American corporations are spending more on business intelligence projects than ever before. Since entering the ‘age of information,’ spending in this sector has gone through the roof, and the curve looks set to steepen as we progress through 2017 and beyond.

It is estimated that the business intelligence market will hit $20bn by 2019, as organizations clamor to know more, see more and do more than their competitors. This is underpinned – and driven forward – by a deep-seated, almost fanatical, belief in the power of BI. Figures released by Better Buys in 2016 showed that 90% of organizations plan to employ a Chief Data Officer, as necessary to their business, by 2019. Meanwhile, 85% of business leaders said that they believed Big Data will “dramatically change” the way in which they run their company.

Note the lexicon here – “dramatically change.” We are not talking about a vague collection of positive thoughts towards the potential of BI; we are talking about an industry-spanning mass reverence towards its concepts – a generation of business leaders who worship at the altar of data and understanding.

Full disclosure here: I can count myself among this number. Analytics and data insight are vital to the development of our business community in America and across the globe. However, this should not come at the expense of one of our most critical assets; our humanity.

Applying Business Intelligence to Human Resources

Business intelligence and human resources go way back. As early as 2011, Zendesk’s BIME blogging team were discussing how BI metrics can be applied to human resources departments in a bid to ensure smoother operation on an organization-wide level.

Zendesk explained how such metrics can give business owners an idea of how successful their HR department is, as well as insight into employee engagement, the efficacy of pay structures, and how the workforce can be optimized to bring everyone up to speed.

Two years later, in 2013, James Sheehan wrote a piece for HR Zone, which approached the combination of BI and HR from another direction, from the point of view of the HR department rather than of the business intelligence guru, but which reached much the same conclusions. Sheehan described how data insight enables factual decision making processes; processes which are unencumbered by excess “emotional baggage”.

Sheehan also advocated a Moneyball-esque approach, by which data can be gathered on candidates across a variety of metrics to allow for quick and simplistic ranking of suitability for different job roles.

James Sheehan’s approach is a positive one. We need Big Data and analytic insight to tell us what the next move should be in business. Without this structure of data to fall back upon, we are moving blindly, and we risk clouding our own judgement and losing serious ground to the competition.

But we are not robots, and neither are our employees. If success in business is simply a case of making the right calculation with the data available to us, then why don’t we just put a suit and tie on a supercomputer and retire tomorrow? There must be an element of subjectivity within business – and a degree of nuance and interpretation. Data is vital as a guide, but we must also be able to trust our own judgement.

Emotional Intelligence as Leadership Gamechanger

The latest leadership philosophies place great stock in emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence – or emotional quotient (EQ) – is the part of our thinking which helps us to control our emotions, to empathize with others, and to communicate and engage with others in a high-functioning manner.

The concept of EQ developed as a way to explain why individuals with extremely high IQs were not necessarily better performers – in business or in life – than their competitors with relatively low IQs. As the concept grew more refined – and as our psychological understanding of it increased – it became clear that emotional intelligence was of comparable importance to performance and success as logical or analytical intelligence.

On the surface, this seems to be common sense – “Business Leaders Must Be Able to Speak AND Think” is not a headline going to be gracing the front pages of our national newspapers any time soon – but it does teach us a serious lesson about leadership and represents a gamechanger in business.

For years, the prevailing attitude was that leadership was analogous with strength, that big boys (and, latterly, girls) do not cry, and that success in business required a cut and thrust attitude and a heart of ice. Now we are seeing that this is not necessarily the case, and that the most effective leaders are strong but also nurturing, decisive but considered, inspiring but democratic.

This has marked a major seachange in business, and has undoubtedly created a better, more efficient environment in workplaces up and down the country, but is it about to be unpicked by a focus on business intelligence?

Recognizing the Right Approach

Not necessarily, but this is not to say that we should become complacent. It certainly is possible for us to have in depth business insight and for us to apply data to human resources conundrums, while still maintaining the human aspect of our character. It certainly is possible to be a nurturing, inspiring figure within your organization, while still championing the positive impact which Big Data has on your business.

The key is simply to recognize the right approach and to pursue it. Data is a guiding light – it shows us the way to go and indicates to us the decisions which must be taken – but it is not the be all and end all. We must still work to build and develop our emotional intelligence; the softer, more nuanced component of our character.

A finely tuned set of emotional skills, and a positive approach to Big Data and analytic understanding; it is this unique combination that the business leaders of tomorrow must deploy if they are to be successful.


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