Is your HR Technology adding value?

Most of the time, if you ask any HR leader to explain how HR technology is contributing to the achievement of business goals you get a somewhat perplexed expression, supported by an eloquent explanation which suggests it’s being conveniently ignored because it’s too difficult or not practical. Alternatively they reference the vendors marketing rhetoric which promise share-price improvements that would get Warren Buffett excited!

But HR is changing

It’s moving out of the administrative and transactional mould that has defined it for decades, and whilst the transition is often very slow and painful to watch, there are many organisations whose executives are maturing in their understanding of the unique value that HR functions can offer, and their direct contribution to business goals and strategy achievement. HR professionals can’t hide behind the mystique of psychology anymore; they need to show direct linkage from what they do and the outcomes it creates, including the role of HR Technology.

HR leaders are far more business savvy too, they will rattle off their business goals, they are succinct in articulating the meaning of value for their organisations, they understand cost, growth, quality and risk drivers, and they are familiar with industry and global issues, opportunities and constraints.  So what’s the problem – why are so many HR leaders resistant to show how the performance of HR Technology has or could advance the business objectives and strategies?

Addressing the problem

Some of the answer to this question may lie in previous bad experiences with “template” measurement frameworks such as the Balanced Scorecard. These tools are often introduced as off-the-shelf “best practice” which generally lead to disappointing outcomes. It’s the one reason that I loathe HRM software vendors pushing a “best practice” mantra. HR leaders wrongly believe the hard work related to measuring their HR Tech value contribution has been done for them. It can never be true – your objectives, environment and how you want to achieve your business outcomes using HR Technology are absolutely unique. You need to do the hard, detailed work yourself.

Another reason is simply lack of know-how and practice. Most HR professionals have a social science background which engenders greater qualitative rather than quantitative focus. That’s not an excuse of course, learning how to build a causal-effect model which shows where HR Technology is leveraged, is not difficult~ it just takes some practice and adherence to some basic principles such as:

  • Making sure your selected measures are strategic and aligned to company goals
  • Not making assumptions about the cause-effect relationships. You need to test it and prove its validity
  • Setting realistic targets, not everything needs to be 100%
  • Having clear ownership of the measure. Someone who is passionate about achieving a business outcome, and is constantly tweaking the framework
  • Being practical – don’t overcook the requirements or the data needed
  • Telling your story. Contextualize the results and explain what it means in business terms

By way of a simplified graphical example, I recently had the opportunity to help a client think through a cause-effect model for “Innovation” – one of their strategic business objectives. The HR director wanted to explain how their HR technology was directly contributing and supporting this objective. When we finished the model, it became very easy to explain how this would be achieved. A key learning for the client was to link the HR Technology to “drivers” rather than the performance areas.

I’ll point out again that proving the “cause-effect” (performance areas in graphic below) is critical to establishing credibility. For example, my client had to validate that “Empathy for client’s needs” really did cause “Enthusiasm & Engagement” in their environment. Once that was established the drivers for performance were identified and agreed, and HR was able to determine which HR Technology was required and how it would be used to deliver measurable outcomes.

exampleOf course there is a lot more work and involvement from other business functions behind this simple graphic, but hopefully it’s apparent that with some careful thought and focus, the real value of HR Technology can be measured and explained. Your next business case for HR Technology funding should be much easier to achieve if you have this in place!

So HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics – get over it!

photo credit: All rights reserved by shellydelight – Flikr

updated March 2016

It started as a jovial discussion with some office colleagues about the “Meaning of Life” – that yet unanswered question which has plagued human kind since the beginning of our existence. Naturally we considered all unconventional opinions such as that of Monty Python,

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything = 42”

and to the more serious, such as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl’s resolve to  “Having a sense of purpose that keeps your eyes on meaningful goals ahead” and general theological views which purport “To love and serve your god, and love and serve others”

But it didn’t take long before the flavour of the conversation became focussed on People…. more so the people in the workforce. We found ourselves asking a singular and fundamental question:


It’s a profound question that may have been asked before, but probably not simply answered.

In trying to answer the question our natural HR instincts lead us to describe HR activities – you know, the tons of things HR gets involved with in-between “Hiring & Firing” such as recruitment, talent development, learning, administration, workforce planning, comp & benefits, strategy etc. We raised our discussion to a “People Impact” and “Value through people” view which got us a little closer, but we were still unable to reach consensus on the proverbial question.

I reached out to my good mate Lyle Cooper, who likes to ponder difficult HR questions. He reminded me that “No person has been able to absolutely define and therefore control human behaviour”- he makes it a life-rule to run as fast as he can from anyone who claims to have a definitive answer about people, culture, life, afterlife etc.

Lyle’s point really goes to the heart of social (or human) sciences, the basis for much of what HR does, in that they are not perfect sciences. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to create the perfect performance management environment, a perfect engagement model or the ultimate user experience.

And it was this point that reminded me of the ongoing debate among mathematicians about the answer to the mathematical statement 00 (zero raised to the power of zero). The arguments as to whether the answer is 1(one), 0(zero) or indeterminate are excruciatingly painful to read and understand (especially if you are not a mathematician like me).

But while there are extreme views, most mathematicians agree  that  00 = 1 is preferable, as it is more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians.

“The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice”, is resoundingly similar to the “lack-of-evidence” and “soft & fluffy” disputes HR finds itself embroiled in.

So, while not perfect in any way, my response to the question “WHY DOES HR EXIST?” is “00. It fits perfectly with mathematician’s dilemma.   Business functions and HR professionals are unlikely to ever agree on a common reason for HR’s existence, but by accepting 00  = 1, HR professionals are able to move forward. HR will make validity concessions, builds faulty frameworks, creates imperfect processes and design software to support an imperfect business environment – and that’s okay!

