Workforce Science and Big Data

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In April of last year, the New York Times ran an article entitled How Big Data is Playing Recruiter for Specialized Workers1. The Times went on to explain: “of late…entrepreneurs are applying Big Data to human resources (HR) and the search for talent, creating a field called work-force science… searches the Internet for talented programmers, trawling sites where they gather, collecting data exhaust.”

What is Workforce Science?

Workforce science is the application of Big Data methodologies to predict employee performance. In case you need a review, the value of Big Data lies in our ability to leverage massive computational scale to process massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and arrive at a simple prediction. Where does this data come from? Humans create data exhaust whenever they interact with a digital system, a byproduct left behind on the machines we work with. This data exhaust takes many forms: web clicks, blog posts, online gaming, tweets, likes, etc.

I recently spoke at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) Compensation & Benefits Conference on this very topic. In my view, HR is pre-disposed to skepticism. Most companies have a structured candidate evaluation process. But at the end of the day, the final hiring decision is made by a person (not a machine) with a relatively small amount of data to work with. Many HR pros will readily admit that this decision often comes down to a hunch. Here is my big question: can a machine outperform a human in the field of recruiting and talent management?

A number of companies are answering “Yes!” to my big question. They offer services to HR professionals which help them find the right candidates for positions they are looking to fill. The more specialized the skill set, the better. How do they do this? By leveraging big data methodologies against publicly available data exhaust left by candidates. Some companies go a step farther, creating online games whereby data exhaust can be created, analyzed and then used as the basis for a prediction. These stories are offered as an example of how Big Data can be used to generate business value in unexpected ways.

A Hybrid Approach to Recruiting: Machine + Man

Recruiters have used scoring algorithms for years. The best search and recruiting firms have elevated the process of interpreting the scores to an art form, or science, or both. One such firm is Riviera Partners (Rivera). Based in San Francisco, CA, Riviera Partners delivers tech-enabled services to startups seeking top engineering talent. Big Data sets them apart from the rest. They have developed a data aggregation platform that allows Rivera’s team of experienced recruiters to make the best possible matches between candidates and clients. It’s for start-ups!

Quality Candidates Means Lower Costs

Firms which hire technical workers must evaluate a candidate’s technical skills. This process usually includes a “technical interview” conducted by a senior technical employee, often the best mind available, and consequently expensive. What if you could reduce the number of technical interviews required to fill a position? Two companies, Gild and Talent Bin, offer data science software to help HR find their “needle in a haystack”. Gild does this by scoring the full universe of technical talent available based upon data exhaust. From there, Gild sends their clients only the highest quality candidates available for the skills they are seeking. Talent Bin focuses on social media data, seeking “passives” (i.e. employees who are not actively job hunting) who are likely a good fit for a given position.  In both cases, the yield is higher quality candidates for hard-to-fill positions.


Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage and increase contributions. Behind the definition is a theory that says that people are most “honest” when they are playing a game. Because a game involves clear rules, a clear goal and obstacles to achieving that goal, players naturally respond with creative energy and quick thinking. Knack is a company that delivers online games plus the data science required to reveal strong correlations between a person’s game exhaust and their natural talents. With big data at its core, Knack leverages cutting-edge behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, data science, computer science and design techniques to build games that produce thousands of data points describing how a player perceives, responds, plans, reacts, thinks, problem-solves, adapts, learns, persists and performs in a multitude of situations. contributor, Jacob Morgan, hosts a podcast called The Future of Work2 in which he explores emerging trends in the modern workforce. His interview with Knack CEO, Guy Halfteck, is included in the September 2014 edition of his podcast. I encourage you to explore this idea.


As society continues on the Big Data journey, enterprises are finding several ways in which massive amounts of data can be used to generate business value. To do this, you don’t need to be a Big Data expert yourself. You don’t even need to know what data to look at. But you do need to know what you are looking for. Work-force science demonstrates this to us. HR professionals know what they are looking for, even if they don’t always know why a candidate will succeed or fail. Big Data experts have created a market for software using Big Data to correlate data exhaust to highly specialized skills, job performance and intangibles like character and leadership.



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