Strategic People Analytics from Inuit on Organizational Design & Decision Making



August 30, 2023

Dr. Daisy Grewal, a respected social psychologist in people analytics, unravels the enigmatic dynamics of organizational design and decision-making. With her profound expertise as Senior Manager of People Analytics & Research Partners at Intuit, she challenges prevailing notions and champions the pivotal role of middle management. Explore the convergence of social psychology and data insights, illuminating a path towards agile decision-making paradigms. This intellectual discourse crafts a roadmap for strategic people analytics, forging a new era of HR innovation and cross-functional synergy.

Ann le Cam

Dr. Daisy Grewal

Sr. Manager, People Analytics & Research Partners at Intuit

Felicia Shakiba  00:04

Hello everyone. I'm Felicia Shakiba, and you're listening to the CPO PLAYBOOK podcast. Join me and my guests as we feature insightful conversations with HR leaders, people scientists, and executives from diverse industries and functions, offering valuable perspectives on the future of work. Discover a unique outlook on navigating the complexities of the modern-day working world, exploring innovative strategies in talent management and corporate culture from the Chief People Officer's perspective. Tune in to stay ahead of the game when it comes to all things people-related.

Felicia Shakiba  00:43

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article titled, Don’t Eliminate Your Middle Managers, “cutting such jobs hastily or too deeply can be a costly mistake.” Through the realm of people analytics, where we embark on a profound exploration of data-driven insights reshaping the workforce, we’ll unveil a vexing quandary that frequently plagues companies: the misperceptions and perils enshrouding the reduction of middle management.

Within the contemporary business landscape, enterprises ardently seek to streamline their operations and enhance efficacy. Among the favored approaches is the curtailing of middle managerial ranks, for it’s postulated that leaner organizational structures herald swift decision-making and fiscal frugality. Alas, this ostensibly facile resolution may not always yield the coveted outcomes.

Felicia Shakiba  01:41

Our esteemed guest is an accomplished arbiter of people analytics prowess, presenting an extraordinary acumen, derived from her multifaceted background as a social psychologist and expertise in institutional research. Drawing from her sagacious insights, she’ll share her approach to organizational design, decision-making paradigms, and the enriching contours of the employee experience in a truly strategic manner.

Felicia Shakiba  02:11

Dr. Daisy Grewal, Sr. Manager of People Analytics & Research Partner at Intuit, joins us from Mountain View California. Daisy is the former Director of Evaluation at Stanford University and holds a doctorate in Social Psychology from Yale.

Daisy, thank you for being here today.

Dr. Daisy Grewal  02:40

Thanks for inviting me. 

Felicia Shakiba  02:42

As a social psychologist working in the field of people analytics, how do you see the unique perspective you bring to the table impacting the way you approach and analyze data compared to IO psychologists or other professionals.

Dr. Daisy Grewal  02:47

So when I first entered the field, this was back in 2018, it was actually pretty rare to find a social psychologist working in people analytics. Most of the PhDs in the field are trained in industrial organizational psychology. And I actually used to feel somewhat self conscious about it, I would joke that I'm masquerading as an organizational psychologist, but I can say after spending a few years now in the field, I'm actually saying it with more pride, because I think social psychology as well as other non traditional backgrounds in people analytics have so much value to add to HR. For one thing, we are trained to think about people problems from a systems perspective. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  03:33

And then when it comes to solving problems and designing solutions, we tend to gravitate towards thinking about how can we change features of the environment and the workplace itself, rather than the people. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  03:47

And I think that's really important, because that is actually what companies have way more control over, especially once you're past the hiring and onboarding stage. And just to make that a little more concrete and give you an example, one area in particular, where I think social psychology can add tremendous value is in the area of DEI. So social psychology has a very long history, starting with World War II studying the root causes of many of the DEI issues that we see in our companies today. So bias, prejudice, stereotypes, and more importantly, how do you change environments to reduce the chances that those biases will influence people's thinking and behavior. And I've seen some infiltration of this kind of thinking, particularly with some HR technology vendors are using these science based interventions now like nudges, all of that comes from deep research and psychology, on how you can really change people's behaviors. But I really think we are just starting to scratch the surface right now on what's really possible for designing effective science based intervention.

