in some cases even weeks to get automation in place," said Keith Nelson, senior director of public-sector services for Automation Anywhere, an RPA platform provider in Arlington, Va. "Organizations often need immediate relief. In the case of HR, once a bot is created, users often simply have to send an e‑mail with a specified subject line to a certain address to activate it. In many cases, there's no need for any coding."

Automation Anywhere recently partnered with Microsoft to create a bot to help process COVID‑19 case forms for the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. Nelson said the initiative was in response to a directive from the World Health Organization to collect clinical data and case forms for coronavirus patients to identify infection trends more quickly.

Expanding Uses of RPA

Some government agencies have turned to bots to help them with onboarding. In this use, RPA can be programmed to verify a candidate's information, fill in and process new-hire forms, transfer that information into HR databases, send required paperwork to new hires, and help provision equipment such as laptops.

HR and IT functions are using automation for such tasks as creating and distributing remote-working agreements for employees, and transforming emergency funding requests from paper to digital formats.

"Many government agencies didn't have work-from-home agreements or support response agreements until COVID‑19 hit," said Steve Witt, director of public sector for Nintex, a Seattle-based automation and process management company. "Many procurement and other processes had been conducted on paper before, where people would sign forms and hand them off to HR or to a manager."

HR functions are also using no-code automation platforms to quickly create digital forms for such tasks as tracking essential employees coming to and leaving work. For example, to track exposure and risk to employees, the forms might sit on a kiosk at a reception desk and request details about where employees have recently traveled.

"If HR needs to quickly build out a digital form, they can do it without requiring support from IT," Witt said. "That's helpful during the COVID crisis because IT is often scrambling to keep up with the technical-support demands of employees now working from home."

Companies are using RPA with popular collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams, and there are concerns that RPA will replace HR or IT jobs after the COVID‑19 crisis begins to recede. Experts say that, to date, the technology more often has replaced tasks, not entire jobs.

"A government employee might have 50 things to do every day but can only get to 40 of them," Walker said. "If you can automate those 10 tasks with bots, you haven't taken a job away but rather helped that worker do his or her job more efficiently."

SOURCE: Zielinski, D. (27 April 2020) "Bots Help Government Tackle COVID-19 Challenges" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/bots-help-government-tackle-covid19-challenges.aspx


Virtual Presentations, Meetings Require New Approaches for Success

While working remotely has become the new norm for many employers and employees, it's important to keep a strong communication base, especially with team meetings and presentations. Read this blog post from SHRM on various strategies to succeed in leading online meetings.


As more people work from home, many are being asked to take on tasks and use technologies with which they have only a passing familiarity, such as leading team meetings and presenting online rather than in person.

SHRM Online spoke with experts about the different strategies required to succeed in those scenarios, as well as how to use the features embedded in videoconferencing and Web conferencing platforms.

Presenting Online

Giving presentations online rather than in person requires thinking about how to design PowerPoint slides, keep remote audiences engaged when they're facing more distractions and troubleshoot technology snafus that arise in these situations.

Pick up the pace. Attention spans dwindle during virtual presentations. "That doesn't mean you need to cut the amount of your presentation content, but rather that you spread it over more slides so there is more frequent on-screen change for audiences," said Roger Courville, a Portland, Ore.-based speaker and trainer who teaches people how to communicate online and is the author of The Virtual Presenter's Handbook (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009).

Be proactive in guiding audience attention. Presenters should assume that some people are multitasking during an online presentation, Courville said. "You have to ask what the audience is taking away if at times they only glance at what you're presenting," he said. "One thing you can do is make sure the titles on your slides are more descriptive and capture the main point of the slide."

Virtual presenters also should use their voices to guide viewer attention, said Andrew Dlugan, a communications and presentation skills trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Don't rely only on slide pointers or annotation tools provided on Web conferencing platforms.

