Big Data Out, Actionable Data In - Why small data is key to WFM

Excelence-Essentials-Jan2015-BigDataThe influx of information computing technology enables has led towards an emphasis on big data and 

itsmanagement. Big data is used to describe the exponential growth and availability of both structured and unstructured data, a result of accelerated means of creation and technologies that facilitate data processes. The major trend is towards the evolution of processing and utilizing big data to enhance business processes.

From a workforce management perspective, big data can be extremely useful, but only if a business has good, actionable data technology and processes in place. Too often, the big data trend has overshadowed small data – which is a huge oversight. Small data can be massively beneficial to businesses, enabling their employees, supervisors and management alike to make educated decisions – particularly regarding process and workforce management. When we get lost in the discourse of big data, we ignore what is really important: smart, actionable data.

This article will dive into what small data is, why businesses should leverage it, and how specifically it relates to workforce management.



As the name suggests, it is data that in volume and in format, makes it accessible, informative and actionable. Typically it can be used to answer specific questions or address specific problems, quickly and efficiently. This makes it infinitely more useful for day-to-day opera- tions, productivity and workforce management needs than big data.

This is a point that Rufus Pollock, founder and president of Open Knowledge, nailed on the head. As he put it:

Just as we now find it ludicrous to talk of “big software” – as if size in itself were a measure of value – we should, and will one day, find it equally odd to talk of “big data”. Size in itself doesn’t matter – what matters is having the data, of whatever size, that helps us solve a problem or address the question we have.



The hype of big data has made it so that almost everyone thinks they need to hop on board. However, there are significant disadvantages to big data, and it’s not suitable (or necessary) for many organizations.

First, Big data, as the name suggests, is BIG. Storing and process- ing so much information is expensive and time-consuming. It takes a smart, dedicated team to manage.

Second, it can take a while for big data to really elicit any benefits, especially because not everybody needs such a large amount of in- formation to complete tasks. HR managers, for example, are much better served by small data that is specific to the roles they fill within the organization.

Third, for many companies, big data is both unnecessary and not worth the effort.

Small data, on the other hand, packages information in a way that people in your organization can use it, so that it is accessible, understand- able and actionable. It is structured, it is intuitive, it provides insight, and most importantly, it can actually be used to achieve goals. It’s about collaboration and democratization, not centralization and control.



From a workforce management perspective, small data is the key to identifying and correcting organizational issues pertaining to the workforce. Let’s look at some hypothetical examples.

Your business is using information to look at revenue versus costs (particularly labor costs). Big data can be used to obtain a macro level understanding of these figures. However, there are typically two scenarios that result from using only big data to make this determination.

You discover revenue is too low relative to labor cost, but the data doesn’t indicate why or how to fix it.

The revenue versus cost ratio is found to be acceptable to your organization, but there is no actionable data indicating how you can improve this ratio.

This is where small data comes into play. It can help you identify where your workforce management efforts are falling short.

In both of the above scenarios, a small data point could indicate, for example, that your business is losing $1 million per year in pro- ductivity due to an ineffective overtime approval process. Or maybe you identify that employees aren’t taking their allocated vacation and you have to pay out the remaining days, which adds financial liability that was not assumed in the initial business plan. There are many other insights that can be gathered from small data which big data can’t facilitate: over/understaffing, absenteeism, time to hire, employee retention rates, etc. The point is, these small data points allow your organization to identify workforce issues that are costing your business money or affecting productivity, so that you can take corrective action.

And small data isn’t just relevant to management, either. Em- ployees are able to see metrics that are relevant to them: their at- tendance, number of times they were late, how much vacation they are entitled to and have used, how many of their hours are balanced against billable projects versus non-billable time, etc. Having this information available to them gives them an indica- tion of their performance, which can be beneficial to productivity.



Despite the hype around big data, it is really small data that allows you to identify business performance and strive to continually improve. It can be especially useful in the area of workforce management, working to help both managers and employees take actions that benefit the bottom line. Big data can be highly useful as well, but it’s not worth anything if your business hasn’t already implemented processes and technology which support small, actionable data first. If you’ve been caught up in big data discourse – at the expense of small, actionable data – you’re missing a huge opportunity to optimize your work- force operations, and by extension, your entire organization. WFM

Article by: Paolo Gilfillan - Sales & Marketing Director, Synerion Inc. 

Excellence Essentials Magazine - Workforce Management, Time and Attendance

Publication date: January 2015
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