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The Secrets To Hiring The Best People Hidden In Sports Analytics

Inspired by the movie Moneyball, leaders are tapping into sports analytics to understand performance.

The Secrets To Hiring The Best People Hidden In Sports Analytics
[White Sox vs. Athletics: Eric Broder Van Dyke via Shutterstock]

Business leaders might do well to move beyond sports metaphors–hitting home runs and making slam dunks–and adopt the sophisticated analytical practices that many pro teams now use to assess and improve group and individual performance.

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Doing so could mean measuring how well a company or sales team performs with a certain employee on board, for instance, rather than simply looking at that worker’s individual contributions on their own, suggests Thomas H. Davenport, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Digital Business, in an MIT Sloan Management Review article published in June 2014.

In sports, a “plus-minus analysis” assesses how well a team performs when a certain player is in the game, rather than just looking at the athlete’s individual statistics. Players are assigned plus or minus points based on the team’s performance when they’re competing either on the basketball court or on the ice rink.

“So, even if a particular player doesn’t generate impressive individual statistics, he may still be invaluable in a game if the team tends to perform much better when he’s playing,” Davenport writes. “And it’s also possible to assess a team’s performance with and without combinations of players. Shane Battier, who now plays for the Miami Heat, is a notable plus-minus hero. His team simply plays better when he’s on the court.”

Using Teamwork To Assess Stars

Companies could identify the Shane Battiers on their sales teams or in other groups by assessing performance with and without particular individuals, adds Davenport, an IT and management professor at Babson College and senior adviser to Deloitte Analytics.

“In most businesses, analytics have typically focused on operational or marketing issues, and not on the human dimension of performance,” he says. “Even when companies do employ human resource analytics, their approaches are not as sophisticated as those of sports teams, and thus far they have been applied only to individuals. But assessing employees by investigating group performance with or without a particular person’s presence could be a valuable technique.”

Sports teams analyze people and data in other ways that could be helpful for business, he says, noting that multiple levels of team leadership are involved in key decisions such as recruitment, player compensation, and athletic and business performance. He cites the Dallas Mavericks, whose owner and head coach use analytics and whose team analyst, Roland Beech, sits on the bench during basketball games.

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“The business equivalent to the Mavericks would be for CEOs, middle managers and analytical specialists to be working closely together and consulting frequently with each other on key decisions,” Davenport says. “A few companies like Procter & Gamble have placed ‘embedded’ analysts from a centralized analytical group in close proximity to executives . . . but, in business, that is far more the exception than the rule.”

Businesses also could do well to emulate sports teams’ use of video and GPS devices to assess performance, Davenport explains. He notes UPS has been using advanced technology to optimize its routes and save money.

Big Data Coming to HR

HR technology and big-data expert David Bernstein, vice president of eQuest’s data analytics division, agrees that while data analyses make great sense in decisions surrounding employees, he hasn’t seen significant uptake yet among HR departments. He calls analytics for business teams a nascent field.

Sports teams “play to win, and it’s a business and they’re making money at winning,” Bernstein says, adding that the integration of analytics is better understood in the sports environment. “The concept of applying that [to HR] is very powerful,” he says.

“The HR mindset isn’t necessarily team oriented; it’s role oriented,” and looks at individual contributions, Bernstein says. Workforce planning isn’t often viewed from a team or business-strategy standpoint, he adds. He finds the biggest analytics applications in recruiting involve shortlisting candidates for interviews and hiring.

That’s not to say analytics won’t eventually play a larger role for business teams. Bernstein notes a major HR tech conference saw several analytics vendors for the first time this year.

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The University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations is hosting a seminar in Dallas in January 2015 on organization effectiveness analytics. The event aims to show businesses how to integrate enterprise and human capital analyses to better find out why companies fail to execute their strategies.

Stacey Harris, vice president, research and analytics at technology consulting and services firm Sierra-Cedar, says it’s been difficult for organizations to implement team-focused analytics, although the interest is there.

“The topic of HR analytics being leveraged to build more agile and effective teams has definitely been a hot topic, and the research confirms that this is a topic of great interest to many organizations for several years,” says Harris. “In reality it has been difficult for many HR organizations to put in a place a function that works at this level.”

A major challenge is while businesses have used analytics longer than sports teams, the sports teams have “years and years of data that has been captured in a standardized format, with clearly defined rules and outcomes for the games,” Harris adds. “Business isn’t that clean and it rarely has well-preserved historical data that is appropriately captured to build upon.”

Alexia Martin, vice president, research and analytics at Sierra-Cedar, notes that the firm’s annual survey this year on HR technology adoption found that “quantified” organizations, which invest in HR technologies and practices to support data-driven decision-making, outperform other companies, with 79% greater return on equity.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former staff reporter for Dow Jones Newswires and The Associated Press, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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