Moneyball Changed Baseball, Is Data Science Changing HR?


Data analytics changed major league baseball in 2002 when the Oakland A’s experienced their “Moneyball” season, achieving unprecedented success for the franchise as a result of analytical, evidence-based recruiting decisions. Now, HR leaders are turning to employee survey data to guide employee engagement initiatives, integrating analytics into their professional tool belts, writes Craig Tanner Senior Product Manager Reward Gateway.

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Over a decade ago, the 2002 Oakland A’s challenged traditional baseball methodology by using statistical analysis to build their roster instead of relying solely on outdated recruiter instincts. By using science to guide their decisions, they sold off many of their overvalued, overpriced players and acquired undervalued players with significant potential that ultimately brought the team success. Shifting away from traditional recruitment practices and embracing a more analytical approach helped the Oakland A’s create one of their most successful teams to date, forever ingrained in baseball history.

Now, a similar sea change is happening inside businesses as employers begin to use science and data to better understand and implement employee engagement initiatives. In fact, according to a recent report, more than 70 percent of HR leaders are in the midst of analyzing and integrating data into their decision-making. Heading into 2020, a science-driven approach to employee engagement is taking hold as businesses across the country strive to put their money where their mouth is, and make their businesses better places to work.

Over the past two decades, the rate of employee engagement amongst U.S. workers has ranged from 26 percent in 2000 to a high of 34 percent in 2018. Those numbers highlight the issue at hand – the majority of employees do not feel engaged at work. The data within a report recently released by Josh Bersin and Reward Gateway speaks volumes – employees want to be engaged in conversations and projects that have value, and want to be regularly recognized and thanked for their hard work. Employee engagement initiatives that are designed along these lines are 12 times more likely to generate business results and are not “nice to have,” but are integral to the well-being and health of employees.

Why Traditional Recognition Doesn’t Work
Traditional HR engagement practices are often rooted in past beliefs about employee motivation and often amount to little more than holiday parties, bonuses, and spontaneous gifts. While these moments may be enjoyable, they are inconsistent, and thus unlikely to increase an employee’s feelings of value or engagement within their organization. It can often be challenging to measure the impact of initiatives like these, and without such measurement, there’s no way to tell if the strategy is working. Employers should be able to measure engagement with a recognition platform and monitor an initiative’s effectiveness in moving the needle on employee engagement.

What Science Says
Motivators are classified into two groups – intrinsic and extrinsic. While both can spark action, ultimately intrinsic motivation is more valuable, as it relates to tasks and behaviors that are the rewards in and of themselves, like playing an enjoyable sport, doing something nice for another individual, or reading a book because it interests you. Through either reward or punishment, extrinsic motivators are external forces inspiring action, which may get a simple task done, but often do not translate to long term motivation. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, goals tied to external incentives have been shown to actually reduce motivation and performance when employees are already intrinsically motivated to accomplish the task.

The Hawthorne Effect, first described by Henry Landsberger in 1950, highlights the tendency of humans to work harder when they are being observed. A similar theory, known as Expectancy Theory, purports that individuals choose how to behave based on the outcome they expect as a result. At work, both theories point to the value of paying attention to employees and offering consistent recognition to promote positive behavior and hard work.

Learn More: Digitization of Rewards Leads To Better Business Outcomes

What Employers Can Do
To implement strategic employee recognition practices, employers must connect well-defined company values to desired behavior in the workplace, making the impacts of such behavior clear and visible to all employees. By highlighting these actions, their connection to company values and their ultimate impact on company culture, employees will likely feel a sense of accomplishment, and others will understand what they, too, need to do to be recognized. Continually reinforcing values by promoting positive behavior in a social, public way, will encourage all employees to do great work that will advance the organization’s core objectives.

Ultimately, the Oakland A’s strategically put their resources toward a more scientific approach that would have an enormous impact on the success of their organization. It is time for companies to do the same with their HR efforts. Research proves that successful, strategic employee engagement initiatives are based on the science of human motivation and desire for meaning. At the end of the day, an engaged workforce is a successful one, and employers must respond effectively to employee’s wants and needs to get a valuable return on their investment.

Human resources executives now have the opportunity to invest in the science of human motivation and employee engagement data, cutting out subjective, outdated and ineffective practices.

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