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The Future of People Analytics with Sonali Sharma

Clay Walsh

Last Updated: 2 February 2023

In this article:

“None of the problems that HR are facing are usual. We have no anecdotal evidence, no brain trust, no think tank to fall back on.” 

Sonali Sharma, Employee Insights at Uber, could not have more succinctly put the problem statement that HR faced in 2020. A year turned upside down by a global pandemic spurred an entirely new way of working and impacted organizations across the globe. The function that stepped to the plate to make concrete, decisive changes across the spectrum was HR, using data and analytics tools to ensure work from home was a smooth transition and employee experience was being tracked and improved during the pandemic.

We sat down to catch up with Sonali on everything HR maturity, discussing key trends of 2020, surprises and shortcomings of HR tech and best practices in the transition to the Employee Experience or EX 4.0, and what to watch out for in 2021.

1. HR Moves out of its Silo and into the Limelight


Conversations about HR tech and HR as a strategic business partner in an organization aren’t new developments, they’re conversations that have been happening over the course of the last few years. The successful and relatively seamless shift to work from home many HR teams executed as a result of the pandemic is one concrete example of HR moving towards becoming a strategic player in organizational structures.

What blew Sonali away was the speed at which teams were able to implement successful strategies as a “high-touch, relationship-driven” function, which was “lacking the listening tools needed” to succeed. As Sonali told us, with skills like data literacy being developed rapidly and best practices thinking being implemented with agility “how well HR has coped with work from home makes me think there’s a lot of hope.”

HR has also made huge strides in linking the dots in the employee journey. HR’s role has always been “responsible for employee journeys,” but Sonali sees this as “thinking about it in a connected way, which hasn’t before.”

It’s about “realizing that something you change here could have an impact somewhere else, at a different point in the journey,” instead of viewing individual employee milestones as disjunct and static parts of an employee’s experience. HR is building towards a seamless flow where collected information and experiences better allow us to trace employee life cycles with the advent of new types of HR tech, like AI HR chatbots, and changes in best practices thinking, so it’s exciting to see how HR will further align itself with central business goals in 2021. 

2. EX 4.0: Treating Your Employees like Your Customers to Boost Experience


Lots of companies were caught on their back feet when the pandemic started as few organizations had fully matured to EX 4.0 by that point. With organizations around the world at various stages of the employee experience curve, provided they were aware of the structure to begin with, everyone was starting at a different point when it came to bringing their employee experience strategies up to speed. The common thread of what began to drive that shift? According to Sonali, it’s just a simple idea: treat your employees like they were your customers. 

“Once you shift that mindset, you’re like, 'Oh my god, we’re so far behind!’” she said was the what struck HR and business leaders around the globe when they began to see how much of a gap they had to bridge. Especially when it comes to how with customers we’re putting effort in with “best in class technology, multiple touchpoints, journey mapping, user centric design,” the fact that employers are so far behind in implementing similar systems and structures for their employees “is causing a lot of panic.” If you want to keep up, Sonali says that mindset shift “has to happen,” and has to happen soon.

3. Designing a Culture of Authenticity through Continuous Listening


In Sonali’s eyes, one of the largest roadblocks we’ll have to overcome moving forward in HR maturity is developing trust and authenticity with our larger workforces. For her, this should be one of the primary goals for HR as a function during the year to come. In fact, for her the biggest problem to solve in 2021 is that authenticity and honesty are not necessarily real in a lot of places, or not a focus for a variety of organizations.

If the need for continuous listening was the idea of the year for 2020, ensuring that the conversations are healthy and productive should be the focus for 2021. 

At the end of the day, “You can have the best everything in place but if there’s no trust it’s meaningless.” For HR, and HR tech, now it’s about designing authenticity into our conversations. Sonali and her team at Uber are working internally to ensure honesty is at the center of the employee feedback process through productization because inauthentic conversations belie true sentiments and don’t provide valuable insights. You and your team should take stock of how you can ensure your language in feedback collection promotes authenticity, as well as acting on employee concerns in a way that builds trust with your workforce

4. Technical Limitations: Real or Perceived?

The scariest part of new technology is learning how to use it, and the fear of learning how to use it often compounds our inability or unwillingness to learn how to use a new piece of technology. The daunting image of familiarizing ourselves with new softwares or devices we paint in our heads becomes a vicious cycle, as it disincentivizes learning due to fear of failure. Everyone has tried to explain a new piece of tech to someone (maybe a parent, something many of us have likely tried) and had them be apprehensive about even trying to use it. However, in Sonali’s eyes HR teams have far outperformed using the tech available to them, whether it be new candidate tracking systems, outreach mechanisms, digitization of documents, video conferencing solutions, and more.

“It makes me wonder,” Sonali asked out loud, “is the technology limitation only in our heads?” This is a question that we’re excited to see answered in the months to come.

5. Bridging the Gaps: Vendors, HR Teams, and Decision Makers


One of the key components of HR tech adoption Sonali sees as being a trend in 2021 is the interplay between HR tech companies, HR teams, and C-Suite level roles in terms of making the financials work and the implementation plans feasible. The resistance to making radical alterations, whether because of deep seated practices or the fiscal situation faced by organizations, led her to the obvious conclusion that “change management is hard, it’s hard for everyone.” In her consulting experience, she notes that “we go in expecting pushback” because “nobody likes change, because people get offended at the thought that ‘Oh the way I’ve been doing things is wrong.’” 

For her, the key for implementing change lies largely with “figuring out what causes that hesitation” to revamp systems or onboard new tech. One point that we found particularly elucidating is that vendors have a key role in changing mindsets and understanding what barriers come to adoption. There’s multiple levels of decision making at any organization, and with many firms lacking “organized, well defined people analytics functions” to be a “spokesperson who understands data in a manner enough to figure out a way to make that change.”

HR tech companies need to double down on finding a way to wear multiple hats, enabling the sales process by ensuring messaging and communication resonates with varying level employees at potential client organizations. In her eyes, the process of selling HR tech solutions needs to be developed in a manner that can help understand and bridge communication gaps and erode the hesitancy to adopt new products and tools. 

Exciting Years Ahead

Closing with insights from Sonali felt like an appropriate way to end the year for us as we consider the future, as her emphasis on dismantling resistance to change resonated throughout. To continue developing the HR field, utilize new tech effectively, and push forward on the EX curve we need to alter our mindsets about the way people analytics and HR as a whole works. What was so encouraging was the element of hope that pervaded our conversation, because if HR teams worldwide have proved one thing this year it’s that the HR function can move with agility and implement effective change management in a way that few other functions could.

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