"What happens if some people aren't looking at their screens for a while?" he said. "A presenter might say something like 'What do you see below the picture of the woman on this slide?' or 'Look at the data on the right-hand portion of your slide.' "

Courville said presenters should monitor audience attention levels by checking whether people are actively participating on chat features or submitting questions during a moderated Q&A. Some Web conferencing platforms also have a feature called an attention indicator that detects the active application on audience members' screens. If a conference participant has switched to checking e-mail, for example, that tool would register the change. Courville said that while the tool shouldn't be used punitively, it can help presenters get a read on when attendees may be drifting away so they can switch tactics, such as by introducing an audience poll or a short Q&A.

Unnecessary flair can cause technical problems. The use of animation and complex transitions on slides might work well in person, but they can cause problems online, said Bethany Auck, founder and creative director of SlideRabbit, a presentation design and production company in Denver.

Web conferencing platforms handle slide upload and display differently, and experts say it's best to go simple when designing slides, keep file sizes low, and avoid the use of animations or complicated transition techniques between slides.

Consider slide contrast issues and viewer screen size. Assume that many will be viewing your online presentation from smaller laptop screens or even on mobile devices, said Ken Molay, president of Webinar Success, a Web conferencing training and consulting company in Cary, N.C. "Design your slides as if you're creating them for viewers in the back of a large auditorium," Molay said. "Use larger fonts and plenty of white space, and don't put things near the edges of your slides."

Keep in mind that you won't be able to see how your slides display on your audience's screens, and your viewers' computer settings for contrast, brightness and color may vary widely. "Remember that light colors can easily wash out online. Stick with high-contrast color designs, and avoid using subtle tone variations that can be difficult for virtual audiences to see," Molay said.

Leading Small-Group Virtual Meetings

Many of us have been conditioned to hold hourlong meetings, but experts say that standard should be reconsidered with today's new reality.

"One of the most powerful tools built into videoconferencing solutions is the instant meeting," Courville said. "You can easily set up virtual meetings and collaboration sessions in short blocks of time as needed. There are product development teams I know who hold 15-minute videoconferences every morning. The medium can be used as flexibly as a phone call."

Leaders, mute yourself when others are speaking. "Many of us use words like 'OK' or 'uh-huh' as confirmation that we're listening when others are speaking," Molay said. "But in an online meeting, especially if you're the leader or a person of higher authority, others often hear that and they stop talking, wondering if you wanted to interrupt to say something or even that they might have said something wrong. If you stay completely silent, it lets people complete their thoughts."

Not all technology platforms are created alike. If you haven't yet purchased a videoconferencing or Web conferencing platform (most major providers are offering discounts or free trial versions of products during the coronavirus outbreak), Molay said it's important to understand the differences between systems.

For example, the videoconferencing platform Zoom is among those that Molay said have a useful "push to talk" feature that is handy for small-group virtual meetings.

"Everyone enters the meeting in a default mute mode, but when they hold down the space bar, it opens up their microphone," he said. "It only stays open while it's pressed and people are speaking, like the old walkie-talkie."

Molay said the feature is good for group discussions in which everyone wants a chance to participate but a leader doesn't want all microphones open at once, since they're likely to pick up background noise when participants work from home.

You also may want to compare audience polling tools in different systems, Molay said. "Some only allow for a few response choices, while others offer more," he said. Many users will also likely want a polling feature that allows participants to select the best answer rather than all that apply, he said.

Question management tools—a helpful feature for more-structured and moderated Web conferences—also can vary by platform. These tools give session leaders a way to prioritize audience questions.

"If you have 100 people in a Web conference, you'll want a way to mark that certain questions might be a high priority to address on air versus a lower priority that you can follow up on later," Molay said. "Some platforms are better than others in how they allow you to reorder and organize questions."

He added that other key system features to evaluate are the number of participants allowed on video calls, ability to automatically record Web conferences for later viewing, and tools that allow you to easily edit recordings or create transcripts of online meetings.

Watch how you position yourself on webcam. Don't position yourself in front of bright windows, which will place you in shadows. Raise your laptop so the camera is at eye level or higher.

"Laptop webcams are sitting lower and often shoot straight up into your nostrils," Molay said. "That's not the best look for most people."

