HR analytics: A look inside Walmart’s HR 'Test & Learn' model

As companies look to hone in on performance and productivity across the board, HR data is fast becoming a crucial enabler to improve efficiency and influence business outcomes. But the path to collecting, analysing and using data is another story entirely – one that encourages HR and workforce planning departments to become more innovative.

There are often significant challenges when teams set out to develop an effective analytics strategy, including defining what to measure, how to measure it and developing actionable insights to help meet business objectives.

With these obstacles in mind, we caught up with Alex Garcia, Director – Test & Learn Global People Analytics at Walmart, to find out how his organisation is upping the ante on data analysis and implementation.

Strategic analytics and actionable insights

With more than 1.3 million employees in the United States alone, strategic analytics is vital for the HR organisation to influence decision making.

“In our role, we work to solve issues with the HR Strategy Organisation and Communities of Expertise. While our analytics strategy is positioned at the business partner level, we’re not exclusively delivering solutions for the business partners,” he explains.

The path to strategic analytics at Walmart involves:

  1. Measuring and re-examining business requirements
  2. Establishing a proposed explanation 
  3. Reviewing accessible and available HR data
  4. Gathering additional and related information 
  5. Examining commonalities across various datasets
  6. Developing strategy inputs for implementation

Through this process, actionable insights can be generated to influence decision making and actionable business outcomes. Alex makes a clear distinction in the context of actionable insights – quantitative and qualitative work streams.

“A quantitative work stream can be broken down into three specific elements: data inventory, exploratory analysis and statistical modelling,” he notes.

“The data inventory is where available datasets are identified and data mining is conducted; while exploratory analysis involves brainstorming and using data mining to generate insights. And statistical modelling comes down to applying advanced statistical models to identify notable issues and predict their impacts. Results are validated using back-forecasting and insights from the qualitative work stream.”

The qualitative work stream he mentions relates to the ‘associate voice’, such as data from focus groups, associate engagement surveys and online communities. This work stream also comprises market research (external benchmarking and labour market trends).

“When data from the qualitative work stream is integrated into the quantitative work stream, you can generate insights and implement practical concepts. From there it becomes a test-and-measure process followed by validation,” Alex says.

People Analytics organisational setup

People Analytics is a global – not centralised – portfolio, which has prompted the HR organisation to build strong relationships with various departments (including Finance and Customer Insights). This requirement serves as a backdrop to strategic agility and the actual setup of the organisation.

For example, People Analytics comprises four ‘pillars’ with designated functions:

  1. Modelling & Data Mining – the advanced analytics team that provides statistical insight for senior executives and business unit leaders;
  2. Research & Social Media – the voice of Walmart associates comprising all of the qualitative data; 
  3. Visualisation & Prototype – the team that develops systems to analyse and disseminate the information; and
  4. Test & Learn – Alex’s team that converts the insights into practical concepts by implementing and testing them in-store.

Together, these pillars give Walmart an important capability to continuously improve the analytics strategy and support commercial objectives.

“Take the Visualisation and Prototype team, for example,” Alex remarks. “They create the tools that help us become more effective – technology that we can pilot and customise at the same time. And if a particular prototype works well, we then transfer it to the IT department, which converts it into a production solution for rollout.”

There are multiple tools currently in use to support the analysis, distribution and reporting of data, including SAS, Alteryx, Tableau and SPSS.

While from a skills and capability perspective, most of the employees that use these tools were hired with the appropriate technical experience or trained in-house.

Alex also encourages members of his team to spend a week each year in-store to become familiar with both the operational and commercial processes.

“We support a lot of the focus groups and spend a lot of time in the stores just talking to associates. This is a crucial part of gathering qualitative data and increasing the relevance of HR to the business,” he notes.

Focus areas

Great care is taken to ensure that reporting is tailored to the needs of various business unit leaders, store managers and senior executives; something that Alex says is related to ‘capability metrics’.

“Capability metrics help us determine if the actions are happening as they were designed - are we executing the concept as it was initially designed? This approach ensures our reporting framework is effective. At some point when we see that things are implemented and they’re working as designed, then we’ll start measuring value.”

Turnover, absenteeism and movement have been a primary focus in the context of workforce metrics for the People Analytics organisation. But at the same time, there’s a concerted effort to monitor customer experience and sales – linking HR data to wider business metrics.

Additionally, the ‘DNA’ of great store managers is being examined to create a leadership development strategy to increase the likelihood of getting great associates in those roles.

“We’re trying to clarify roles and a career path for our associates in the stores, which relates specifically to talent development and leadership capability,” Alex adds.

To date, more than 300,000 associates have been with Walmart for ten years or more. And it’s an exciting time for the People Analytics organisation, as it looks to translate multiple findings to practical strategies such as a new store structure and greater alignment between associate lifestyles and business requirements.

I hope you found the article interesting. It was put together ahead of Alex's presentation at the annual HR Metrics & Analytics Summit in Melbourne. If you'd like to know more about the event, you can download the brochure or visit www.hrmetricsandanalytics.com.au to know more. 

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