HR departments in the UAE are frequently using data analytics to better understand the nature of their workforces and unlock value in their organisations. But that creates a staffing challenge of its own, according to experts.

The role of HR analyst is relatively new to the region, and businesses face a race to secure or develop the best talent.

The results of a survey published by the CIPD in 2015 showed that while there is a desire to build capability, only 22 per cent of organisations were investing in HR analytics training, and less than half were accessing analytical talent from other internal teams.

The survey also found that many organisations were in the early stages of adopting and building HR analytics strategy and processes: 82 per cent of respondents said they were using HR analytics to inform their new HR strategy; and 71 per cent said that they would either keep investment in HR analytics at the same level or increase it.

Data can be useful in helping HR departments design training and development programmes to increase staff retention. But there is a downside. “Having access to too much data can be confusing for any business function - HR included,” said Luis Rezende, vice president of data analytics at Niometrics in Dubai. “To extract proper value from data and avoid drowning in it, you need a robust understanding of what problems you are trying to solve and what opportunities you are trying to explore.

A recent report by SilkRoad found that a lack of available data to make decisions is a primary concern for HR professionals, and 72 per cent of those surveyed agreed that a lack of data capability is detrimental to the business.

Having the right people to correctly analyse data is hugely important: the survey results suggested that although organisations are actively using data analytics, they aren't placing the same emphasis on training employees to understand their data.

“You should engage in proper problem framing. Managers should first lay out what they are trying to achieve and only then define which data-centric capabilities they will need to get there – in that order,” said Rezende. “Subverting this sequence can lead to more pain than gain; a solution looking for a problem is always unhelpful.”

Studies in the GCC have previously demonstrated a lack of qualified data analytics professionals, and also found that the region is in its infancy in terms of implementing data analytics systems in the workplace. Rezende believes this is changing. “There definitely are more data analytics professionals working in GCC organisations now, but more often than not their work is still insular, restricted to special projects and not yet embedded into wider day-to-day operations.

“That happens because GCC employers still struggle to merge new analytical talent with existing teams and because most of their systems still don't bridge the last 'adoption mile' gap. They organise the foundations of data exploration, but fail to empower end-users with easy-to-consume analytics,” he added.

Heightened use of data analytics in HR doesn't mean that people are more likely to be treated as numbers, said Rezende. “Analytics complements and informs management judgement, but it doesn't replace it,” he said. “My impression is that most managers, HR managers included, understand that – nobody is throwing away the good practices of their pre data-age job roles, just enhancing them with additional intelligence.”

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