Troubleshooting Technical Problems

People will inevitably experience problems with video, audio transmission or other functions in virtual settings. "The first thing to do is isolate whether it's just that person having the issue or  everyone," Courville said. "In most cases it's just one person, but you usually don't want to stop the whole meeting or presentation just because one person is having a problem."

Molay said leaders can afford to spend only a limited amount of time trying to fix an individual's issues. "It's easy to focus on squeaky wheels in online settings, but you don't want to slow down 30 people to satisfy one person."

Meeting leaders also can mute and unmute participants on most platforms if people are having technical issues and bothering others, Courville said.

Auck, SlideRabbit's founder, said one tactic she uses when leading virtual presentations or workshops is to keep a second computer in view and log in as an attendee. "It won't account for all of the variables of people logging in remotely, but you'll have a tighter view of any lag in how your slides are advancing for viewers," she said.

Mike Fasciani, senior research director at research and advisory firm Gartner, said employees who reside in bandwidth-challenged areas can take steps such as turning off video and joining meetings using dial-in audio options while still seeing the content that's being shared through a browser.

Remote workers also can use their 4G-enabled smartphones rather than laptops or desktops in virtual meetings, he said. "Many video-meeting and workstream collaboration applications were built with a mobile-first design intent and so work as well as, if not better than, the desktop and Web client access," he said.

SOURCE: Zielinski, D. (30 March 2020) "Virtual Presentations, Meetings Require New Approaches for Success" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/technology/pages/virtual-presentations-meetings-require-new-approaches.aspx


5 ways hiring will feel more, not less, human in 2030

The interviewing process, the hiring process, and the process regarding paperwork are becoming easier with the help of technology. Although technology is creating a more efficient way to complete these processes, it may create a dehumanizing feeling. Read this blog post to learn more about keeping the human touch in the hiring process.


While 2030 may feel like something out of science fiction, recruiting will likely look more human than android. Trends such as using artificial intelligence and cloud technology to curate candidate analytics are on the horizon, experts said. But any new technological trend must be paired with a focus on onboarding, upskilling and reskilling current employees to compliment new talent that all require a human touch.

1. Talent acquisition agendas go strategic

EY Partner and the Americas Leader for People Advisory Services Kim Billeter told HR Dive that HR transformation and technology will be the cornerstone of any organizational transformation.

“HR is going to play a far more important role going forward in the overall visualization and disruption of an organization,” Billeter said.

A recruiter’s job — bringing new talent, and retaining and upscaling that talent — will drive the success of business transformation as a whole, not just the HR function, she said. Billeter helps clients understand how digital transformation includes both digital aspects and embracing human beings. A successful transformation will require hiring talent with hybrid skills, or hard and soft skills. In the coming years, Billeter said companies will use both internal and external recruiters in finding talent for specialty areas.

Recruitment will be “done largely by the internal teams and organizations,” but organizations will also incorporate external niche recruiters to find candidates with very specific skills, she said. For example, a company may have a D&I; executive-level position in the slate. To find the right candidate, they may use a specialty recruiting team to really focus on all aspects of the hiring agenda, Billeter explained.

Sourcing upfront to get niche or digital skills will become essential for recruiters. However, a lot of organizations are realizing that hiring talent with advanced or emerging digital skills can be costly, and they can’t hire them fast enough, Billeter said.

“So, we’re seeing more focus on upscaling and rescaling [existing employees] perhaps than just the puristic talent recruiting,” she said. That’s the “real value for organizations,” she added.

2. Curating candidate analytics happens in the cloud

There will be a focus on not only measuring a candidate’s technical skills but a candidate’s ability to align with a company’s culture, Billeter said.

“Quality-level metrics are a little harder to try to define as it relates to recruiting,” she said. But, “we’re seeing clients wanting to get to those candidate pools in a far more qualified way.”

That can be challenging, though.

“If a company’s strategy is in innovation, how can you measure if the candidate brings innovation?” Billeter said. “That’s where a lot of the next level thinking is coming. Curating a lot of that analytical data as it comes to really qualified candidates, and moving them in a very different way than we’ve done before.”

