HR Technology Conference 2014: HCM Roundtable

Every year we’re trying to figure out what’s next.  7 years ago, I started hearing about social HR everywhere, but the market really wasn’t ready.  Every HR organization thought that social was a bad idea, with personal privacy challenges looming to kill any social enterprise initiatives.  2 years ago, we all took for granted that social was going to be a part of our businesses, and this year it really seemed like social finally became its own and is permeating many of our HR processes and technologies.  It lonely took 7 years after the vendors and advisor market predicted it for it to become reality.  (LOL)

During this year’s HR Technology  Conference HCM roundtable, it was fascinating to hear what everyone was working on (it was the first question posed to the group, and I’m not trying to bash any vendor, but I am representing my opinion of the answers).

  • What was fascinating was that 2 of the vendors were talking about a great user experience (Oracle Fusion and Ultimate).  Wait a second.  We’re still talking about UX?  How did these 2 vendors get a seat at this panel and only have UX to offer up for what’s new in the product.  It’s unfortunate.  Y’all gotta do better than that.
  • 2 of the vendors talked about machine learning.  (ADP and Workday).  Machine learning was part of an overall theme of the conference, and there was a follow-up conversation in this panel about it, but these 2 vendors were the ones who brought it up as a focus area in their opening comments.  When I think about social HR 7 years ago, I think that machine learning is what the next few years might be about and it seems like 2 vendors want us to know that they’re on top of it.  What is surprising here is who the vendors were – and it shows us that there can be surprises.  It wasn’t Oracle and SAP with their deep (and legacy) analytics engines and mountains of programmers.  It was ADP (wh-wh-wh-what?!?!  I LOVE that ADP is thinking about this as they have the largest client/employee base to run analytics off of.  Maybe I don’t give them enough credit.) and Workday (ok, maybe predictable since they seem to be thinking/innovating faster than the others).
  • Last up was SAP.  Can anyone say “extensibility?”  Actually, SAP was gearing up to talk about some really cool metadata and object architecture that will create extensibility, but they got cut off from a time perspective.  Leave it to SAP to make things more complex, but if we can get to configurable extensibility, that’s pretty cool.  Honestly, I would have expected Oracle to be on the extensibility bandwagon based on their application architecture.

I’m hard pressed to say whether machine learning or extensibility is what’s next, but I’d think that all the vendors should be working on both of them.  UX is table stakes, and you should not be allowed to talk at the table (or panel as it was) if that’s what you’re working on.  My guess is that SAP will have some chops in the machine learning space, but it just was not what they wanted to focus on.  It’s also interesting that ADP and Workday were not on the extensibility front as it’s clearly a focus area for the very large customers that SAP has as its client base (but maybe that’s why SAP is so focused).

In a few vendor comments unrelated to the HCM roundtable, the HCM vendor space is going to start reaching parity in the next year.  Oracle and SAP are picking up steam and finally starting to look competitive.  First of all, lets agree that I HCM software in vendor demo booths while I was at the conference.  The following is an aggregation of vendor demos and conversations I had with conference participants.  Here are a couple of comments around gaps or deficiencies that I’m still watching out for based on those conversations:  (alpha order)

