Amit Mohindra: An Interview

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At UNLEASH Amsterdam I had the pleasure of interviewing Amit Mohindra. Amit has a background in engineering and economics before becoming People Analytics lead at Apple. In this interview, we speak about people analytics nirvana, the importance of education, and the future of analytics. Enjoy!

Erik van Vulpen: Hello everyone. I’m here with Amit Mohindra. Amit, very glad to have you.

Amit Mohindra: My pleasure. So happy to be here.

Erik: We’re here at Unleash, and you just gave a workshop on People Analytics Nirvana. Can you tell us what was the workshop is about?

Amit: Yeah. So, until a few years ago, you wouldn’t use people and analytics together in a sentence, let alone nirvana. So, the conference had so many sessions on analytics and some of the technical aspects. I thought it might be refreshing to take a bit of a different track, and think about analytics from a more reflective standpoint. And I feel I could do it, because I’ve been doing people analytics for quite a while. I decided to talk about this very esoteric notion of nirvana, as a destination, and try and help people at the event, sort of, sit back and reflect, because we often don’t have time to reflect.

We’re so busy, even at the conference, going from session to session. At work we’re busy working from project to project. And it’s only when you reflect, and think about what’s happened, that you can learn and improve. And not just what’s happened in the past, but what’s going to happen. That’s called reflecting on the future, and that’s what this conference is about, the future of work. What’s the goal of analytics? What’s the goal of technology?

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So, I, sort of, had a bit of fun with it. It was a bit of a risk. I wasn’t sure if people would really come to this.

Erik: But, I think, it played out though. I heard that the room was packed. Because you’ve been, for the viewers that don’t know, you’ve been doing people analytics for quite a while already. Can you explain something about your background?

Amit: Yeah. Yeah. So, originally I am an electrical engineer. And I went to graduate school, to study labor economics, because I always felt growing up in India, that the solution to many of our problems was not necessarily more capital, but what do you do with so many people? Very real, sort of, situation. So, I became a labor economist. I didn’t really anticipate ending up in HR. I didn’t really know what HR was.

So, I became a research economist, studying labor markets, and somehow then I got into the private sector, and into consulting. And I worked in compensation and benefits for a long time. Then my first really formal people analytics job, was as the head of workforce intelligence in a healthcare company. And then Apple. But, I started out, the first time in 1999. I created a group called HR Strategy and Analysis, at Lehman Brothers.

So, 19 years ago, and at that point, it was just me. And I convinced my boss, “Let’s start this group, because there is so much work to do.’ And single-handedly I did predicting efficiency, predicting success. We looked at qualitative and quantitative information. We did some rudimentary text analytics. What companies did for the next 10, 15 years was already, sort of, done. And if you think about it, now there’s artificial intelligence and machine learning. But a lot of the mathematics haven’t changed. Survival analysis, it’s the same from 20, 30 years ago. Even some machine learning techniques. They were just called nonparametric econometrics, but now it’s artificial intelligence.

Erik: So, you’ve worked at Apple, but recently you’ve made a change. Tell us more about that.

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Amit: Yeah. So, I was really fortunate to work at Apple for a few years. I was hired to set up the people analytics team. Which I did and built it from just a handful of people, to a bigger team. And it was time for me to move on. I decided I’d like to go back and work for myself again. And I’ve launched a company called “People Analytics Success” And it’s got three pillars so far. One is advisory. So, helping companies get started in analytics or do specific projects. It’s helping HR Tech startups that are applying machine learning, for example, to people’s situations, and how do you hone that as a product.

The second pillar is exactly what you … So, how do you help HR leaders who aren’t comfortable with analytics, get more comfortable, because now it’s pervasive, and you really have to be comfortable. Also helping people analytics leaders show up as HR leaders, so they can have a seat at the HR table. Otherwise, they’re just tools … they can be ignored. But if you’re actually making … you’re there making decisions, it’s helpful. I’ve also found it helpful for the analytics leader to also have some, sort of, other responsibilities. Whether it’s compensation or ability or operations. To have some, sort of, stake in the function of HR.

Then finally, education. So, that’s one big need, and I know you understand that as well, because you’re in that business too.

Erik: We’ve been dabbling in it.

Amit: It’s very impressive, and it’s so important to help HR business partners, and others, again, just get more confident and more comfortable. Hopefully, some of them will get so interested that they want to learn the mathematics, and the econometrics, but you don’t have to do that for everyone. It’s really, ultimately, what’s really important is how can you make the best use of the existing people analytics team, as a business HR person. And again, show up as a more strategic, business oriented HR person.

Erik: Yeah. And the education of course, is very important to, in the end, shift the culture and to actually implement the change. I think, that also goes back to why the analytics leader needs to be involved with the top HR team. They need to make an impact, and their voice needs to be heard in order to be truly effective.

Amit: Now, the talk I gave on the People Analytics Nirvana, I was talking about the newness of analytics, and what happens in the future. Maybe it’s not even a thing. Maybe it’s just pervasive, and you don’t need analytics team. And there is a way of thinking about it, using, I think it’s a Buddhist approach. So, think about it. There is no mountain. There is a mountain. There is. So, just think about that.

There is no people analytics. There is people analytics. There is. And it’s just pervasive. It’s part of how we do business. And that’s importance of the education piece. So, that everyone is equipped, and it may take a while …

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Erik: Probably. Do you see analytics as an integral part of doing business? Does people analytics still exists as a separate unit? Or will it just be analytics? Will people analytics, in the end, disappear?

Amit: So, that’s a topic of debate. And, I think there’s a risk, I considered it a risk that the people analytics is consumed or subsumed within a broader analytics team. There are some advantages to that. I think, you’d probably get more resources, and you’d have different ideas. So, I think, you could get some creativity and innovation through that. But, I think, people analytics is different, because you’re dealing with people. You need to have some sort of understanding of how HR works. You have to have a stake in people and in their success. I think, people who get into HR have that. And if it’s just about the numbers, then you’re not doing justice to the function.

Erik: So, the passion for people, even if it’s through data, is still important.

Amit: Because, I think, you can just use numbers and make decisions that are not right. They don’t make sense. You still need the human interpretation. So, the advocacy of somebody who’s within the HR function, for people, to do that interpretation.

Erik: Any closing thoughts before we wrap this up, Amit?

Amit: This is an amazing event. There’s so much going on. Very frenetic. There’s a lot of talk about the future. About AI, and I see people getting caught up in that. So, what I would recommend is just, again, reflect. Sit back, think about things, don’t necessarily jump to action quickly. But, at the end of the day, action is what’s required from people analytics. And we’ve come a long way from having no data, to some and some useful data. We’ve come a long way in going from having data to insights. But the missing step, the last mile, if you will, is from insights to action. And that’s where, again, I think if the people analytics leader has a stake in the function, or is part of the leadership team, you can have more influence in actually making it happen.

Erik: Perfect. Amit, thank you very much.

Amit: Thanks Erik.

We will also join UNLEASH London. More information about this event can be found at the UNLEASH website.

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