Felicia Shakiba  04:56

That's really interesting. Thank you for that insight. I, I didn't know that. Your background particularly is interesting as well, because you come from institutional research and universities to your current role at Intuit. So could you tell us more about how that transition influenced your view of people analytics and its potential in the corporate world? 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  05:20

Yeah, that's really interesting, because I think there's a common view in the corporate world that universities tend to be behind the times and maybe old fashioned when it comes to how they run their organizations from a people perspective. And I do think there's some truth to that. So for example, before the pandemic, it was, when I worked at a university, it was pretty unheard of to have zoom and virtual first meetings, work was really considered to be in person only. But the one area where I think universities have actually been ahead of the curve in this area of studying their people really deeply to inform decision making. So this field of institutional research is a somewhat boring sounding phrase for what is essentially people analyze. So for decades, universities have been hiring people with a similar background as me to generate insights about their people, which is faculty, students and staff to help them make decisions and give them a competitive edge. So the transition to people analytics was actually pretty smooth for me in terms of transferable skills. And in many ways, I discovered that I was able to bring with me some more innovative methods than what had been traditionally used and people analytics in the past. So things like really rigorously done focus groups, or using experimental design, I actually have found reflecting back on my my prior roles, that universities can be more open to those kinds of approaches and methods because faculty members who are researchers themselves readily buy into the high quality insights that those kinds of methods produce.

Felicia Shakiba  06:58

I have a similar background, where I learned a lot of my psychology people analytics work from my education. And so I feel like I have a similar, similar experience like you do with creating something that's more traditional using the people in analytics strategies. So it's interesting. One of the topics you mentioned being passionate about is organizational design, when we first spoke, and the impact of spans and layers, so could you elaborate on a project you worked on related to this? And any surprising findings you uncovered during the process?

Dr. Daisy Grewal  07:37

Yeah, so one of my first projects was to answer questions about what's optimal when it comes to both manager stance and the number of direct reports a manager has. And then the number of organizational layers you have in the company, if you start with the CEO is the first there. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  07:55

So like most people, before I started this project, I have heard over and over from the media and business literature, that flatter is better. And companies should be as flat as possible if they want to be innovative and quick and agile, as well as transparent. So I was actually very surprised by my own findings, which included both external research and internal research to learn that flatter isn't necessarily other. So when I looked at the data, consistently, I found that either it didn't really matter, it was a pretty small impact, or in many cases, people actually prefer more hierarchy, and they feel comfortable when there is a good amount of hierarchy in place.

Felicia Shakiba  08:39

That's so interesting. In your research on team size and hierarchy levels, you mentioned that the number of middle managers doesn't necessarily determine decision making speed. So can you elaborate on the factors that have a more significant influence on effective decision making within an organization? 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  08:59

Yeah, what we've found and what we hear from employees mostly is that the sphere of decision making is more about the decision making process than where you sit in the organization, or how big the team is that you work on. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  09:13

So the things that do seem to matter related to that decision making process are, how many approvals do I have to get? How many sign offs do I need to move forward? And where are those people in the organization? What is the appetite for senior leaders in empowering the teams below them to go ahead and make decisions on their own without that senior leader input, especially for decisions that could be reversible. And then through my research, I also found that there were things that on the surface don't seem really related, but actually make a big difference for how quickly employees can move in their day to day jobs. So one that really surprised me was the number of project managers you need to work with to get something done. The other thing that I think helped me understand why I didn't find kind of the common perspective that flatter is better, because when you really think about most white collar workforces, there are very few of us who are spending most of our time with our direct managers, most people are not doing the same job as their manager, they're not even doing the same job as their peers. They're spending a lot of time in cross functional teams. And so their main dependencies when it comes to moving faster tends to be people who report to other managers. And so those connections don't show up on the organizational chart. So it's really hard to study them in sort of a traditional approach to spans and layers. And yet, those are the connections where crucial decision making processes tend to break down and make things harder for employees.

Felicia Shakiba  10:50

I completely agree not that I should be disagreeing with your research, but I agree in the sense that I've had a numerous amount of experiences where I, myself, I'm mostly working cross functionally within the organization. And the organization's success is really around how do we work together, cross functionally... cross culturally. So that's interesting that that's come up, so clearly, in your research. Now, companies today are considering reducing the number of middle managers to flatten their organizations. So based on your research and insights and what you've shared thus far, what advice would you offer to organizations that are exploring such structural changes? 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  11:31

I think the first advice I'd probably give them is to be really clear, and perhaps honest about the lens they're using to make that decision. So if you're looking at it from a purely cost perspective, yes, managers are more expensive than individual contributors. And maybe you're at a point where you need to make those costs. And there are many consulting companies that can help organizations make those kinds of decisions really well in terms of dollars saved.

But if you're trying to flatten your organization, thinking that that in itself is going to make your employees happier, more productive, more creative and innovative, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence to support that. Instead, what seems to matter a lot more is improving decision making and the ways that we talked about and empowering teams to make those decisions on their own, and improving manager capability. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  12:30

There's actually a lot of thinking coming out right now, about how middle managers are actually playing a crucial role, but they're often devalued. And the data suggests that our frontline managers, were actually kind of the unsung heroes during the pandemic. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  12:46

So they provided their employees with unprecedented amounts of emotional and practical support, during a time when they themselves were likely struggling with all those same challenges. And I don't think we would have seen as much employee engagement and as many people sticking with their companies if we didn't have it on computers playing that really important role during that time.

