There is significant value to be derived from HR evolving people practices into a modern digital environment, writes Rob Scott
Compared to traditional on-premise or ERP HR technologies, true SaaS technology has fundamentally shifted the business discussion from one focused on getting HR technology to work effectively to an emphasis on how HR can generate business value through people. While not dismissing the value that many companies continue to derive from traditional on-premise HR solutions, there is no denying the comparatively long and often complex journey traditional HR systems demand in order to achieve the desired outcomes.
Time saving and agility: important ingredients
Executives are realising the long-term impact and financial advantage of effectively managing their people value chain. Together with emerging workplace trends such as remote working, ad hoc team creation, social collaboration, project orientation and hyper-specialisation, the luxury of having time to build solutions to support these new work environments is quickly diminishing.
The workforce itself is changing. It’s a more flexible workforce that is fast becoming a collection of diverse, specialised individuals who have different contractual relationships with a company. And there is an expectation that the tools they use to be productive are simple, yet effective – integrated in a way that supports collaboration and is accessible from anywhere on any device. In a recent survey conducted by Microsoft, 31 per cent of employees said they would be willing to spend their own money on an app if it made them more effective at work.
The last thing an organisation wants is to be held back by software that absorbs a great deal of time and takes even more effort to adapt to the changing demands of the workplace and workforce. The need for agility and swiftness are two critical elements for future business competitiveness, and for these reasons, SaaS HR software is being recognised as a supportive catalyst.
We are moving to a digital work environment rapidly, and mechanisms such as social tools, mobility and gamification are providing the platform for enabling HR to step up to a strategic analytic and evidence-based advisory role. While many ERP tools are bolting on some of this digital capability, the underlying technology and design of these products have not been built with a digital framework. True SaaS HR products have been completely rebuilt from the database objects to the user interface and fundamentally support and integrate with digital design thinking.
HR needs a new set of skills
HR professionals, particularly those from a social sciences background, have generally been reluctant to build personal skills and knowledge in technology. In many respects, this has limited their ability to be effective in driving traditional HR technology projects. New SaaS tools have largely solved this problem because of the simplicity in how these tools are set up and maintained. SaaS tools have fewer configuration and modification options than ERP solutions, which in my mind is a good thing for HR. Too often, ERP tools are redesigned at great cost but with little business benefit.
I believe there are other complementary areas where HR functions can build competency and expertise. First, social intelligence – understanding how social thinking is introduced into business and HR strategies and enabled through digital technology. Second, analytic intelligence – making sense of lots of new people-related data that will be created as the digital work environment evolves. This includes data from wearable technology and from everyday objects that are connecting to the internet (internet of things). Analytic intelligence will have a strong predictive focus rather than a reactive statistical slant.
The next three years open up a window of opportunity for HR to evolve people practices into a modern digital environment. There is significant value to be derived, and HR must now become self-sufficient in making this a reality.
Key SaaS trends for HR
- True SaaS HR software is quite different from ERP products. When you pull back the covers, the underlying design is geared to support a digital HR environment.
- Modern organisations no longer have the luxury of extended time to redesign their HR solutions – SaaS tools offer agility and simplicity.
- Now is the time for HR professionals to take ownership of HR software projects with no need to be intimidated by a lack of IT knowledge.
- News skills for HR in social and analytic intelligence are critical to understand how software will create people value.
Rob Scott is global lead: HR strategy & innovation for Presence of IT, a leading consultancy in HR, talent, payroll and workforce management solutions.
Article I wrote for Inside HR Magazine in June 2014
Let 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’s 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’s 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.
There are times in our recent history where particular events have epitomized the turning-point in global views, perceptions and behaviors ~ like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the “Cold War”, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid, 9-11 and the rise of terrorism, 2008 and the Global Financial Crisis. These events cause “global ripples” and while many people are impacted directly, there are many more people that feel the change in indirect ways. For HR, a turning-point has been Cloud & SaaS solutions, taking center stage in late 2012 – the direct impact is on HR departments from an empowerment perspective, but the real value impact is achieving organisational goals through people.
HR Cloud and SaaS solutions are fundamentally shifting and empowering the HR environment, putting HR in a renewed position to influence organisational objectives and create value through people. But these new solutions are vastly different from the typical ERP products that dominated for decades, and the individuals who became the “life-savers” or “Stars” for those projects were just that because of their experience and insight into managing complex technology tools. They were the technical experts who dominated workshops and discussions to figure out how to set up the HR solution technically.
The latest cloud and SaaS solutions require significantly less technical prowess, and with this we see the client conversation shifting from “how to best configure the software ?” to a more HR flavored discussion of “how do I create value through people ?”. This shift in discussion from technical to people may be easily overlooked, but is more fundamental and deserves greater consideration than perhaps one may think.
HR leaders are starting to take genuine ownership of cloud HR system projects because they are now able to have discussions which are not being dominated by the technology questions (which were all very important by the way) nor left feeling inadequate to contribute in workshops that were driven by the “Technology Stars” using a language and approach which was foreign to them. In HR Cloud and SaaS projects, HR owners will rightly have a different expectation of the project language, approach and outcomes. Cloud and SaaS has lifted the technology complexity for HR and this will spur them on to want to discuss the HR “How” rather than the Technology “How” – the big question is who is best positioned to lead this new discussion with HR….enter the SMATE.
This new discussion with clients and team members will require someone quite unique – an HR SMATE, or an HR Subject Matter & Technology Expert. Many current HR system consultants may be inclined to assume they are a SMATE by virtue of their closeness to HR technology, but the reality is that a true SMATE is a bit like hens teeth – pretty rare at the moment! While many technology educated people have worked in HR systems for years, their point of reference for HR and best practice is mostly framed by the HR technology they know so well – their discussions with an HR professional has been fairly process and system oriented, and most HR professionals will quickly pick up the lack of depth in HR expertise. Likewise many HR people have a mindset about technology that doesn’t go far beyond the UI (user interface) and get lost in discussions on architecture, object management, databases and interfacing. This is frustrating for technology people who understand the critical nature of these discussions to the solution outcome.
HR ERP implementations primarily needed to lead with a technology mind-set ~ the individuals could learn HR/Talent processes to support discussions. It hasn’t however been easy to motivate an HR trained person to learn technology at a level that would enable adequate discussion across coding, configuration and architecture. But cloud and SaaS HR solutions changed that with technical requirements becoming more system set-up (We however still need hardcore techies for integration and custom developments). In a very short period of time HR professionals can learn the ins-and-outs of a cloud tool set-up and confidently introduce these requirements into an HR discussion, The tide has turned and it is easier for an HR professional to become a true SMATE than for a technology oriented person to do so.
We need true SMATE’s to rise up and become the catalyst for new system discussions with HR executives and project owners. To become the driver behind HR/Talent systems delivering value beyond transactional activity. SMATE’s will engage in deep-dive conversations around people behavior and social science thinking in the same way technology people drove technical discussions during ERP projects. Where this happens, we will see greater HR successes.
The organizations and consulting firms that nurture HR SMATE’s will be putting themselves in a strong position to create true HR value and help HR functions become a significant contributor to their organisational goal achievement – the true HR SMATE is the next HR system “star”
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.