She said the companies that have been the most successful in implementing technology have done the hard work to “both standardize [and] understand the nuances of the processes.” But there aren’t a lot of organizations that know how to effectively utilize talent acquisition solutions or cloud HCM solutions, which provide methods intended to improve operations and cut expenses, Billeter said. Companies such as ADP are working to create a user-friendly workforce analytics platform intelligence to drill into a candidate’s potential.

One feature of ADP’s DataCloud platform is intelligent recruiting, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

“Organizations say they have a hard time sifting through resumes for candidate relevancy,” Imran Ahmed, director of product marketing at ADP DataCloud, told HR Dive.

The new Storyboard feature uses a combination of machine learning and predictive analytics, along with advice based on ADP’s experience in human resources, Ahmed said, comparing it to Google Analytics.

“Storyboard is the exact same scenario where we’re pushing [insight] to the front of the organization,” he said. “We pull all of this information from various sources of data that we put out, and we actually serve up these recommendations to provide guidance.”

The tool can provide a narrative about human resources business challenges, such as the aging workforce, he said. For example, he said you could find out which positions are retirement eligible and what impact the positions have on the organization — low, medium or high.

Companies can also mimic the profiles of talented past employees to curate desired qualifications for a position, he said. “You can drill down so deep in this information to actually find look-alike employees,” Ahmed said.

In regard to choosing and implementing cloud solutions, Billeter said it’s essential to first solidify the goal of an organization’s transformation. It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s a “business-led transformation not an HR function transformation,” she added.

3. An entry-level hire will be the company’s future CEO

Organizations will still put a big emphasis on hiring for a diversity of ideas, which enhances a company’s culture and leads to profitability, according to Terrance S. Lockett, senior diversity program manager of Campus Advisory at Oracle.

“That’s why it’s critical that we get this diverse talent,” Lockett told HR Dive. But, in his opinion, a trend will be more of a focus on inclusion and equity, and “less about the word of diversity, per se.”

Recruiting diverse populations at the collegiate level will remain important as companies move those candidates up the talent pipeline into leadership roles, instead of looking outside of the organization for top executive talent, he added.

Organizations are focusing on the C-suite and “shaking up the board, shaking up the chart.”

“So it’s going to start from campus to recruiting,” Lockett said. “It’s key now that we get those people with potential because that’s going lead to the next wave of focusing on more internal growth of diversity.” According to the results of a survey by Zapier released on Jan. 27, 2020, millennials and Gen Zers want to stay a job for a significant amount of time, defying myths that younger generations tend to be job-hoppers and thus not worth the investment.

In searching for diverse talent, Lockett said Oracle, a multinational computer technology corporation, has partnered with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to find science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent, but the company is also focusing on what he referred to as high diversity institutions (HDIs). For example, an HDI could be a college or university in which the engineering program has a high concentration of women students.

Lockett said that at Arizona State University, 40% or more of their engineering students are women.

4. Adjusting to communication styles becomes the norm

Billeter said a focus on enhancing communication styles for recruiters will grow in importance.

“If someone is very analytical, you’re communicating with them much differently than someone who’s on the more emotional side or more communicative,” she explained. “You’ll have to understand how to engage with them to get a more productive conversation.”

Even if a candidate is more analytical and prefers technology to be present in the interviewing process, like the 24/7 ability to ask questions online through chatbots, there still needs to be personal, one-on-one communication, Billeter said.

“It can’t just be only technology-based,” she said. “The human side of this is going to win the day.”

In addition to online conversations or phone calls, Billeter recommended that if a candidate is based in a location outside an organization’s headquarters, a company representative in that location could meet with them. She also said having “a quality candidate pool based on analytics and curating all of the different experience data” will enhance the delivery model, resulting in moving the process forward more quickly.

5. Candidate, employee and customer messaging merge

This year employers will begin to connect the candidate, employee and customer through one, insync company experience. “We’re seeing the employee and the candidate experience needs to meld into the customer experience because often times employees and or candidates are going to become customers,” Billeter said. “You have to be attracting the talent that’s going to drive your overall business strategy, but most importantly your customer strategy.”

