Director, Analytics and AI Programs Neo4j
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People analytics: will graph technology revolutionise HR?

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It’s been used by social media networks, the space programme and for Covid contact tracing, but is graph technology useful for HR departments? Given that it’s designed to track relationships – and HR is all about relationships between people – the answer is clear.

19th Aug 2021
Director, Analytics and AI Programs Neo4j
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People analytics is the fastest-growing sub-domain of the HR profession, according to HR analyst Josh Bersin. In his latest annual report on HR technology, he says 25% of companies are hiring into this role.

Bersin said: “In today’s businesses, people have jobs and job descriptions, but these don’t typically reflect the work that is actually done. More and more of the focus today is on role and project, which leads to the need to look at someone’s real business capabilities, not just their job title, level, or experience… every individual in the company is no longer a node on the hierarchy. We are each nodes in a network, connected to many other people, projects, information, and history”.

Graph technology, based on relationships, has the potential to transform HR and human capital management. The insights it brings will enhance real-time people management... 

Graph-based models can analyse large volumes of interconnected data and uncover hidden connections. Graph databases model complex networks of nodes, entities, and their interrelationships, making graph technology ideal for HR carrying out organisational people analytics. Graph technology helps organisations get a clear view of all the relationships and roles within the workforce.

“[Graph databases] are vastly more powerful for modeling how people work in networks, how people search for data and objects, how people communicate and build different types of relationships (peers, team-mates, bosses, subordinates),” added Bersin. “These products essentially store this information into a graph of the company, which can evolve over time”.

Graph technology use cases

Eighteenth century mathematician Leonhard Euler first came up with graph theory. Graph technology hit the headlines when The Panama Papers used the technology to expose financial wrongdoing, exposing the connections public officials and executives had tried to keep hidden. Graph technology today is used in many scenarios including search engines, GPS navigation, to power social media, and for contact tracing applications.

Car manufacturer Daimler uses graph database technology for HR. With 250,000 employees in multiple locations and interdisciplinary teams all over the world, scheduling project availability can be a challenge. Managers work with team members on leave, temporary workers, and resources from partners and service providers.

Daimler built a graph-powered HR platform to provide insight into these personnel structures. The platform adapts to regular changes in personnel and maps HR structures, providing an overall view of data and uncovering new connections while maintaining data integrity and quality when making changes. It allows Daimler to gain deeper insight into different structural levels.

Nodes such as ‘employee’ or ‘expertise’ and the connections between them (for example, ‘active’, ‘reports’, ‘participates’) can be assigned any number of qualitative or quantitative characteristics, such as the duration or type of employment. The result is a complex network of data and data relationships that provides real-time insight into relationships, such as team affiliation. In the graph database, users can go deeper into the data structure, gaining new insights into data relationships that are not obvious at first glance.

Graph technology in space

Graph database technology is also supporting HR in space exploration. NASA was looking to build skills analysis system teams to cater for fast-changing occupations and work roles in the organisation. NASA’s acting branch chief of people analytics and senior data scientist David Meza said: “as we are trying to get back to the Moon and onto Mars, we're going to not only regenerate the skills we used to get to the Moon before, but look at new skills and new programmes and projects and the new technology we have to incorporate to do that. So we need to have a good understanding of our workforce to achieve that”.

Using a graph database, the agency has captured core and adjacent skills, cross-functional skills, training certifications, educational credentials, and career path information. It records where skills are located geographically, and within which programmes and projects. Graph data science algorithms can easily be applied to extract insight about skills and L&D trends. NASA project managers can query – in real time – complex data about employees, departments, programmes, locations, skills, and career paths.

Not only is graph technology making inroads in people analytics, many areas of HR are starting to benefit from this relationship-first approach.

Graph technology, based on relationships, has the potential to transform HR and human capital management. The insights it brings will enhance real-time people management as well as informing succession planning and recruitment decisions. It will contribute a much more comprehensive picture of the business’ current skills and capabilities, creating the flexibility for faster and more responsive change.

Spotting workplace patterns worth investigating

Not only is graph technology making inroads in people analytics, many areas of HR are starting to benefit from this relationship-first approach. The University of Geneva uses graph technology to assess how many people were in close relation to someone possibly infected with Covid on campus. The graph database can trace contact and so reduce transmission. It allows for accurate information on proximity in time and space in the workplace and in the community, according to its IT team.

Graph technology can help well beyond Covid, however. Previa is the largest Swedish occupational health company, offering a sick leave management solution built on graph technology. The challenge for Previa was that it had a lot of data about sick leave trends, with very little ability to get any insight from the data.

By using graph databases, its internal data experts have been able to find new patterns in employee data. Previa has been able to use these findings to generate insights that lead to increased workplace safety, better productivity, and reduced risk of burnout.

Sara Johannesson, project lead for the implementation, explained what this looks like in practice: “the graph database system allows you to follow all employment and all absences of an employee, so we can easily look for patterns not simply relating to that one individual, but also their entire workplace. If you worry there’s a pattern of burnout in more than one team member, that suggests a wider problem, that’s something you need to look at in the office—maybe the air is bad perhaps or there is a problem with employee-manager relations. This is just one example of how we can use the data and find hidden patterns”. 

So, is graph technology going to revolutionise the HR technology market? Given it’s a technology designed for relationships, and relationships are the foundation of how HR works, it’s clear that graph technology will have an important future role.  
 

Interested in this topic? Read Five ways HR can better leverage people analytics.

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