HR Administration

Workforce Analytics: Disney’s Real-Life Fairy Tale

By Ed Frauenheim

Oct. 9, 2013

Pixar's "Monsters University," the prequel to "Monsters Inc.," was a hit for Disney this summer. 

It’s a numbers game at the HR Tech conference this year in Las Vegas.

I do mean numbers like lucky 7s, hard 8s and terrible 12s (more on my introduction to craps in a later post). But also a numbers game in terms of the growing exploration and adoption of workforce analytics.

A highlight at the industry trade show Oct. 8 was a session titled “Analytics Help Draw a Clear Talent Picture at Disney Animation Studios.”

Presenters Ann Le Cam, vice president of human resources and production management at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Al Adamsen, president of consulting firm The Talent Strategy Institute, spoke about the way Disney has become data-conscious in the way it manages its creative workforce.

It’s a true-life fairy tale of sorts. The studio, with a rich history of producing the likes of "Snow White" among other treasured classics, hit hard times in the 2000s. Disney animators and managers struggled to make the shift from two-dimensional animated films to 3-D pictures. Films including "Treasure Planet" flopped. Management tended not to be grounded in hard facts. “We were very emotional” in decision-making, Le Cam said.

Things changed when Disney bought computer-animated studio Pixar in 2006. Pixar executive Ed Catmull is a computer scientist and expected a more rigorous approach to operations, Le Cam said. That sparked an effort to focus more on metrics. To aid the project, Le Cam brought in Adamsen, who had been an HR analytics practice leader at software firm Kenexa, which is now part of IBM.

Disney’s analytics push began in part with basic definitions. It created a “data dictionary” spelling out how different metrics would be calculated. Terms like "capacity planning" and "workforce planning" had different meanings to different people. “A data dictionary is square one,” Adamsen said.

And rather than focus too much on technology tools, Le Cam and her team emphasized working with colleagues to get agreement on the goals of the effort and how it would be carried out.

Film production has an inherent element of volatility. Le Cam noted that studio head John Lasseter or other members of Disney’s “brain trust” can come in part way through production and declare that a movie isn’t good enough. Films sent back to the drawing board in this way can trigger talent shake-ups, such as the need to hire more people pronto.

Still, Disney is working to be more systematic with its planning. It now creates a chart demonstrating the expected talent needs for multiple films over time. Another step is surveying those involved with a movie about the likelihood that it will be done on time. If answers are consistent, that’s a predictor of success. If they vary widely, trouble is probably brewing.

Adamsen said efforts like Disney’s should focus on business goals like better performance, a better work experience for employees and reduced risk rather than simply being able to produce numbers. The term “workforce analytics” isn’t going to mean much to executives, he said.

Indeed, the language around analytics proved to be important to Disney. The term “data-driven decisions” didn’t sit well with everyone. There was concern the “human” was getting lost in human resources. So Le Cam and her team altered the phrasing to “data-informed” decision-making.

Disney has a ways to go with respect to workforce analytics, Le Cam said. Nevertheless, her work to date has a happy ending apropos of a Disney movie classic. Attention to metrics, data and planning around talent has shifted the culture of Disney animated films and contributed to recent successes such as "Tangled" and "Wreck-It Ralph," she said: “We transformed the studio.” 

Ed Frauenheim is associate editorial director of Workforce. Comment below or email him at efrauenheim@workforce.comFollow Frauenheim on Twitter at @edfrauenheim.

Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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