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Your Future HR System is an Open Data Platform

technologyLet me start¬†this blog off by drawing a¬†comparison¬†between Banking and the Travel Industry. Think about how you interact with your Bank digitally. You can do general banking at an ATM,¬†on-line¬†or through a¬†smart phone¬†app, you may use applets¬†which help you calculate loan repayments or¬†the future value of your deposits. But that‚Äôs where it generally ends. Try applying for a Mortgage and suddenly you’re confronted will loads of paper, duplication of information, signatures in black ink, proving your credit worthiness, physically going into the bank, multiple approval layers and reviews and possibly a lengthy waiting¬†period¬†until you have an answer.

Now think about the travel industry ~ your ability to build a personalized flight itinerary, buy insurance, book a hotel and car, check what others think about your choices, selectively introduce influencing factors such as price, time and loyalty points, get progress alerts and much more ~ all done without much fuss and no people interaction. You can choose which website or apps to use rather than being confined to the actual service provider and even use your smart phone as the mechanism to store and scan your electronic boarding pass. The only time you engage with a person is at the security check and boarding gate. This is a mature digitized industry, and arguably a higher risk one than Banking.

If we compare current main-stream HR/Talent software (including SaaS) to these two industries, most would agree that they are more like the Bank scenario. On the positive side vendors are including functions such as ESS, Social Recruiting and On-line Learning which are empowering users and streamlining processes, but there are some fundamental changes required for HR to achieve equivalent digital maturity, implied efficiency, fantastic end-user experience with choice as that of the travel industry.

Here are some of the key elements that would need to change.

1.       Modernize the Database Layer

The relational database management system (RDBMS) has been the cornerstone of transactional processing and reporting in HR systems for over 25 years. The need for this type of structured storage remains, but as we see new data types such as graphic, recognition, video, voice, gesture and style (eg. what I click on) being generated for work purposes, the RDBMS is not the optimal solution. There is a requirement to introduce non-SQL type databases which are able to leverage and manage the data inherent in these new data types. Non-SQL databases would allow HR to move beyond a fairly rigid and logical-based limitation (think workflow) and introduce personalized services, offerings and actions based on your unique data and interactions.

2.       Standardization to Individualization

Much of the constraint in HR efficiency is inherent in the need to control and dictate a process that supports the HR software rather than¬†focusing¬†on the outcome. We have spent years telling¬†managers¬†that standardization is critical, but in reality we limit the¬†availability of¬†choice in HR processes because of software constraints and by implication to make HR’s life more¬†manageable. HR vendors needs to move past this hurdle and allow users to achieve the same outcome, but through an¬†individualized¬†approach. The underlying data remains the same, but the “How” becomes a choice. (Think about your choices when booking an airline ticket).

3.       A Dynamic Data Hub rather than the Source of Truth

We are seeing some HR solutions starting to venture down this path with interfaces or search capability to LinkedIn, Facebook and other 3rd party tools. The type of data that will be important to HR in the future will be generated outside of the core HR system by individual employees, contingent workers and applicants. We need HR solutions that can integrate to potentially thousands of external and individual databases to share information. The future Workforce will ultimately give employers the right to use their data whilst they are employed and will expect data generated during employment to be shared back to the originating database. The notion of the HR system being the source of truth for people data is outdated and is constraining innovation and creativity.

4.       The HR System becomes a Platform

Removing the need to use the vendors HR software or¬†front-end in order to access data or perform actions will allow for greater integration and ownership by line managers and employees. Much of the frustration experienced by line managers is the need to go into “another” tool to execute an HR activity or get information to support a decision. In a similar way that Expedia.com piggy-backs off the data and system of the individual airlines, hotels and car renters, HR systems should allow for direct transactions through other tools (this is not the same as interfacing). A platform approach will allow for greater flexibility and agility at the company and individual level, and will give rise to continuous improvements in other systems (finance, procurement, workforce planning etc.) to use HR data to achieve a common end result. As an example, think of how a project manager could use his project planning tool to provide performance feedback rather than going into the HR tool itself or the scheduling manager at a consultancy could “pre-approve” leave for employees “on the Bench” from his WFM software.

 

Many of the new HR cloud and SaaS software products are fantastic solutions, but fundamentally they have not changed for over 25 years. I implemented my first networked HR system in 1987, and while we had no smartphone apps, high speed internet or fancy front-ends, most of the modules we have today, existed in those older system.

We are stuck in a logic and transactional mind-set and as we witness¬†the emergence of powerful new data types,¬† ¬†it‚Äôs time to break these shackles and build software that will allow HR to surge ahead. If a high risk industry such as Travel can achieve this, there is no reason that HR can’t do the same.

Do HR Systems Need A Sexy UI?

UI graphicMy Scottish heritage drives me ¬†to blurt out “Och Aye!” ( meaning oh yes) on this one ~ why shouldn’t our HR systems with all their new-found business support enjoy the best presentation on our desktops, tablets and smartphones? There are so many creative advancements taking place in the UI ( user interface or more accurately, human-machine interaction) ¬†world that it is easy to be charmed by their mystique and the experience they take you through ~ but while the demos might look great, we need to consider the practicalities of using these tools on top of what (in many cases, but not all) are essentially HR solutions with a traditional data model design.¬†Naomi Bloom¬†has been a lone voice for a while on the realities of trying to make an old HR technology architecture perform new tricks, versus the benefits of a system¬†designed¬†for purpose. It’s the classic “Lipstick on the Pig” scenario when you introduce modern UI principles on top of an old back-end.