  • ADP:  I was really quite pleased to see their new UX.  I can’t remember what it’s called, but they’ll be rolling it out to all of their products so that no matter what you’re on, you’ll have a similar experience.  My concern is really still around the back end.  ADP’s ability to stitch together a common front end on top of multiple back end (and still mainframe?) systems is pretty good, and perhaps when you’re outsourcing everything but the core HCM to a best in class payroll and benefits vendor, it might not matter what the back end looks like.  Maybe.
  • Oracle:  The main question is in the UX.  It’s simply not seamless, and it goes to the point of why they were focused on UX in the panel. It’s way better than the last couple of years, but one goes from the cool “mobile apply” look and feel into a slightly different transaction screen, into a completely non-appy environment in just a few clicks.  The first couple pages are well executed, but it just feels like they didn’t finish the job as you continue through a manager transaction.  The second question is in their customer base for sold Fusion Core HCM.  As I talked to conference participants, they were getting numbers from the Oracle booth anywhere between 400 to 600 (note to Oracle, please get your story straight).  There are still a lot of conference participants wondering why Oracle is giving Fusion HCM licenses away for free if they have market demand in the 100’s of customers.  It’s just not adding up, and nobody I talked to could figure out the story.
  • SAP:  I’m pretty sure that SAP is on its way to filling a few gaps.  Certainly per the above comments, if they are working to fill extensibility gaps that its large enterprise clients will need, they are also going to figure out benefits administration, timekeeping and payroll.  I talked to one conference participant who was told that benefits administration will be available to demo this quarter, and another who said they were told it would be in Q4 of 2015.  Either way it’s coming and that’s good news.  I think SAP’s original philosophy that payroll, time and benefits get outsourced, but for the top 250 clients in size, that’s a hard position to maintain.  (I don’t consider SAP cloud payroll to be comparable to Employee Central in architecture, agile configurability, or usability, so that’s why I harp on it.  I know that SAP would disagree).
  • Workday:  Everyone has been uber positive about Workday for years.  The questions among conference participants seemed to be around the viability of their recruiting module.  Granted this is their newest module, and the top vendors seem to have the capability to innovate rapidly over a couple release cycles.  Just as I’m confident SAP is going to figure out benefits quickly, same goes for Workday recruiting.

Having said all of this, I’m actually quite pleased with the vendor space.  The last couple of years (no matter what Oracle and SAP say) have been relatively uncompetitive.  There has been one clear winner in the market, and the fact that I don’t have to say who it was is a good indicator that it’s true. I think 2015 will get a bit more competitive, but 2016 will become an all out war.  This post is definitely “negative” about what my concerns might be, but what I don’t mention is the huge progress that all of the vendors have made and the very long lists of things they have done well and right.  I’m going to get in trouble from the vendors over this post anyway, but either way, I think 2015 is going to be interesting.  More viable vendors is always a good thing.

(Last comment.  I thought long and hard whether to post this.  Some vendor somewhere is going to be pissed at me, but at the end of the day, there were only 5 HCM vendors on stage, so any exclusion is not mine.  Also, each vendor chose to talk about what they talked about.  Perhaps they didn’t have enough time, but again, if Oracle really wanted to talk analytics but didn’t get to it, that’s not my fault.  Each vendor decided what they wanted to focus on by themselves.  The opinions in the latter half of this post are based on talking to other conference participants and seeing each of the vendors demo at their booth.  Posting this also saves me the effort of writing a year end post.)

The new HR Portal is not an HR Portal

What exactly was Web 1.0?  I honestly can’t even remember.  I barely even remember Web 2.0 other than it was the advent of user interactivity so minimally executed that today’s teenagers would not even recognize it as internet. Oh, wait – I totally forgot that today’s teenagers no longer care about the internet.  Here’s the history and future of the HR Portal from the past 10 years, into the next 10 years:

  • 1990’s:  Most of us don’t have a high quality HRMS solution yet.  Don’t talk to me about a portal.  I don’t even know what Yahoo! is yet.
  • 2000:  We just implemented a recruiting system and might be implementing PeopleSoft soon.  Starting to realize that somewhere for managers and employees to go as a launch page might be important, but it’s an after thought.  I don’t have budget for it anyway.
  • 2005:  We just implemented Plumtree as our corporate portal.  Here we come PeopleSoft Portal!  Woot!!!  We have a link farm!!!
  • 2010:  We decided to get rid of our link farm portal and have something a bit more design oriented.  Usability just went up 10 times, but I still don’t know why our managers don’t use it and surveys say our portal sucks.
  • 2015:  Our portal finally goes mobile.  HR transactions are executed on phones and tablets, and the portal has a responsive design so it knows if I’m mobile or at a regular browser.
  • 2020:  We’ve integrated social transactions in all of our portal experience.  Employees can #HR and create cases in the case management system.  The employe population is also a form of crowd intelligence – half of the time my #HR posts are answered by peer before HR gets to it.
  • 2025:  The HR portal is gone.  In fact, what’s HR?  What used to be known as HR transactions are now just embedded in the business portal space.  My approval lists all appear on my phone (this used to be on a browser?!?!?!) in the same list my expense and procurement approvals are in.  Time to hire metrics are somehow integrated within a view of my financial budget for my department.

