HR tech: Fundamentals versus future-gazing

Never has HR tech been so sophisticated. But instead of rushing into getting the latest big thing HRDs must pick the right solution for their current setup

“Nobody wants to be the HR equivalent of the next Blockbuster video,” says Metrobank’s chief people officer Danny Harmer, referencing the movie rental firm that famously failed to keep up with digital technology and so met a very painful, public death.

But as Harmer attests, it’s incredibly difficult when “bombarded” by suppliers touting the ‘next big thing’ to work out whether a new piece of tech is genuinely game-changing, or whether it’s being over-hyped by an over-zealous (yet convincing) sales team. This poses a challenge when trying to strike a balance between keeping up with the exciting, future-gazing HR technologies of the moment and making sure to get the important, but admittedly less glamorous, basics right.

Harmer paints a familiar picture when she describes how her team is using her company’s current HR system “as well as we can” but increasingly feels that “we’re outgrowing it and can think of things we’d like to do with it that we can’t”. In such a predicament, the temptation is to rush in and overhaul the tech, adorning it with all the bells and whistles that suppliers are promising will reinvent the function.

However, Harmer urges fellow HRDs to take stock and keep grounded before doing this. “The first thing you’ve got to ask yourself is: how much is it going to cost and what return are you going to get?” she says. “Then, can I justify the investment in this new HR system?”

She knows that, for her, the answer to this last question will soon be yes, which is why she is putting in the groundwork now and ensuring she is well-informed about today’s HR tech landscape. A crucial learning so far is the importance of picking the right tech partner, ensuring it is one that has a “willingness to innovate” and grow with you because the advances in technology are only going to become more rapid. In an ideal future, she explains, HR should never need to look at a complete system overhaul because a strategic approach to tech, alongside a partner, will mean the system is constantly evolving and upgrading, thereby never becoming obsolete.

Many HRDs have come to the conclusion that the best approach is an iterative one, based on testing and learning what tech works for their individual organisation. There is more choice than there has ever been (in the recruitment technology space alone, there is an estimated 20,000-plus solutions) and, while this can be overwhelming, it also means more opportunities to trial tech before you buy it.

“You can switch in and out of tech; you can try it and, if it fails, try something else. It’s a great time to trial,” says Aaron Alburey, CEO and founder of consultancy LACE Partners, which helps clients navigate the complex tech landscape and identify the right partners for them. “It’s amazing to have this plethora of choice, but it means you’ve got to be clear what you want as a buyer,” he adds.

You’ve also got to be aware that the way the market works contractually has changed significantly, says Alburey. While, in days of yore, it used to be commonplace for companies to sign lengthy five-year contracts with tech providers, this is no longer the norm, with many opting instead for more flexible options such as three-year contracts with a ‘break’ clause, or the ability to set the solution before committing.

The relationship with the tech provider is also under more scrutiny than it used to be, with buyers much more cognizant that they are looking for a partner that will help them navigate the landscape on an ongoing basis. Harmer has some advice on the pertinent questions to ask to find this perfect match.

“Are they willing to be curious and partner with you to find a solution? Or are they a ‘computer says no’ partner?” she says. “We’re in very early conversations with people looking at HR systems and I’m very clear that we must be able to flex. If that can’t be done, we won’t work with them. And bear in mind that partners promise you a lot when trying to win your business so, if they’re not filling your heart with confidence before they’ve even got it, then walk away.”

According to Simon Robinson, managing director of Level, the biggest priority for HRDs should be “understanding what the technologies are and do”, or HR runs the risk of “applying the wrong technology to address its problems and opportunities”. He argues that it is vital HRDs educate themselves and make an effort to understand the difference between systems that “do” (robotics), systems that “think” (cognitive AI) and systems that “learn” (machine learning).

“With big IT companies and consultancies all wanting to make money from robotics, many of them are trying to use robotics to solve problems that it’s not capable of addressing, because they don’t understand the difference between the technologies,” Robinson says.

Herein lies a key concern: that the draw to buy into the buzz around robotics or the latest tech will lead HR away from choosing technologies that will actually solve a business need.

“It’s improving, but there is not enough knowledge out there for HR directors to take advice, and with the blind leading the blind, the risk of failure is huge. And mistakes can be very costly,” Robinson adds.

Michelle Shelton, product planning director at MHR, agrees that HRDs need to approach any introduction of new tech as an ongoing journey. “Establishing the vision for the change, understanding the business impacts and developing a roadmap of delivery and communication are all crucial elements in introducing solutions successfully and ensuring the project focuses on what is needed and what should be done, rather than what can be done,” she says.

As well as becoming blind-sided by what technology can do, (rather than what HR needs it to do), HRDs can also fall into the trap of neglecting to consider what employees will embrace, rather than recoil from. After all, there is no point having the latest, cutting-edge, all-singing, all-dancing system if no-one wants to use it.

“A healthy balance comes back to the quality of your employee experience,” says Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer at Benefex. “Just as with the customer experience, we need to first get the basics right, then really look to personalise our delivery, anticipating the needs of our employees almost before they realise them themselves. But getting the everyday right is key.”

Kendall goes as far as to say that HR tech which enables HR to personalise the employee experience is the type of technology that has the potential to “deliver a real step-change” in the function. While in recent years there has been a huge corporate focus on improving the customer experience, the importance of optimising the employee experience too is only now

being recognised as equally core to success. “Employees now expect the same level of experience as an employee as they do as a consumer,” Kendall says. “Employee experience is still lagging behind customer experience, but there is technology out there that is going to transform this. That, to my mind, is where the function needs to be focusing its efforts.”

Stonewater director of people and OD Jenny Sawyer constantly reviews the employee experience, from the recruitment stage and throughout an individual’s career. The point of this is to understand what matters most to people, so she can get the basics right first.

As a new organisation, with a geographically dispersed workforce, including a large home-based workforce, Stonewater’s employee feedback surveys found that colleagues were finding it difficult to locate the right people for the right support and information.

“After comparing a number of alternatives, we opted to add the organisation chart module to our system, to enable people to view an up-to-date chart directly from the self-service portal,” she says “As a result, we do not have to rely on teams to keep their charts up-to-date, as the information is drawn directly from the HR and payroll data on the system.”

She has also given the go-ahead for a new service management tool, which enables employees to raise online requests from the HR service specialist team. This removes the need for inboxes and provides staff with signposting and solutions to common queries.

“While this is a relatively basic solution, not only will it improve the service we offer in the short term but the work we do to prepare for this transition will enable us to move more quickly to our longer-term goal of introducing an AI chatbot tool next year; effectively like asking Siri to do your expenses for you,” says Sawyer.

If the focus is on using tech to enhance the employee experience, then HR is more likely to achieve that holy trinity of higher levels of engagement, productivity and efficiency. The key, says Shelton, is finding tech which automates daily tasks and fits seamlessly into employees’ lives. “It’s HR tech that improves their working experience without them necessarily knowing it’s there,” she says.

However, at the same time, while technology will inevitably continue to pervade all areas of working life, the biggest threat to company culture, and in fact corporate success in general in the age of automation, is that HRDs will neglect the most important part of this transition.

As Dominic Manley, UK technology product manager, at Aon, explains: “The HR function should be engaging with technology to help make strategic changes, not make strategic changes solely based on new technology. We shouldn’t lose sight of the ‘human’ in human resources.”

This piece featured in our recent Futureproofing versus present practicalities technology supplement. Read the full supplement here