Data is not the Decision



By Ian J. Cook, CHRP 


The ship the USS Endeavour was cruising its way rapidly up the north coast of America on maneuvers. The captain stood on the bridge with a keen eye on the horizon. He spotted a light. It was dead ahead. Right in the path of the military vessel. He lifted his radio and called out on the public frequency. “Move aside we have right of way”.  The reply came back over the radio “Sorry can’t do that.”

With rising anger the captain grabbed the radio and proclaimed. “This is the USS Endeavour. Move aside. We are on a military exercise and will not deviate from our course.”

A calm, slightly amused voice replied “This is the lighthouse – your call.”

Whether this anecdote is true or not, it contains many valuable lessons.  The one I want to focus on is the use of data in decision making. This whole dynamic turns on the fact that the captain uses one data point (the light) to build a whole mistaken scenario (a ship coming towards them). As it is on the ocean so it is in business. The only thing worse than no information is a little bit of information and with the increase in available data so there is more opportunity for people to use too little data to make the wrong decision.

All of us are wired the same way as the captain – we want to make sense of what we perceive as quickly as possible and will often layer in assumptions and make up information to achieve this understanding.  Imagine if the captain’s first radio message had been a question such as “Please identify yourself”. The anecdote becomes boring, however this approach is more effective when using data to make decisions. It is important to be curious and to look to understand the nature and range of the data you are looking at before jumping to a decision. This is a skill, one that is rarely taught and one that is becoming ever more important.

Here are some quick tips on how to get started developing this skill and avoiding looking as silly as the captain:

1.    Be curious and ask questions

2.    Identify exactly what you do and don’t know

3.    Determine what else you need to know and if you can find it out

4.    If you can’t  get more information then determine the limits, (time, scale and risk) to the decision you are making

5.    Make the decision

Remember the decision is what is important and the data is only a part of the decision making process. If you find yourself justifying an action that does not seem logical based on a single number then you are focusing on the data too closely.

Here is an example to illustrate a decision relating to HR FTE ratios:  “Looking at our HR FTE ratio we are in a good place. We are in the top 25% of organizations. However before we stop there we need to consider our overall HR costs per FTE and look at our HR service satisfaction rating before we decide not to make any changes.”

The availability of HR data does make decisions easier and better. This brings with it the opportunity to increase your credibility with the business leaders in your organization. However data itself is not the same as a decision and the steps above provide a great start to using the available data as effectively as possible to support the success of your organization.



Ian J. Cook, CHRP, is the director of research and learning at BC HRMA. Ian is using his global HR consulting experience and business knowledge to grow a function which delivers informative, relevant and timely comment.

HR Metrics Annual reports are now available from BC HRMA. Improve your HR decisions and build your credibility by putting robust evidence behind your plans and investments for the coming year. 

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