Felicia Shakiba  13:09

Absolutely. I think managers definitely deserve a lot more support than I think that they've gotten, especially over the last couple of years with the pandemic. So what are some best practices you follow to ensure data reliability and accuracy? Because at the end of the day, the research doesn't really matter until you have that reliability, validity of that data. So how do you approach the data collection and analysis process to yield those actionable insights?

Dr. Daisy Grewal  13:37

Yes, and this has been a big impediment. I think, for the people analytics field in general. Think of now, we're able to take off because we were able to build that foundation. But it took a long time to build that foundation, because of course, getting clean, accurate HR data is not as glamorous as doing research. But it's an absolutely essential foundation for all people analytic teams. So that's kind of stage one. But beyond having that infrastructure in place, it's really important I think that we as people analytics professionals, are really clear about what it is that we're actually measuring. So most HR data is not generated for people analytics. It's generated for talent processes and other kinds of administrative processes. And so it can be really hard to quantify the things that were interested in studying things like how do people truly feel about their jobs? Or even more basic things like, was an internal job change truly representative of an internal mobility move that the employee wanted or their manager wanted? Or was it just an administrative change? Or even something like really knowing whether a voluntary exit was truly voluntary, it can be really hard to make those interpretations. So that's one of the reasons I am a huge proponent of mixed methods research and actually talking directly to employees. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  15:04

And if you observe something unusual going on in your data to go and find some case studies and really understand what was that employee's journey, because it may not be what it looks like on the surface when you're just looking at things from a numbers point of view.

Felicia Shakiba  15:19

And looking ahead, where do you see the future of people analytics heading? What are the emerging trends and areas of focus that you believe will shape the field in the coming years?

Dr. Daisy Grewal  15:31

There are definitely a lot of trends and there's a lots of exciting technology coming out, every day, I get an email about a new HR technology vendor, and I even start to kind of get excited, maybe that's gonna solve my problem, maybe that's gonna solve my problem. But I think I've been in it long enough now to know that, like any other field, it can be really excited to get pumped up about that shiny new object, whether that's a new data source, or things like social network analysis, or now generative AI is kind of all the rage. But I think I take a step back, where the field really needs to continue to lean into if we're going to thrive is to make sure we're deeply connected with the business strategy, and the problems that the business needs to solve. So I think to a certain degree, we need to shed this mindset that's been holding us back that we are somehow this niche group of specialists and the data nerds within HR, but are actually in roles that are fundamental to helping the business grow and make money. By positioning ourselves as true business partners, who also bring our own functional expertise to the table, and rather just see ourselves as partners to the HR org, I think people analytics has unlimited potential to add value to the companies that we serve. So that's probably what I'm most excited about.

Felicia Shakiba  16:58

Daisy, is there anything that we didn't talk about today that you want to share?

Dr. Daisy Grewal  17:03

I think you made a really great point, Felicia, where you talked about your own background, and how you were trained in certain methods in psychology, because I think that kind of approach to studying customers has become really widely accepted that we can and should study our customers, psychology, mindsets, behaviors in a really sophisticated way. What I would love to see as that approach shift to employees, and I think that's where people analytics can add enormous value and perhaps and learn from how we study the customer.

Felicia Shakiba  17:41

I have one more question. There was something that stuck in my head, which was, you feel like the people analytics team is like a partner to the HR org, the traditional HR business partner? I'm just curious, and maybe you don't have a different answer for this. But how would you best structure the HR org? Would the org structure or the org design even change at all? I'm just curious.

Dr. Daisy Grewal  18:07

That's a great question. We talk about that a lot in my team, because I think it's a combination of org structure, and where we sit in the org, but also how we brand ourselves. So are rebranding ourselves as the data folks who produce data on reports and analysis? Or are we branding ourselves as a truly strategic function? 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  18:31

I think in my ideal world, people analytics would be akin to our corporate strategy work for the rest of the business so that when the company is considering a really huge capital move, such as a merger and acquisition, or a new work model that impacts the employee experience, they would think of the people analytics team, as the first people to reach out to when they're even exploring that idea. I think right now we're seen as sort of a team you go to afterwards to figure out whether it worked or not and how to adjust. So I think a lot of it is actually positioning and branding to answer your question.

Felicia Shakiba  19:12

Daisy, this has been an incredible interview and the findings you've shared are priceless. Thank you so much for being here today. 

Dr. Daisy Grewal  19:21

Thank you, Felicia. 

Felicia Shakiba  19:22

That's Dr. Daisy Grewal, Senior Manager of People Analytics and Research Partners at Intuit.

Felicia Shakiba  19:37

If you liked today’s episode, we have more podcasts on innovative HR strategies, talent management, organizational culture, and more, and how to navigate the complexities of modern-day HR. Find them, at CPO PLAYBOOK dot com slash podcasts or search CPO PLAYBOOK on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening to the CPO PLAYBOOK podcast - we’ll be back with a new episode next time. I’m Felicia Shakiba.

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