She said chief human resources officers will focus on experience strategy first — one that involves both heightened tech and the human touch.

“The medium with which we meet people is going to be a combination of human as well as technology as well as ... living, feeling and seeing the culture of an organization — all of those things have to come together for it to be a good experience,” Billeter said.

No matter what year it is, candidates consider the quality of the recruitment process and their impressions of the recruiters, according to December 2019 survey results from career site Zety.

“If you can’t get the experience part of this equation right, you are probably going to be an unfortunate loser in the talent game,” Billeter said.

SOURCE: Estrada, S. (09 March 2020) "5 ways hiring will feel more, not less, human in 2030" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.hrdive.com/news/5-ways-hiring-will-feel-more-not-less-human-in-2030/573153/


Industrywide Initiative Brings Blockchain to HR

Although many HR professionals would think of a blockchain as an obscure element of technology with very little practical application in their jobs, it can protect those who are involved in exchanging data in digital environments. Read this blog post to learn more.


To many human resource professionals, blockchain may sound like an esoteric technology with little practical application in their jobs. But an ambitious initiative called the Velocity Network Foundation (VNF) shows how blockchain has near-term benefits for both recruiters and job seekers. Experts say the project is one of a growing number of uses for blockchain—in talent acquisition, payroll and data security.

Blockchain technology allows two or more people, businesses or computers that may or may not know each other to safely exchange data in digital environments without having an intermediary validate the transaction.

The VNF is a nonprofit consortium of 15 companies in HR technology and education industries. It was formed to reinvent how the career records of job seekers and students are shared in the global labor market. A blockchain-powered platform streamlines the way work history, professional achievements, skills, talent assessments and educational certifications are verified, stored and shared.

Founding members of the VNF are Aon's Assessment Solutions, Cisive, Cornerstone OnDemand, HireRight, Korn Ferry, National Student Clearinghouse, Randstad, SAP, SumTotal Systems, SHL, Ultimate Software, Unit4, Upwork, Velocity Career Labs and ZipRecruiter.

Benefits for Job Seekers, Recruiters

On the VNF platform, job seekers create and own a verifiable digital record of their career credentials and can share it with others. According to a 2019 global study from Accenture, more than 70 percent of 10,000 surveyed employees said they want to own their work-related data and take it with them when they leave their jobs—and nearly half (48 percent) of C-level executives were open to allowing them to do so.

Experts say portable work records help recruiting teams. Recruiters get easier access to an all-in-one digital collection of employment history and can evaluate candidates more quickly.

Yvette Cameron is co-founder and executive vice president of Velocity Career Labs, a developer of blockchain technology that helped establish the VNF. Cameron said the foundation is initially focused on building a platform that serves as a "public utility layer." The project's second phase will enable network members to build and integrate applications that facilitate the exchange of credentials between job seekers or students and employers and educational institutions. Being open and transparent about the process is key to the foundation's success, she said.

"We wanted to include members from across the industry to solve the challenge of how career records are shared in the labor market because we believed no single vendor or organization could address it," Cameron said. "Taking an industrywide approach means the VNF will be owned by nobody and governed by everybody."

Debasis Dutta, vice president and general manager of product management for vendor SumTotal Systems in Gainesville, Fla., said the network will benefit job seekers and recruiters alike. In a labor market where verifiable skills are increasingly in demand and the relevance of college degrees is shrinking, Dutta said employers need quick, secure access to a job-seeker's skills.

"We're leveraging blockchain to address the problem of job candidates or employees owning their own verifiable career credentials and making the process of checking employment history and skills more efficient for recruiters," Dutta said.

Cameron said blockchain means job candidates no longer have to be at the mercy of their employers' systems to get quick access to information about their work histories. "The goal is to put people back in control of their digital professional credentials in a trusted and verifiable way and fix the underlying data exchange problem we have in the labor market," she said.

