Which character in (name a popular television program) are you most like?

You can’t log into Facebook without tripping over a pile of quizzes just like this one. Until recently, they were viewed as fodder for harmless entertainment. Today, while the content remains the same, people are starting to notice the actual price of admission: trust.

Which character are you most like? All you have to do is give me access to ALL OF YOUR PERSONAL DATA, and we’ll give you a cute answer (and then we’ll sell your data because that’s how our company actually makes money). Trust me – it’s perfectly okay.

Equifax. Cambridge Analytica. Shucks, even Panera Bread. It seems like we can’t go a week without hearing about another organization that lost, leaked, scraped, or abused people’s data in some way. These events have started big conversations about how data is collected and protected. All eyes are currently on the European Union’s upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a potential benchmark for worldwide regulatory change.

But what about the human side of this big data conundrum? How are our individual impressions of data usage changing in light of these very public, increasingly negative stories? Think about your own stance. How many Facebook quizzes have you taken over the years? Today, would you click on that quiz given what you know about how your data could be used? I know my L&D buddy Clark Quinn sure wouldn’t!

People data is the next frontier for HR and L&D. As machine learning and AI are introduced into our organizations, architecting and maintaining consistent data feeds will become an increasingly critical part of our jobs. According to Deloitte’s just-released 2018 Global Human Capital Trends Report, “more than 70% of respondents are in the midst of major projects to analyze and integrate data into their decision-making.” Just consider how much digital exhaust you’re expelling at work. Every email. Every door scan. Every intranet search. Imagine the insight you could gather if this data was brought together and analyzed at scale.

Before we get too far down the big workplace data path, we have to consider what’s happening in real life. What can we learn from the missteps of organizations that perhaps got into the data game before they really understood (or chose to acknowledge) all of the potential implications? We have to make sure our employees don’t look at us in the same way millions of people now look at Facebook. Otherwise, what we potentially gain from analytics will be lost through declines in engagement and rises in turnover.

I know. It’s not the same thing. The workplace is very different from the open internet when it comes to data and privacy expectations. However, you can already find examples of companies that have made mistakes in this area. The Deloitte report includes a reference to an organization that used body heat detectors to determine how much time people spent in the office. Someone reading this right now thinks that sounds like a great idea! But the employees did not and responded with anger towards management. A few years ago, I spoke with a company that tried to use productivity data to adjust shift assignments in an industrial laundry facility. Again, it sounds like a solid idea. But that project ended after the threat of a lawsuit from the local union.

If we improve the ways we use data, we can provide a better learning and support experience for employees. I 100 percent believe this, and I’m extremely excited to hear the growing conversation around personalized and adaptive learning. But the story cannot start with data. The employees we support are more than just numbers, and their growing awareness of and concerns about data don’t stop at your front door. Like everything we do, this is about people. More specifically, this is about trust. Do your employees trust you to act in their best interest?

Regardless of where you are on your data evolution, it’s never too early to work on the trust between your L&D team and employees.

  • Assess your status. Where is your trust level today? You may have a gut feeling, but you should make the effort to speak with employees and determine their current mindset. Keep in mind that any mistrust associated to the organization in general is likely to impact your efforts.
  • Find other data projects. L&D is arriving late to the organizational data story. Seek out other teams that are making use of internal data in their decision-making. How are they addressing potential trust considerations? Have they not even considered it, meaning you may be able to help them before problems arise? Remember—the smartest data people in your company probably don’t work in L&D.
  • Make a formal agreement. I love this recommendation from the Deloitte report: “Consider using a people data contract with workers to establish clear expectations of how data will be used.” Do that and stick to it!
  • Be transparent. Some employees may not care about data use at all. Others may care A LOT. Provide transparency and detail into how you are using data to shape learning and support experiences. If an employee wants to know, they should be able to find out with minimal effort.
  • Provide options. What if an individual employee has a problem with how their data is being used? Should they just quit? No. When appropriate, provide options for employees to engage in learning experiences that do not apply data in ways with which they are uncomfortable. Not everyone can be accommodated every time, but an effort should be made. After all, we all know the pleasure of browsing the internet in “incognito mode.”
  • Prove value. Social media is a trade—data for value. We can use Facebook for free because we provide the data needed to sustain its business model. If that balance slips, people are going to question the platform’s value. The same is true in the workplace. Be sure to demonstrate the value data is providing to individual employees—not just the business overall—to prove that it's being used in the best interest of the people.

Trust is a complicated, complicated thing. I cannot provide a bulleted list of steps to solve your organizations’ trust issues. Rather, my goal is to keep the person—and their need to trust—at the forefront of the data conversation. If we use data to make better, more human-centered decisions, we can provide awesome experiences for employees and improved business results while avoiding the pitfalls that are overwhelming so many consumer data companies right now.