Performing knowledge work: an ethnographic exploration of a people analytics team
This thesis examines ‘people analytics’ as an emerging trend in human resource management. People analytics is understood in this study as a novel, quantitative, evidence-based and data-driven approach to human resource management. It is an approach that aims to increase the efficiency of core human resource functions and optimise employee performance, with the goal of adding value to the organisation, contributing to business performance and elevating the status of the human resource profession. The thesis focuses on the perspective of those responsible for putting people analytics into practice in organisations, called ‘people analytics experts’ in this thesis, and asks how people analytics experts perform their role in a corporate organisation.
Currently, there is little academic literature reporting on the realities of people analytics work from the perspective of people analytics experts. The lack of this perspective is surprising, especially considering that there is much evidence that the potential organisational benefits of people analytics are currently not being fully realised. A comprehensive study of what actually happens in people analytics teams and what people analytics experts experience in their day-to-day work could help to better realise this potential.
The thesis reports on a participatory ethnography of a people analytics team working in the human resource department of a European multinational organisation. The field study covered a period of seven months, during which participatory observation, ethnographic interviews and document collection were conducted. This approach proved particularly useful as the main aim of the research was to provide a counterbalance to the dominant normative literature which views people analytics as a socially decontextualised phenomenon, whereas my concern was to collect data relevant from the perspective of people analytics experts in order to gain a new, comprehensive understanding of the context of people analytics work in organisations.
The description of the subjective realities of the people analytics experts in this thesis is based upon the understanding that realities are socially constructed. In order to answer the overall research question comprehensively, the study combines different levels of analysis and theoretical concepts, which are synthesised by Goffman's theoretical concept of 'front stage' and 'back stage'.
Drawing on the theory of institutions and their logics, this thesis examines in particular how social interactions are structured by societal beliefs and rules. The logics become visible through so-called scripts that prescribe appropriate role behaviour. Further, I use the theoretical concept of identity work to better understand how actors give meaning to these scripts and close the identified discrepancy between work role and professional identity. This conglomeration of perspectives and levels of analysis gives rise to specific sub-research questions that are addressed in the empirical chapters.
The findings of the study suggest that people analytics experts find themselves in an institutional complexity driven primarily by a market and management logic as well as by a low legitimacy of their function within the organisation. In order to cope with this complexity, people analytics experts orient their day-to-day performance very closely to three identified scripts: the script of customer orientation, the script of action orientation and the script of continuous change. The behavioural regulation associated with these scripts ensured that the people analytics experts mobilised activities but engaged in limited professional behaviour such as producing high quality output.
Building on this, this study examines how the people analytics experts attempt to maintain and re-establish their professional identities. They were found to use two different and above all contradictory strategies in particular: that of 'positive distinctiveness', in which they portrayed 'others' as unknowing and in need of advice and educated them about the value of their professional identity. And the strategy of ‘delimitation’, in which they (sometimes cynically) distanced themselves from their own ideal as an expert and their own working methods. While the first strategy aimed at closing the discrepancy between role and professional identity, the second strategy only provided short-term relief but did not improve the situation.
The findings contribute to a better understanding of the structural and systemic barriers to the implementation and realisation of people analytics in organisations and thus explain the reasons for the failure to realise the potential of people analytics. In contrast to the mainstream literature, this study demonstrated that neither the expertise of the people analytics experts, nor the quality of the information technology infrastructure or the data were responsible for the limited added value of the people analytics projects. Rather, this study was able to reveal that due to the dominant managerial and market logic, apparent efficiency, effectiveness and profitability were prioritised over concerns about scientific logic, rigour and empiricism, instrumentalising people analytics and thereby extremely diminishing its value to the organisation. The findings further challenge technologically optimistic and deterministic assumptions that people analytics will increase the legitimacy of the human resource function in organisations. Contrary to the existing literature, I consider people analytics to be more of a threat to the profession than an improvement, at least in its current form. I argue that it is mainly the distancing of people analytics experts from their own professional ideals that can lead to human resources as a profession ‘rotting from within’, especially when profit striving and managerialism become the norm and any deviation from these logics is perceived as a disruption.
From a theoretical perspective, the work contributes to a better understanding of how institutional complexity is managed in everyday life. The study provides empirical evidence on how scripts are taken for granted and how adherence to these scripts became part of the habitus of people analytics experts. In terms of identity work the study contributes to the better understanding of how identity work is not always desirable, but can also, as in this case, lead to a deterioration of work outcomes and even push actors deeper into an identity crisis.
- Business and Economics