Take for example “kinetics”, the tools that emerged to support gaming consoles like the Wii and Xbox. It basically detects your body movement and converts your movement into system commands. So how practical or effective would this be for an HR product? – probably not at all is my guess given that HR systems are not fundamentally designed to¬†leverage¬†that form of input and neither is it practical to capture text in that way. A technology company in Lithuania offers a kinetic interface for online banking solutions, well all I can say is it hilarious to watch the actor swinging their arms around to transfer money from one account to another. Can you imagine a new ¬†employee casually walking ¬†past an in-progress performance assessment using the new HR kinetics ESS tool – the arm-swinging manager and employee may send him scuttling to find a new employer.
The big buzz word in UI design is “Experience” and it’s driven by the multitude of consumer applications that are leveraging everything from Voice, Gesture, Eye-tracking,¬†Multiple-touch, Movement, and more to create a memorable and different ways to capture and deliver information or results.¬†Golden Krishna¬†a senior UI designer from Samsung is promoting the “No Interface” approach, which will learn about your preferences and create an interface that is unique to your style. We are already seeing some of this thinking emerging in Google predictive products (Like Google Now). The advancements in this space are increasing at a rate of knots, to the extent that it is unlikely that HR business application vendors can keep up as part of their normal product¬†development¬†cycle – they will need to decouple the UI capability from the remaining¬†solution¬†architecture elements.
So while many HR systems are stuck with their traditional data models, the useful and feasible UI enhancements, particularly those on mobile applications, should focus on turning the HR data into embedded analytics and decision making support as well as greater portability of the HR business processes. There is a lot more that HR vendors can do to make these elements a greater user experience  with richer functionality and content without the need to leverage the latest UI gimmicks.
HR Vendors who have built their products with a user process mindset (rather than a data model) will have greater short term opportunity, especially in the ability to directly interact with employees, to¬†leverage¬†newer UI developments. But while it is tempting to vigorously exploit these, vendors must ensure they don’t¬†inadvertently create new¬†complexities¬†in HR systems¬†which reduce usage and start corridor¬†sniggering.

The Clash of the (Social) Titans is Near

2012 ushered in a new era for HR software solutions. It will be a year that we saw some really big deals going down as the big boys of the ERP world¬†manoeuvred themselves into ¬†strategic positions within the cloud ecosystem. The writing was on the wall and vendors that didn’t have a cloud based solution and strategy (or at least claim they had one) were likely to ¬†face some difficult times financially and¬†competitively¬†over the next three years.

With the advent of HR cloud based tool, we also saw the introduction of social and gamifcation layers being added directly into these new products. Not just as optional extra’s, but often forming the epi-centre of the product driver.¬†Particularly¬†in areas such as Performance Management, where communication and discussion needs between employee and manager were ripe for something new to spur what was typically a dismal failure in most organisations.

As society was settling down to the acceptance of social media as a¬†legitimate means of sharing knowledge, ideas generation and general chin-wags in the work environment, the HR vendors saw the gap to add this functionality into their solutions to drive out better HR and Talent management. And the good thing is it works ~ you have to be prepared to adapt your work environment, leadership styles and accept that the control that was¬†prevalent¬†in hierarchical organisations may not work in a social environment, but if you get that right, there is a lot of good stuff that HR can do. That’s not the problem!

Who owns the social layer?

While the HR vendors were thinking about how to leverage social layers within their products, the Enterprise social guru’s were making strong headway into major organisations. Tools like Yammer have moved many¬†organisations¬†into a new ‘Knowledge Management” and information sharing era – building stronger communities and starting to see good paybacks on¬†tacit¬†knowledge lying wasted around in their staff’s grey matter.This is good too!

So what happens when Mr HR Director goes ahead and purchases a subscription to a new cloud based HR solution that also uses a proprietary social layer tool?  The reality is that many of these tools rely on the end-user using the solutions social layer, not a third party tool. OK, well having more than one social tool is not a big deal, I hear you say, we have more than one in our private lives like Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin, so things should work out.

This is where I think the¬†proverbial¬†paw-paw¬†hits the fan and it’s going to get worse. If I look at the emergence of other cloud tools in the Finance, Rostering & Scheduling, Procurement and other business areas~ many of these tools are integrating¬†proprietary¬†social layers into their products just like the HR vendors, and they all have an expectation that you need to use the SM layer.

If¬†I’m¬†a user of the Finance tool and use its social layer, I might find that¬†I’m¬†having to repeat my knowledge post, great idea, message of recognition or piece of gossip on the HR tool – that’s of course if I¬†remember¬†to do that when I next use the HR tool. Not to mention the owners of the Enterprise Social layer who will be putting pressure on all employees to share and discuss on the corporate system. Then of course there is the confusion of whether I said something via email or on a social layer, or was it perhaps a text message.

Who will win the battle?

Maybe someone will come up with a clever technology layer that can plug into all these new emerging social tools embedded within discreet products to help manage the data flow and curb the likely confusion and risks. Until then I can see a number of battles taking place, with someone loosing and someone winning. The looser unfortunately may also see value disappear  from their beloved cloud solution. What we should acknowledge is that custodianship of the social tools is not an HR right!

I think we will be seeing a bit of fur flying in 2013 – a good thing in my view. Its the only way we will see the need for something new to help us manage our changing work places.

Let me know your views.