My point is that the HR portal is a bit of an stupid idea.  Apologies to all of the HR portal professionals out there, but nobody goes to the HR portal by choice.  We don’t find extraordinary satisfaction by checking our process diagrams and compliance mandates.  The fact of the matter is that nobody cares until they have to.  HR has had a habit of over communication.  We do have compliance stuff, and since nobody cares about the HR stuff, we think we have to pressure them into caring.

HR has it all wrong.  Managers and employees do care about stuff – just not the annual programs we drive them hard on, and not about the compliance stuff we won’t stop pestering them about.  Employees and managers do care about giving and receiving public recognition.  They do care about the things they are supposed to do that benefit others, like real time feedback and doing transactions if they are easy to do.  All we really have to do is make it simple, mobile, social, and relevant.

Simplicity:  This should be the mantra of HR.  K.I.S.S.  In many of our organizations, HR is the most at fault for writing 10 paragraph emails when 3 sentences and a link to more explanation would suffice.  We’ve made it so hard for any manager or employee to comply with HR policies and procedures that it’s no wonder they don’t like us.
Mobility:  This could be part of simplicity, but it’s more important than that.  The next couple of generations aren’t going to want to do anything if it’s not on their phone or tablet.  Oh, who and I kidding.  Better make they their wearable device.
Social:  We need to figure out how to embed social in everything.  There’s a #HR case management example above.  How about social real time feedback?  How about getting rid of competency models and using social expert profiles or having peers evaluate profiles like they do on LinkedIn?  Huge HR constructs that take 20 FTE’s to manage annually are dying.  In with the social crowd wisdom!  The sooner the better!
Relevance:  Can we stop with the HR stuff already and figure out what our employees and managers really want?  These are simply avenues to engage them in our processes.  Let’s take employee recognition as a launching point to rewards.  Let’s use social feedback to get people interested in performance.  Let’s use LinkedIn-like profiles as an entry point to talent mobility conversations.

Attention spans are decreasing every year.  If we choses to bore people to death, we’ll just be the same HR in 2020.

I Can Finally Buy My Dad a Smart Phone

Just a couple years ago, my parents came back to the US after years of being overseas missionaries.  They have been in Siberia, on a random island in the Pacific, etc… and they came back to a world where cell phones were ubiquitous and information was accessible everywhere.  My father is now over 70 years old, and he loves gadgets and toys of the electronic variety.  However, simple things like programming a new DVD player can elude him – not because he could not do it 15 years ago (I guess that would have been a VCR), but because it really is a bit different.

A couple years ago I bought my parents cell phones and put them on my plan.  This way they would have something in the case of an emergency, and of course a way to call me for free without paying long distance.  I’ve held off of buying my dad a smart phone though since I wasn’t sure if the whole thing would be a bit daunting.  Sure enough he’d love it, but I didn’t think he’d use it to 20% of its capabilities.  However, the time has come that I think I can do it.  No – it’s not going to be the iPhone, and certainly not an Android (my OS of coice).  I think I’m going to get him a WP8 phone.  Yep – Microsoft has finally created something that I can give my dad and not even worry about having to teach him how to use it.  The thing is marvelous – it works the way it should, it’s totally intuitive, notifications happen in the live tile rather than in some random notification area, etc…  This is a phone that my dad will understand, and I don’t even have to give him mor than 30 minutes of training.

I’m reminded about heading to India a few weeks ago where I was coordinating some UAT for a new core HRMS I was helping to implement.  I’d stand in front of a group of managers, give them the 5 minute pitch about why we were changing and who the vendor was.  Then I’d give them the 3 minute orientation to the product.  “Here’s where your ESS is, MSS, reports, and search” basically, and then let them loose with their scenarios and see what happened.  Unbelievably (to me) the managers unanimously walked out having figured out the product on their own, and all had great experiences.  Of course there was a feedback comment here and there, but all in all, these untrained managers just did their thing and got it right.

All UX should be this easy.  Throughout the ERP era, we were so used to overloading the managers with complexity and data that we assumed they wanted.  At the end of the day, they really needed something they could understand immediately upon login (the 3 times a year that they actually logged in).  And really, they didn’t want data – they wanted insightful information about their workers.  The data just turned out to be overload.

I’m pretty pleased about this decision to get my father a smart phone.  Not only am I going to get him more connected, but I know he will be really engaged with the tool – the man is going to have fun with it.  He’ll have a phone, but now I can text him and know he’ll get it, he will also have easy email, an easy way to send photos to me from his phone, etc.  In other words, I’ll have given him a tool that will make him more productive because he can use it.  Less really is more.