One day we may find that much of what HR is doing is wrong, in the same way many mathematical assumptions may be questioned if and when someone conclusively proves what the answer to 00 is. But until it’s proved otherwise, let HR execute its stuff…its time to stop focusing on the equation!

HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics (and therefor finance, procurement and operations management) – the next time someone challenges  your HR framework, assumptions or software choices, be sure to remind them that the meaning of HR = 00.

Rob Scott is the Global Lead: HR Strategy and Innovation for Presence of IT, A global HR,Talent, Payroll and WFM consultancy.

Organisational Structures versus Social Networks

Cuboid series 2

The fundamentals of organisational structure have been the focus of attention of late, particularly as we see the emergence of social environments in the workplace, and the power that they can yield. Jamie Notter, co-author of Humanize has made a strong case for organisations to move from being “Machines” to more “Human Like” in order to tap into the values that social environments can bring to the workplace. The “Human” principles of collaboration, openness, trustworthiness, courage and a sense of belonging are instrumental and well aligned to the success of social environments and social media tools.

I get that, and agree a new work environment is necessary to create a social enterprise, but there are some flaws in the notion that social enterprise is a necessary replacement over hierarchical structures.

Lets look at the Arab Spring movement that used social principles (and tools) to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. What we observed was the power of a networked group in achieving a goal of ousting a dictator, but in the end the new Egyptian president was far from being a representative of the people who orchestrator the social uprising, nor did he have anything to do with the movement. The movement itself was seemingly chaotic – there was no formal leadership, but assumed a life of its own, to which individuals were absorbed into.

Recently, one of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell, made this comment, which sums up nicely the view that I hold:

“Networks may start revolutions,but they can’t finish them. Our job is to remind Millennials of the importance of hierarchies as well as networks.”

So, I think the future organisational design model does need to change – but it’s not a complete replacement of existing hierarchies with a mass movement mentality. The future need will be to understand how to leverage the power of the collective but still allow for purposeful and clearly identified leadership. It’s also  far more fundamental than simply installing a Social Media tool such as Yammer or Jam into your organisation, and as a leader hoping that you have ‘done enough’ – absolutely not! there will need to be real shifts in “who speaks”, “who decides” and ‘who acts”.

Finally, as a lover of HR technology, it would be remiss of me to not add a note that the link between HR system’s Org Management solutions/modules and social media tools is a major gap that needs to be addressed. While we have seen vendors integrating SM tools into their HR solutions, they have not truly understood how the Org management tools need to changed in order to create and support the new working environments.

The Future of HR with Gamification

When one first encounters the term ‘Gamification’, the impressions and images created in ones mind tend to focus around the word “game” – Images of your 14 year old son spending hours in front of his game console protecting the planet from a group of renegade creatures with fire power that would impress any military leader. It’s these images that for many HR people is a trigger to dismiss the notion that the principles of gaming have no place in the realm of HR or HR Technology.

If I cast my mind back, HR has actually used gaming principles in much of its work, particularly in areas like learning. Think back to some of the training courses you have attended, where you had to work in groups to create an output that was compared to the other groups, or your team output may have been ranked or voted as ‘best’ , your facilitator may also have used a visual display of how teams were tracking overall against each other. You may have attended an assessment centre where you were ‘playing out’ the role of a manager or at the end of a training session you received an award for being the ‘best participant’. Outside of the learning space, gaming principles have been applied to recruitment and performance management, and typically result in a form of recognition.

Gamification is really talking to the natural human needs and desires to achieve, compete,be recognised, have some control over the outcome and be entertained. The advent of technology has allowed these human needs to be expressed through computer based games – its a highly successful industry, to the extent that it has over taken video and DVD as the number one form of entertainment in the UK.

So the question is, can these computer based gaming methods and approaches that satisfy human nature and instincts, be transposed into the broader HR technology environment? The answer is absolutely yes, but not necessarily in all parts ~ and it should be focussed on peoples behaviour, not the HR system per se. I asked my colleague Andrew Butow, who has great experience in gamification to identify some of the critical success factors for gamification in HR technology. He suggested the following:

  • people interact with the tool frequently
  • people have a variety of interaction points
  • there exists a community that people care about recognition in
  • interaction points are easily quantified
  • adoption is a high priority
  • frequent feedback is important

These are valuable guidelines and should prevent organisations trying to add gaming principles that wont have any value. As an example, if you were thinking about adding gaming principles to your HR ESS system, it probably wont achieve its objectives as ESS is not a frequently accessed tool in most companies, nor does it add any value to place me in position “1” on the leaderboard for changing my home address. However if you had a knowledge management tool, or were using tools like Yammer, gamification could be a very clever way of building a culture of knowledge sharing. Saba has recently announced a product that does just that (see article). I can also see gaming being applied in the areas of recruitment (eg. Referral schemes, or agency effectiveness), Performance Management ( recognising excellent behaviour, sales achievements, accolades received from peers), Learning ( turning e-learning into a business simulation game, your contributions to knowledge sharing and mentoring).

What HR does not want to do is use gamification as a form of control or mechanism to get staff to comply to HR administrative needs – gone are the days of being the ‘People Police’ – if used in this way, it is likely to backfire and create negative perceptions of the HR function. I also think that gamification needs to be integrated into a company culture – for people over 35, the gaming principles wont be new, but the application through technology will be. The younger generation will easily accept and play along (excuse the pun), but older employees will need encouragement and assistance over time (remember to move from an in-box on your desk to email days).

Let the games begin !