ConAgra Foods VP builds HR analytics program from the ground up

Mark Berry pioneered a skunkworks project that led to ConAgra Foods' first successful HR analytics tool -- and then headed the effort to replace it.

Mark Berry is an analytics guy, both in and out of the office.

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As if being vice president of the People Insights division at packaged foods giant ConAgra Foods Inc. didn't keep him busy enough, Berry also routinely runs ultramarathons. In 2013 alone, he ran six races -- none of which was shorter than 50 miles.

Many runners would attribute their success to willpower or exceptional physical endurance. But to Berry, it all comes down to the analytics.

"When I'm running, I'm wearing a GPS monitor, a heart-rate monitor [and] I've got an altimeter. Running that far is really not as hard as it sounds -- what you have to do is pace yourself. You're not going to run six-minute miles for 100 miles," Berry said. "Discipline and rigor apply whether it's [a] sport or the application of analytics."

Mark BerryMark Berry

Although the application of HR analytics is now Berry's full-time role at ConAgra, it wasn't always. Berry spearheaded a cross-functional skunkworks project to build a self-service reporting tool in 2009, despite knowing that similar initiatives had failed. But this time, it succeeded, which spurred ConAgra's leadership team to make Berry the head of the newly created People Insights division.

Today, Berry isn't resting on his laurels. Readily acknowledging the weaknesses of the homegrown system, he has played an integral role in the company's adoption of HR analytics software from Visier Inc. And although the new system has only been live for mere months, Berry already has plans to expand its use beyond HR.

"We're now in the process of beginning to [deploy] Visier's analytics solution within our financial planning and analysis organization," he said.

Skunkworks team spots opportunity for self-service HR analytics

When Berry started at ConAgra, the process HR generalists used to get analytics reports was hardly a model of efficiency.

"I'd either have to go through an analyst or be certified to handle ... queries in our HRIS system," Berry explained. "Most people would go through the former, [but] the problem was that analyst didn't necessarily know your business [or] understand the nuances in the data they were pulling."

The process was also too slow to provide timely insights. "We knew there was an opportunity to provide a self-service capability [so] people could get information in real time," Berry said.

With the goal set, a small skunkworks team -- Berry, a few HR colleagues and representatives from IT and finance -- began constructing a self-service HR analytics system outside of business hours. Because the project had no budget, the team used SAP Business Objects, a system that ConAgra owned the licenses for and IT could develop on, as the technological backbone.

Berry used lessons learned from past failed HR analytics initiatives to guide the development. "We knew it couldn't be a democracy in the sense of Burger King metrics -- everybody wants to have it their way," he said.

For example, there were eight different definitions of "regrettable turnover" in the company -- and each was being measured differently. To dispel confusion and reduce complexity, the team created a "data dictionary" that explicitly defined such metrics. 

And with non-HR users in mind, the team "went rogue" on conventional HR practices. "Our solution [wasn't] built on calendar years and months, it was built on fiscal quarters and years, because that's the language the business speaks," Berry said.

User experience spurs move from homegrown system

Although the system was "jaw-dropping" when it went live, there were nonetheless frustrating aspects -- a tricky user interface and limited ability to transition from data to action -- that drove Berry to evaluate replacement technology. While he first considered business intelligence platforms, such as Tableau and QlikView, he found they weren't HR specific and would require support from ConAgra's IT department. 

Another option was SuccessFactors' HR analytics software product, as the company was in the midst of implementing the talent management system. But after reviewing Visier's HR-specific platform and being impressed by the vendor's rapid pace of development, Berry concluded it was the "only logical solution." Because the decision team -- Berry, and members from ConAgra's talent management and IT departments -- was split on which vendor to deploy, the choice fell to the executive vice president of HR, who selected Visier.

Thanks to the homegrown system, ConAgra had a leg up going into the Visier implementation. After providing the vendor with historical and transactional files, it had a system that was operational and ready for testing in three weeks, according to Berry.

User access was granted in phases, starting with a handful of Early adopters. Today, approximately half of the HR department's more than 300 employees are actively using the system, and it is also being rolled out to finance.

Despite its short tenure, the system has already provided valuable insights. For example, ConAgra's vice president of culture and diversity was puzzled that despite efforts to hire more people of color over the past fiscal year, the representation rate hadn't increased. Using Visier's platform, Berry discovered the underlying cause: turnover. Even further, he was able to pinpoint three groups that minority employees were walking away from disproportionally.

"As we went through the numbers, our VP said, 'This is the difference between carpet bombing and using laser-guided missiles,'" Berry said. "In the past, we would've pulled the numbers and said, 'Let's do everything we can across the entire organization to try to address this.' Visier has allowed us to sharpen our focus [to] make a significant improvement overall."

Using HR analytics to solve business problems

The arrival of analytics to HR has been somewhat of a shock to HR managers who have long relied on intuition -- not data -- for decision making. But HR analytics is here to stay, Berry stressed, and managers need to get on board.

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"The expectation of business leadership [is that] you're able to bring facts to the table. HR hasn't traditionally come with facts, and it creates a credibility gap," he said. "Our efforts are to try to solve for that gap."

Some of ConAgra's HR employees have proven quick studies with the new system, and others have not. But Berry isn't planning on leaving behind anyone who is willing to learn. "We're not going to move our entire HR organization along that continuum all at once. We will move them person by person, time by time, until we get critical mass," he said.

In addition to coaching his colleagues on how to use the system, Berry also encourages them to approach HR analytics differently and start with an understanding of the business problem.

"I think more than anything else you have to get away from the numbers or the metrics, and focus on understanding the way the business operates," Berry said. "We don't have good analytics because we have a good vendor [or] good data. We will have a successful program to the degree that I am solving for issues keeping the CEO awake at night."

As for how to get to a level where that's possible, Berry's advice to his peers is simple: Dream big and deliver.

"There's nothing wrong with dreaming, and it doesn't cost anything. Had I not been able to provide a vision of where we could be, we would've never gotten the chance," Berry said. "But you can't get delusional about [it] -- take that dream and deconstruct it down to what the business really needs.

"When you've proven you can do what you said, use the goodwill you create within the organization to do more," he continued. "That's how we've gone from a skunkworks project [with] no headcount, budget [or] software, to an organization where we have dedicated resources and a budget."

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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