Roger Martin has a great post on HBR about the value of outliers in forecasting (well, specifically in economic forecasting, but the principles apply to all forecasting).  He points out that no major forecaster anticipated the recent economic situation, yet all are still applying the same models they applied then.  Hmmm.  Unconvinced by this, he instead asks us to think about the research methods of Dr Steven Scherer, a leading autism researcher, who bases his research on outliers:

"I call it the garbage-can approach. My belief is that answers to really difficult problems can often be found in the data points that don't seem to fit existing frameworks. To me, those little variations are like signposts saying 'Don't ignore me!'"

Workforce planners need to think about this stuff – using the same forecasting models we’ve always used if they aren’t working, relying only on historical data, using only linear methods…these are all things which ignore the likelihood of change.  According to this thinking, we need to be prioritizing the data points we find in those garbage-cans, and the “blips” outside the trends we expect…especially when the blips appear only in pockets.  But most workforce analytics functions don’t do that – rather they report the same metrics for all groups, and enforce standardization, rather than using different techniques to try to scan for and highlight these “Don’t ignore me!” signposts.  There are a range of data mining and other tools to help find these signposts, yet they are almost never key parts of the approach.  Why not?  Well, because they are harder, and take more thinking I guess.  But they are exactly the right thing for the good use of metrics – so get your analytics approach looking in that garbage can, I say!

Martin’s work and thinking have extremely valuable applications to thinking about workforce and talent strategy – the application of his work on reliability and validity, integrative thinking via the opposable mind and a range of other issues.  People interested in strategic workforce planning should definitely include him on their blogroll.