How to run HR like an Amazon Bookstore


Amazon BooksSeattle was celebrating April 29 as Independent Bookstore Day. The independent bookstores in the area were trying to fight Amazon’s move to build brick and mortar bookstores. Tweets said, April 29. Independent Bookstore Day. Why not take a break from the corporate chain retailer today and support a local indy merchant instead?” The bookstores organized events where readers could go visit almost 30 bookstores and hopefully stay on as a loyal customer who will shun all deals on Amazon.

It must be hard for the independent bookstores to compete with the behemoth. After Amazon is a data company. The brick-and-mortar bookstore is just another lab to gather more data and insights about customers.

 Individualization needs data

What does that have to do with Human Resources? In the past, HR was all about creating one set of rules then apply to every employee.  Today employees expect a customized experience when they go to work for any employer.  The process of creating an individualized experience is dependent on the unique identifiers we have for an individual. While most corporations have still stayed on with gender options being limited to three at best, Facebook offers 71 gender options to UK users. That allows them the ability to target ads more specifically. Facebook allowed people to type in whatever they wanted to describe their gender and from that data set created more categories.

That is just what Amazon is doing at scale. By telling people that there is a set of books that have more than 10,000 reviews on, they are simplifying the decision making process.

Imagine a company that can put data like this on their website to say “Consistently rated at 4.9 on a 5-point scale on Glassdoor by 2500 employees”.

Amazon constantly gather data about individual choices. The data from online shopping and browsing histories provides rich data that is hard for any other bookseller to match. Then create an individual experience or club common choices to create experiences at scale.

Simplifying the consumers decision making adds speed. When combined with individualization, it seems like a winning combination that any other bookstore would find it hard to match. Like the bookstore. All through the store are examples of how a company can leverage data to customize experiences, scale up and gather data for the future.

Idea 1: Customize experiences – “If You Like Zero to One”

Amazon BookstoreThe Amazon store blurs the line between online and offline shopping experience. I notice a shelf that says “If You Like the Book ‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel. The shelf has several books that give advice to people who hope to start their own venture someday. The books are on a range of topics from Lean Startups to raising capital.

HR can gather data about training courses that are popular and use the data to customize the experience for individual employees. “Those who liked our course on Leading in Growth Markets also signed up for the course on Managing Talent in Fast-Growing Economies”.

Imagine being to nudge people in the Sales Team to say, “92% of the Sales Representatives have completed the course on “Selling to Busy Professionals”. Or to capitalize on a trainer’s effectiveness, “95% of participants rated the class on Negotiation Skills by Semira at 4.8 or higher.”

You probably track some of the data today. Get your team to brainstorm what other data points you would need to be able to get these details. It is never too late to start.

Idea 2: Scale Up – Books Kindle Readers Finish in 3 days or less

Amazon BooksMost bookstores will have predictable categories like fiction/ non-fiction etc, Amazon draws on real-time data to classify books in its brick-and-mortar stores. They have categories that are impossible for competitors to replicate:

  • Fiction top-sellers in Boston/Chicago (whichever city the store is located in)
  • Highly rated fiction on Goodreads
  • Books Kindle readers finish in 3 days or less

Their recommendations are specific to the city. That enables them to scale up and capture the market. The travel section has books about Florida, the Caribbean and Midwest states like Ohio and Michigan – the areas Chicagoans like to travel. The store in Chicago has lots of biographies because that is what their data tells them.

Imagine if HR could collect data to serve food in the cafeteria that is specific to the employees in the city. Knowing that say an overwhelming majority of employees love watching movies by a certain actor can be used to design everything from the Annual Day to team outings.

Being able to announce at a campus that 83% of alumni from this college have got promoted to the next level in 18 months can be a great draw. Or to say 84% of our most successful leaders have worked in two or more geographies is a great data point to convey. Or that one third of our supply chain team is made up of ex-servicemen. Or saying that 4 out of 5 managers are now reading XXX book can encourage others to follow suit.

Idea 3: Gather data for the future – “Alexa switch on the light and fan”

Amazon BooksThe bookstore has a small section where Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant Alexa is available for shoppers to play with. Alexa understands voice commands just the way Apple’s Siri and Google Home do. In the store Alexa is hooked up to a table lamp and a table fan. Visitors stop by and ask Alexa to play music, read out the news, answer simple questions and switch on the light or fan. Once Alexa does that the next obvious thing people do is to ask Alexa to switch off the light and fan.

Then some visitor gets creative and says, “Alexa, turn off the light but keep the fan running.” Alexa has difficulty understanding the command. But the command gets stored in the cloud for the researchers in the lab to program Alexa in yet another way. The store serves as a lab to find out the many different ways in which people frame voice commands. And the kind of services they expect. A kid asks, “Alexa, can you do my homework for me?” Another hint for what the Amazon scientists will work on next. The bookstore serves as a lab for ideas that will help grow the business in future.

Imagine having a robot that answers routine questions on HR policy or runs a new hire orientation about the company’s history or publicly available financial data. When someone asks if they have “Pawternity Leave” (when the pets need you) it could be a great opportunity to see how many people ask for it. That in turn may be a way to delight the employee. Creating a database of questions asked during hiring, it is possible to find out which questions are predictors of competencies needed in the company. Creating a database of responses by candidates can provide great insight if there are common statements that successful candidates have in common.

HR people have often avoided adopting technology by claiming that HR is about high touch. HR in the near future will be all about data driven human touch. HRD will soon stand for Human Resources Data. Is your organization ready for it?


(This is a modified version of an article that has appeared previously in the June 2017 issue of People Matters)

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  1. SHIV KUMAR says:

    How soon will chatbots evolve into mentorbots or counsellorbots ? That will be the time employees finally get some ‘personal’ attention!

  2. Indu Kadian says:

    Hi Abhijit, I have also been thinking similarly. LMS these days, has an additional role of providing data to see the patterns in employee learning. So much to be gleaned. Are you aware of any organization doing it.

  3. If human managers are aided by AI, we can all get personalized coaching and mentoring.

  4. Ask your LMS provider for as many data points as possible. Then ask a stats graduate in your office to find patterns. Start with a hypothesis. Find the data that can prove or disprove the hypothesis. Make a small beginning.

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