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Hoop-influenced HR Strategies

January 26, 2011

I’ve recently been inspired by fellow blogger Steve Boese’s musings on basketball-related HR topics to finish a blog that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Thanks to my colleague Scott Barker (also an SU alum) for co-authoring this post.

In the field of workforce management, people are always talking about having employees with the right skill set available, the impact of unplanned absences, using analytics to gain insight into performance trends and the positive results associated with tight collaboration.

Because it’s the height of basketball season, a great analogy to these topics is the 2-3 zone defense in basketball. Think I’m nuts? Hear me out…

I recently came to this conclusion while watching my alma mater, Syracuse University lose to division rival Pitt in the vaunted “Zoo” at Pittsburgh University. Syracuse’s long-time coach Jim Boeheim is famously committed to the 2-3 zone defense (some would say, to a fault).

The 2–3 Zone Defense is a defensive strategy used in basketball as an alternative to man-to-man defense. It is referred to as the 2–3 because of its formation on the court, which consists of two players at the front of the defense (and closer to half court) and three players behind (and closer to the team’s basket)… As the opposing team moves with the basketball around the court, the zone as a whole shifts accordingly. Because the 2–3 relies so heavily on teamwork, each individual player must know exactly where to be at all times. Because the zone defense is more complex than simply following one player around the court, there is a higher probability that at least one defensive player will forget an assignment. Players must be extremely practiced and knowledgeable to run a 2–3 zone correctly. (taken from WikiPedia)

In workforce management, the cost of unplanned absence is well-documented. But how can you quantify the impact of losing one of your best wing defenders a few days before a big conference game? Basketball hasn’t quite gotten to the level of statistical nerdery that baseball has – but advancements have been made and statisticians are able to track VORP, or value over replacement player, which calculates how much better a player is as compared to a statistically average replacement. They also have PER, or Player Efficiency Rating, which you could use to compare the absent player to his replacement.

Take a look at this posting in the Harvard Business Review on how HR Analysts can leverage the “plus/minus” statistics applied in professional basketball, comparing team performance when a player is in the game versus when he’s out.

Back to the 2-3 Zone… So when a basketball defensive scheme, like the 2-3 zone, requires all of the players on the court to be reacting and adjusting based on the movement of their teammates, the defense is only as good as its weakest link. An unplanned absence, or in this case, an out of place defender sends the whole scheme into a tailspin. The same could be said for a manufacturing plant floor, a distribution warehouse a grocery store or a hospital.

What area of your organization is like the 2-3 zone? What skills are crucial to your operations? What roles would send your operations crashing down like a house of cards if you faced an unplanned absence? Are you using workforce analytics to track the performance statistics of your business based on the personnel in place?

Applying sports analogies to business is not new – many sports icons are often successful and influential in a variety of business roles. In workforce management, basketball coaching strategies and leadership techniques can have a direct correlation to HR practices. So the next time you’re thinking about labor analytics, performance management and absence planning – pick up a book from Coach K or turn on ESPN and catch a Big East Rivalry game!

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