Android versus iPhones

The web is alive with comparisons of Google Android phones and Apple iPhones.  While it seemed for a long time that the iPhone was going to own the market, Android has slowly picked up steam.  In fact, Apple may have made a serious miscalculation in tying themselves with the AT&T network and a limited population of cell phone users.  Meanwhile, Google Android has snuck into all the other providers as the operating system of choice since those other providers can’t get their hands on the iPhone.

However, what has emerged is not only a discussion about who will ultimately dominate the market, but the varying philosophies of the two competitors.  The iPhone touts ease of use and intuitive user experience.  Alternatively, the Android is about personalization and the ability to modify applications to suit your own specific requirements.  Truth be told, I don’t really think there is that much of a usability or personalization gap between the two systems, but this is how the market is portraying it.  The fact of the matter is that both systems are enormously easy to use and give you enough personalization opportunities.

Personally, I’m an Android user, but that’s neither here nor there.  The point is that what I want is to tap an application and quickly enter in what I had for lunch (translated to caloric intake), look at the weather delays for airports across the country, or quickly locate somewhere to have dinner.  At the end of the day, users just want to get to the applications and data they want.  They want a quick reference and that’s about it.

The future of HR applications may be 5 years away or more, but I like to think about managers who just want to quickly log into their phone and add a note about their employee’s performance and then check a quick metric around productivity.  I think about the employee who logs in later that day and logs in their learning experiences in less than a minute and then uses the same phone to check their paystubs.

Theoretically, the presentation of data is all possible today, and quite easily.  All applications should be able to ship out widgitized content that can be adaptable to phone technologies, so long as an application is written for it.  Transactional processes are a bit tougher since legacy applications have to be reworked to accept transactions through these phones, but I’m convinced that these capabilities are not that far away either.

The core problem is that we have barely gotten to complex transactions on our intranet portals let alone getting to them on the phones.  However, I think we’re largely making a transition from legacy email and portal applications as the places we do our work, to smart devices and Web 2.0 technologies.  Back to the phone comparisons, it’s not about picking a winner – it’s about realizing what the customers want, and that is quick, fast, easy and on their device.

Screen Flicker and End User Annoyances

There has been so much publicity around e-readers and the Apple iPad lately. In truth, I’m totally captivated by both of these technologies, but have not jumped in the market yet. The iPad seems wonderful since it is basically the next evolution of the net book, or mini-laptop. It has a great user interface, is generally lighter than a net book, but combines some of the functions from the iPhone device, letting you take emails, calendaring, video, applications, and yes – an e-reader with you. The problem with the Apple device is that the e-reader is in full color, not in what is called “e-ink.” E-ink is attractive because it allows you to read a page virtually anywhere. It’s visible in full sunlight. Unfortunately with the e-readers that use e-ink, the technology seems to “flicker” every time you turn a page. I’m not sure what the nuance is behind the technology, but a 1 second screen flicker on page turns is rather annoying. Considering that you would turn a page an average of 400 times a book, and every 30 seconds, this can be quite upsetting.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that bother us, because while they are little things, if they happen all the time, the accumulated disturbance is rather large in scale. As we go to SaaS software environments, but even in our legacy on-premise systems, almost all end users have become accustomed to waiting for screen refreshes. I actually remember back to the late 1990’s when one application hosting provider actually issued a SLA that the screen refresh would be no more than 3 seconds. Imagine the downtime accrued over the course of a year if a hands-on application user lost 3 seconds every time she changed a screen!

Even in today’s speedy technology environments, we are often subjected to screen refreshes that take a few seconds. Sometimes it’s our own internal corporate networks, sometimes it’s the internet, but sometimes it’s the servers as wel. In HR, we tend to pull large amounts of data – employees have multiple roes of data on multiple data elements. There’s a lot of data chugging gowing on in that back end.

Imagine if or Google acted the same way. We would probably never use those systems, and they would have died a fast death in their infancy rather than becoming the behemoths they are now. Amazon literally pulls together a page on the spot – that page does not exist before you request it, rather it’s just a set of disparate components that come together at the point of the user request. Same thing goes for google, it takes your search request and pushes it through an algorythm, then searches the entire internet to return results. On systematicHR (admittedly a slow running site, I don’t pay for a fast host), when you request a page the server responds to 88 queries and returns results in 0.57 seconds on average. And that’s slow in internet speed.

