Where is HR tech going, and are we on the right track?

For a bootstrapping startup a few months before the launch of our MVP, conference participations are something of a luxury, but thanks to HRN CEO Marc Coleman, I was able to visit the fantastic HR Tech World Congress this week in Paris, staying just a block away from where I used to live when I was working in the city as an aspiring strategy consultant.

HR Tech World is the number one event in our industry, and I highly recommend it to anyone working in or developing solutions for HR — or as Marc and his team put it, to HR freaks:

Still, the first day of the event left me wondering where HR tech was really going and whether as an industry we’re on the right track.

Who is HR tech for?

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a tech conference where the majority of the delegates wear suits — or even ties… Right?

No offence meant to those who dress professionally — I too used to know how to tie a half-Windsor half-asleep at 6 a.m. in my days in consulting and at the UN.

But the prevalent dress code at the event is symptomatic of a genuine problem: most of today’s HR tech is built for large corporations. Yes, the disruptHR stage does feature some, mostly early stage startups that also try to cater to fellow startups and small to medium enterprises, but precious few of the more mature vendors on the upper floors would spend time talking to a buyer with less than a few hundred employees.

Given that in a number of the world’s largest economies roughly half to two-thirds of people work for small and medium enterprises, this means our industry is not providing solutions for the majority of employers and employees out there.

As a business manager and former strategy consultant, I get it: startups and SMEs have smaller budgets and frequently less focus on talent management, it’s often unclear who the buyer is in the organization, and they may not always have the resources to successfully roll out new technology.

But as an industry, can we really claim we’re “revolutionizing HR” or helping to “redefine the world of talent” while ignoring half of the workforce? Shouldn’t there be more entrepreneurs out there who venture to solve the talent problems of their fellow entrepreneurs? Are we going to be content with solving talent acquisition, employee engagement and talent development — problems with great business and social impact — only for the big guys with big wallets in suits?

At its heart, every enterprise worthy of the name has a mission to help create a better world, and today I was reinforced in my goal of shaping FLOW into a product that will help create a better workplace for the half of the workforce that now seems mostly shunned by HR technology vendors, those of us who work at startups and small to medium enterprises.

Are we solving the right problems?

The vendors and buyers presenting at HR Tech World have a lot of great technology, and as a bootstrapping startupper, I couldn’t help feeling jealous of the resources many of them have.

Still, some of the presentations left me wondering whether those resources are deployed to solve the problems of the past or the problems of the future.

Payroll and administration are worthy and necessary problems to solve, and recruiters do deserve more convenient solutions to help them screen large volumes of applicants.

Still, are these the factors that will make or break a company 5–10–15 years from now? What is our answer to — or even definition of — the greatest underlying talent trends of our era? How will we help companies address the severe talent shortages in high skilled jobs that have already started to materialize in countries like Japan due to demographic trends and the rapid advancement of technology — trends that will continue to affect, ever so strongly, the largest economies in the world in the next decade? (Watch this excellent TED talk by Rainer Strack of BCG to see the data on this.)

Just in the past year, I’ve learnt the basics of digital marketing, learnt to code at a basic level in Python, Javascript, HTML and CSS, picked up enough statistics to write basic machine learning algorithms, read dozens of books and have gone through a lot of pain and gain and sleepless nights to become a passably tech-savvy product manager from a strategy guy churning out Excel and Power Point files.

I’m not saying this to boast, but because I strongly believe this is the experience many of us will have to go through many times in the future if we are to keep up with the changes in the world, and HR’s main challenge will be to enable this process for more people, at more speed and with less stress, on a large scale.

How will we help companies find candidates who have the ability and drive to undergo such transformations? How will we create flexible working conditions to enable employees to learn so much so quickly? How will we enable leaders to provide the coaching, mentoring, training and tools to help people manage this process without the risk of burnout? And how will we help them retain these valuable people?

The one big, underlying and genuinely disruptive truth of the next decade in talent management is that in more and more cases, employees will have the upper hand over employers, especially if they are highly skilled, and able and motivated to learn quickly. These people will be able to work wherever and whenever they want, on whatever they want, and only the companies that can attract and retain them will thrive — or even survive.

You can have the best payroll system in the world, but if you don’t have technology that helps you address this change in workforce dynamics, you are increasingly living in the past.

And no matter how much your recruiters love that shiny new automated keyword matching feature, remember that the candidate you are rejecting today (in many cases, without bothering to send a follow-up email to tell them why they aren’t a good fit) may be the candidate you won’t be able to afford to hire a few years from now.

Can we — finally — learn to differentiate fact from fiction?

For HR and HR tech to be taken seriously, there is one thing we have to stop, and have to stop now.

There seems to be a predilection in our field to endlessly regurgitate marketing fads as if they were scientifically validated, undeniable truths.

One such fad that people keep reciting is that millennials are fundamentally different in their motivations and needs from other generations. Serious, scientifically and statistically valid research — including our own research at FLOW — has long refuted this claim. Bruce N. Pfau of KPMG has published an excellent overview on this in HBR, read it when you get a chance.

Some of the other statements I’ve heard repeatedly have not been so widely researched, so it would be harder to refute them, but we should at least be mindful of the fact that they would be equally hard to prove.

One example is the relatively recent marketing mantra of pulse survey vendors, which is that employees are “fed up” with annual engagement surveys because they are “too long”. This may be true, but I have yet to see any research that proves it conclusively. Still, many people now take this for granted, while there is little talk and even less understanding of the scientific validity or the follow-up mechanisms of these surveys, be they weekly or annual, even though these factors are likely to have a much bigger impact on their effectiveness.

If HR as a function and HR tech as an industry wish to lay claim to being data-driven and analytical, we need to start being more skeptical about our data, brush up on our statistics, and embrace the established procedures for validating findings that have been used in academia for decades. This is the only way we will be able to deliver proven and valuable data-driven insights to the C-suite — and beyond.


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