Apratim Purakayastha, chief technology officer with the Skillsoft group (which owns SumTotal Systems), said blockchain-inspired approaches like the VNF also can help when creating internal project teams. "Organizations that are constantly bidding for projects often have to assemble project teams with the right skills, and prospective clients want to see proof of those skills," he said. "If verified career credentials can be quickly shared with clients through blockchain, it improves the chance of success in those projects."

Blockchain Gains Traction in HR

HR's use of blockchain is growing incrementally. Research and advisory firm Gartner found that 12 percent of 500 surveyed HR and technology leaders are using blockchain-based solutions in their HR function today and another 23 percent are experimenting with the technology in their area of responsibility. Of the latter group, half are running blockchain-inspired pilot projects in their HR function, the study found.

Matthias Graf, a senior director analyst in Gartner's HR practice, said the top three HR process areas where study respondents reported using or piloting blockchain are in HR analytics and reporting, policies and governance, and workforce planning. But Graf also noted an important distinction between "adoption" and "maturity levels" of the technology within human resources.

"If you take a closer look at where blockchain solutions are most advanced in HR, the picture differs," he said. "The most mature applications can be found in the areas of compensation and benefits, recruiting and employee relations, and labor law."

An example is paying gig workers. Blockchain solutions can facilitate real-time payments, the Gartner study found, bypassing intermediaries like payroll aggregators or banks. Blockchain can make it easier to employ and pay workers in far-flung locations around the globe where the payment infrastructure may be limited, as well as make it more efficient to verify the identity and experience of such workers.

Chris Havrilla, vice president of HR technology and solution provider research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta, said using blockchain for instant pay can expand access to gig talent and make contract jobs more attractive to top candidates.

Blockchain and Data Privacy Regulations

Companies considering using blockchain often wonder how it aligns with data privacy regulations like the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Gartner's study found 40 percent of respondents cited "data security and privacy concerns" as their top worry about using blockchain, followed by 31 percent who cited "integrating blockchain technology with existing technology architectures."

Cameron said no proprietary data or personally identifiable information from users will be stored on the VNF blockchain platform. "Depending on the approach that's taken with blockchain, you can be 100 percent compliant with GDPR," she said. "In our approach, career credentials are owned by the individual and stored privately in a trusted way on their own devices. You decide as a job candidate or student who gets access to those credentials, when and for how long."

SOURCE: Zielinski, D. (27 February 2020) "Industrywide Initiative Brings Blockchain to HR" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/hr-topics/technology/Pages/Industrywide-Initiative-Brings-Blockchain-HR.aspx


Data-Driven Decisions Start with These 4 Questions

With data being considered the new oil, unique advantages are being brought into the business world. Properly using data can result in unimaginable possibilities, but to get the correct answers the right questions must be asked.  Read this blog post to learn more about how data is introducing optimized operations and new possibilities with the help of new questions being asked.


Data has become central to how we run our businesses today. In fact, the global market intelligence firm International Data Corporation (IDC) projects spending on data and analytics to reach $274.3 billion by 2022. However, much of that money is not being spent wisely. Gartner analyst Nick Heudecker‏ has estimated that as many as 85% of big data projects fail.

A big part of the problem is that numbers that show up on a computer screen take on a special air of authority. Once data are pulled in through massive databases and analyzed through complex analytics software, we rarely ask where it came from, how it’s been modified, or whether it’s fit for the purpose intended.

The truth is that to get useful answers from data, we can’t just take it at face value. We need to learn how to ask thoughtful questions. In particular, we need to know how it was sourced, what models were used to analyze it, and what was left out. Most of all, we need to go beyond using data simply to optimize operations and leverage it to imagine new possibilities.

We can start by asking:

How was the data sourced?

Data, it’s been said, is the plural of anecdote. Real-world events, such as transactions, diagnostics, and other relevant information, are recorded and stored in massive server farms. Yet few bother to ask where the data came from, and unfortunately, the quality and care with which data is gathered can vary widely. In fact, a Gartner study recently found that firms lose an average of $15 million per year due to poor data quality.