Since converting most or all of our HR applications to we based apps or services, why is it that we still accept much of our technology running on legacy speed instead of internet speed? If we were end users with a choice, we would have made other choices and abandoned anything that delayed us from doing our work. Most of us hate waiting, and certainly the best performers hate it. When it comes to employee and manager self service, employees might be more willing to wait, but they are probably also waiting for dinner to finish baking in the oven while they wait for the screen to confirm their phone number change. As an employee though, I myself have been known to abandon at the first 404 error screen. Managers on the other hand, certainly have better things to be doing than waiting for slow screens, and the accumulation of individually insignificant annoyances leads to large amounts of displeasure with HR.

Similar to the iPad or e-readers that provide great functionality and targetted types of usability, little things that go wrong (not being able to read the iPad in sunlight, or having e-ing screen flicker) can be pretty annoying. As users, we can usually manage small annoyances, but we’re not good with problems that happen all the time and don’t get fixed. Our image of HR is often through the user experience of our applications that we roll out. As we increase our footprint of HR technologies in SaaS, speeds should gradually increase, and we should also be looking at SLA’s to ensure that our end users are getting optimal experiences.

Pretty is not Useful

Not all of us have fancy business intelligence tools and cool dashboards with great graphs prepared for us in our business environments yet.  If we’re lucky, we belong to organizations that have spent millions of dollars figuring out how to get us analytics when we log into self service environments.  Or perhaps we have bought into a cool talent application tool that already had the functionality.  We’ve been prophesying that business intelligence would go directly to the manager/end user rather than having requests for ad hoc reports that would have to be processed for days before the end user ever got any data.  Even if we don’t have all the cool dashboards and business intelligence tools at our disposal, I’m hoping that many of us have used the cool image and graphing functionality in MS Office 2007.  Indeed, the software now presents all sorts of data in all sorts of new, flashy and easy to build ways.  From a consulting perspective, beautiful and sexy is a wonderful thing.

The problem is that…. well, there’s a problem.

Have you noticed that many of the charts you are getting are 3 dimensional?  From my perspective, they are beautiful, and the formatting is impeccable, but I can’t really tell where the top of the bar lines up with the axis points anymore.  Sure I can tell that the top of any bar in a bar chart is…. oh between $20-25M?  Yeah – that’s problematic.  I have a $5M effort rate.

I’m not sure what to do with the dashboards.  Managers want quick access and a visual regarding where they are and how their organization is performing.  But at the end of the day, don’t the want a data dump into Excel anyway?  (warning: data privacy problem, but that’s a different topic).

Hopefully when we build the BI environment, we were smart.  After building our flashy but not very useful graph, we spent another $100K and build the drill-through charts.  You know, the ones where you click on the indecipherable bar to get a chart that presents the real data?  What we really did was create something that was pretty to look at, and then force the manager to click to get at what she really wants.  And we paid for it.  Sounds like good, smart design based on great user experience principles to me.

Ok, I know that there will be a revolt if I actually suggest that everyone goes back to 2D charts.  We all love our flashy reports and dashboards.  But can we just make sure they are actually helpful before we publish the stuff?

Up In The Air – Boarding Theory

Many of the people I know have watched a film called “Up in the Air.”  Indeed, I suppose it was a popular file garnering several Oscar nominations.  (I have no idea if it won anything as I don’t watch the Oscars.)  Several people have told me how personal the film was, and other than the whole “affair thing” I’d have to say that I agree.  I’ll take a moment to point out that I am nowhere close to 10 million miles either.  However, there were certain points of the film that as I watched it (on a 4 hour flight of course) I chuckled to myself and realized that I do the same thing.  ((ok, I admit that I copied this intro from another post on the same movie))

At one point in the film, Cloony and Anna (someone or other) are passing through the security lines and he chooses the line with the Japanese businessmen.  While she accuses him of being racist ((perhaps I should define racism sometime, but I’m not sure this blog is the right place)), Cloony’s character explains about his choice.  The Japanese on one hand seem to like slip-on shoes, while the other security line had children or something or other.  Having passed through the security line just this morning, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I go through the same type of decision making process both before and during the security experience.  You see, even though I have many shoes with laces, I only own one pair that is slip-on.  These are my “airport shoes.”  God forbid that I would have to spend time taking off my shoes and then tying them back up when I should be running to my gate (for which I’m inevitably late for).

