Patterns of Play – Lessons for HR analytics from football

In preparation for the launch of last weekend’s English Premier League season I listened Graham Hunter’s interview with Gary Neville, the former England footballer turned Sky Sports super analyst.  The interview was a fascinating insight into Neville’s attempts to transform the way football punditry is done.  Listening to it made me appreciate how the same approach could be applied to benefit the developing world of HR analytics.

Bird’s Eye view
Neville’s approach to watching a match is different from the typical fan.  He spends the first twenty minutes watching the match from the top of the stadium to get a bird’s eye view (in stark contrast to the majority who just sit on the sidelines).    He spends this time analysing what he calls the ‘patterns of play.’   In simple terms, understanding what tactics the teams are deploying and the initial interactions between players that will set precedent for the match.   His point was you have to look at matches from different perspectives and view points.    This reminded me of how similar this is when looking at people data.  You have to look at this applying different perspectives and characters both within and outside the organisation.
Patterns of play
Neville was refreshingly honest that as a pundit he cared little about the act of scoring a goal.  His point was that a viewer can see the goal for what it is and that doesn’t need explaining – it’s stating the obvious.    What he is interested is in understanding the whole process and how different interactions and patterns build up to create that moment.  He looks to seek the pattern rather than admire the act.
There are distinct parallels here with people analytics.   We seem hard wired to focus on the blatant stats rather than the underlying root causes or patterns.   For instance we can invest in ways of reducing our recruitment cycle time when it is in fact attrition that should be addressed.   Being time poor, with limited attention spans, we head for the obvious answer rather than challenging and analysing the underlying reasons.
Building on the point about the danger of limited attention spans Neville shows a real passion to be different amongst his peers and trail blaze a new approach for entertaining viewers at home.   His passion provides the fuel to invest hours of hard work to understand the game at a very deep level.
This simply highlights that to be really good at analytics you need to invest resources and time in this.  There are no quick fixes you just need a deep rooted interest and passion to get underneath this.  Perhaps this is the most disputive theme from the interview in the field of HR analytics.   Given how critical analytics is and will become in the future how many HR professionals have this deep seated passion and commitment of time to this?
In many ways Gary Neville is revolutionising the way football analysis is done.  Bringing together a more systematic and deeper insight into how simple acts like scoring goals happen.    Through applying some of the simple insights he applies can offer HR professionals a similar opportunity in the diverse and growing field of people analytics.
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