Often data is subject to human error, such as when poorly paid and unmotivated retail clerks perform inventory checks. However, even when the data collection process is automated, there are significant sources of error, such as intermittent power outages in cellphone towers or mistakes in the clearing process for financial transactions.

Data that is of poor quality or used in the wrong context can be worse than no data at all. In fact, one study found that 65% of a retailer’s inventory data was inaccurate. Another concern, which has become increasingly important since the EU passed stringent GDPR data standards is whether there was proper consent when the data was collected.

So don’t just assume the data you have is accurate and of good quality. You have to ask where it was sourced from and how it’s been maintained. Increasingly, we need to audit our data transactions with as much care as we do our financial transactions.

How was it analyzed?

Even if data is accurate and well maintained, the quality of analytic models can vary widely. Often models are pulled together from open-source platforms, such as GitHub, and repurposed for a particular task. Before long, everybody forgets where it came from or how it is evaluating a particular data set.

Lapses like these are more common than you’d think and can cause serious damage. Consider the case of two prominent economists who published a working paper that warned that U.S. debt was approaching a critical level. Their work caused a political firestorm but, as it turned out, they had made a simple Excel error that caused them to overstate the effect that debt had on GDP.

As models become more sophisticated and incorporate more sources, we’re also increasingly seeing bigger problems with how models are trained. One of the most common errors is overfitting, which basically means that the more variables you use to create a model, the harder it gets to make it generally valid. In some cases, excess data can result in data leakage, in which training data gets mixed with testing data.

These types of errors can plague even the most sophisticated firms. Amazon and Google, just to name two of the most prominent cases, have recently had highly publicized scandals related to model bias. As we do with data, we need to constantly be asking hard questions of our models. Are they suited to the purpose we’re using them for? Are they taking the right factors into account? Does the output truly reflect what’s going on in the real world?

What doesn’t the data tell us?

Data models, just like humans, tend to base judgments on the information that is most available. Sometimes, the data you don’t have can affect your decision making as much as the data you do have. We commonly associate this type of availability bias with human decisions, but often human designers pass it on to automated systems.

For instance, in the financial industry, those who have extensive credit histories can access credit much easier than those who don’t. The latter, often referred to as “thin-file” clients, can find it difficult to buy a car, rent an apartment, or get a credit card. (One of us, Greg, experienced this problem personally when he returned to the U.S. after 15 years overseas).

Yet a thin file doesn’t necessarily indicate a poor credit risk. Firms often end up turning away potentially profitable customers simply because they lack data on them. Experian recently began to address this problem with its Boost program, which allows consumers to raise their scores by giving them credit for things like regular telecom and utility payments. To date, millions have signed up.

So it’s important to ask hard questions about what your data model might be missing. If you are managing what you measure, you need to ensure that what you are measuring reflects the real world, not just the data that’s easiest to collect.

How can we use data to redesign products and business models?

Over the past decade, we’ve learned how data can help us run our businesses more efficiently. Using data intelligently allows us to automate processes, predict when our machines need maintenance, and serve our customers better. It’s data that enables Amazon to offer same-day shipping.

Data can also become an important part of the product itself. To take one famous example, Netflix has long used smart data analytics to create better programming for less money. This has given the company an important edge over rivals like Disney and WarnerMedia.

Yet where it gets really exciting is when you can use data to completely re-imagine your business. At Experian, where Eric works, they’ve been able to leverage the cloud to shift from only delivering processed data in the form of credit reports to a service that offers its customers real-time access to more granular data that the reports are based on. That may seem like a subtle shift, but it’s become one of the fastest-growing parts of Experian’s business.

It’s been said that data is the new oil, but it’s far more valuable than that. We need to start treating data as more than a passive asset class. If used wisely, it can offer a true competitive edge and take a business in completely new directions. To achieve that, however, you can’t start merely looking for answers. You have to learn how to ask new questions.

SOURCE: Haller, E.; Satell, G. (11 February 2020) "Data-Driven Decisions Start with These 4 Questions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/02/data-driven-decisions-start-with-these-4-questions