As I approached the ID checker with my driver’s license today, I quickly scanned the people in line in front of me.  Two lines, does everyone look like they travel?  Do they look like they know what they are doing?  Anyone with children?  Anyone look like they are from Idaho taking their first trip in 10 years?  Yes, I am that absurd and will happily deal with all your criticisms for it as it gets me through the security line seconds or minutes faster.

At the end of the day, my experience is all about process – usually a set of processes stacked end to end.  If I fail any one of these many airport processes, I’m annoyed and my entire user experience is diminished.  I have a regular driver that takes me to the airport (he is NEVER late), I check into my flight and scan seats on my phone while in the car, I print my boarding pass when I get to the airport, get through security as quickly as I can, head to the airport lounge where I don’t want anyone standing in front of me to check in, and then to the gate where again, I want to board early.  I have optimized my airport experience as much as possible from and end to end perspective, but I have also optimized each individual sub process such as the security line.

This is really no different from your HR service delivery end users whether it’s self service, a call center or dealing with an HR business partner locally.  The difference is that your end user customers don’t have as much flexibility in customizing their experience.  However, the same can be said for them – any failure in the end to end process inevitably taints their perception of the entire experience, not matter how trivial that taint was.

Today, the end user experience can be automated and made more efficient from a large cadre of technical capabilities.  Pop screens that alert call center reps to caller information have been around for ages, and the implementation and integration of HR knowledgebase to information governance is steadily becoming more prominent.  The knowledgebase information is becoming more available through tier 0 tools, and when tier 0 is not the right solution, case tracking at the end user level can be available.

I’m going to continue wearing slip-on shoes to the airport, only because I know it saves to 15 seconds.  It might seem trivial, but it’s those little things that make a difference in the end user experience.

Real Life is Analog

Not Digital.

We all love digital.  It makes our lives easier and faster.  But I’m not sure we all have an appropriate understanding of what digital and analog really mean.  The fact of the matter is that we don’t live in a digital world.  Our world is purely analog.  We just have digital processes that happen in some mysterious box in technology-land.

Let’s take an easy example:  I use Google Voice.  One of the things that Google does for me, is it takes my voice mails and turns them into text.  That text is then loaded into my Google Voice site and simultaneously emailed to me.  To be honest, I have not listened to a voice mail in months because for the most part, I understand the message that the caller is trying to get to me, even if the voice to text translation is not perfect.  The order of the transaction goes something like this:

  • Analog:  Caller leaves a voice mail
  • Digital:  Google synthesizes and translates the analog signal to text
  • Analog:  I read or listen to the voice mail

I’m not making any judgments here – all I’m saying is that we as people are analog and we operate in an analog world.  I’m not an expert, but I’m confident when I say that we will never touch the digital world.  (we are not in the Matrix movies)  That said, the increasingly digital influence our world has is pretty amazing.  If we don’t live in a digital world, then what does digital do for us?  Well, it provides speed, context and interpretation of the analog world around us.

In HR, every business process that we do is analog.  We call technology “enablers” and they are.  Employees enter personal data changes into the self service portal, managers call us to request reports, business partners update managers on their talent.  Increasingly, rather than submitting requests, managers go to a portal (yes, that is an analog action) where data has already been interpreted and formulated for them.  They can immediately view the progress of open requisitions, performance reviews and the turnover rates of their organization.  The manager still had 2 analog actions of going to the portal and of receiving the data (through the eyes – yes, analog), but the digital world took all the data entered previously (analog) and created these outputs for the manager (digital) when she was ready for its consumption (analog).

Here is a thought though.  The most significant contributor to employee productivity might be employee engagement.  The most significant contributor to employee engagement is probably the analog direct communication with their direct supervisor.  The conversations (analog) that every employee has with managers is what defines how well a business can utilize their talent.  We can digitize as much as we can for the purpose of simplification, efficiency and context.  But at the end of the day, the key HR transactions are still going to be analog, and for the foreseeable future, we’re not going to change that.