The annual Wharton People Analytics Conference underscores the key feature of management in the big data era. It is no longer leaders versus geeks. The soft skills of leadership still matter a lot.
But when it comes to vision and strategy, leaders must be able to see the horizon amid the blizzard of information swirling around them. Better leaders make better decisions. Better decisions are the product of better analysis, and the frontier of analysis is moving rapidly.
Leaders don’t have to be coders or algorithm whiz kids. But they do need to know how to use the products of geek work to inform how and where they lead.
This coming together of soft skills and number crunching is nowhere more evident than the burgeoning new field of people analytics. From Goldman Sachs to Google, not to mention the Boston Red Sox to Manchester United, the world’s top organizations know that their value is essentially all wrapped up in the creativity and productivity of their people.
But how do you find the best people? What makes them most productive? How do you position them for ultimate success? These are the classic questions for HR managers. Instead of relying solely on feel, empathy and looking deeply into someone’s eyes to see what is inside, organizations today are using data and experiments to supplement and shape their gut feel about people.
Humans have long been worried about the rise of the all-consuming machine. Go back and watch Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the classic 1957 movie Desk Set, about the computerization of a TV network’s research department. Or recall that nearly 20 years ago Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer developed by IBM, beat chess wunderkind Garry Kasparov.
Today we know that human-helped-by-machine beats machine every time, and not only in chess.
And people like my colleague Adam Grant, Wharton’s Class of 1965 Wharton Professor of Management, are showing that using data and experiments helps well beyond impersonal bottom line thinking. Organizations flourish when the people who work in them flourish. Analytics can help make both happen.
At Wharton, we believe we should practice what we teach. That is why we have begun to take a people analytics approach to our MBA program. Our students are already great and go on to do great things in the world. But we don’t intend to rest on our laurels, and the world of analytics looms large in all our plans.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared on LinkedIn on Apr. 14, 2015.