Making the most of real-time technology

The instant benefits of real-time technology



Spanning L&D, performance, workforce management and engagement, real-time technology allows HR to immediately identify issues and act on them, writes SCOTT BEAGRIE

Today’s organisations work in a 24/7 environment, so the HR function has to respond to the immediate challenges and needs of the business. To earn the business partner status HR covets, it is no longer acceptable to take days, never mind weeks, to deliver the necessary people-related data that will better inform decision-making or help equip the organisation to compete in fierce global markets. Similarly, if there is a motivational or engagement problem in the workforce, why wait until the next employee survey to identify and deal with it?

It’s no great surprise to learn there is a growing emphasis on obtaining and acting on real-time information.

“Historically, some HR functions haven’t operated in this manner, using annual performance reviews and sporadic training,” says Colette Wade, regional vice president, EMEA marketing and business development, at Cornerstone OnDemand, a provider of HR and talent management software. “In today’s changing world, this isn’t conducive to best practice.”

A range of real-time information gathering tools can be applied across several core areas of HR, such as performance management, L&D and workforce planning. Amy Wilson, vice president of HCM product strategy at enterprise applications provider Workday, reckons cloud computing is one innovation that is driving the uptake of “data-driven” decision-making.

“HR managers are also benefiting from the memory power that can be unlocked by the cloud to provide unmatched response times, as well as new ways to structure data,” she says.

While HR is hardly likely to subscribe to the idea of technology for technology’s sake, it is important for the function to understand how such tools can be used to best effect. Although many HR professionals understand their benefits, Wade says the challenge often comes from setting meaningful metrics and expectations.

“Sit down and refine what you are looking to get from the HR tool and how it will support the business,” she says.

“You will have clear requirements and find the right tool to provide the right information.”

Here’s how real-time tools can help HR teams.


What does it mean in practice?

Employees can access training or learning at the point they need it. The proliferation of smartphones and tablets means the vast majority of employees have a real-time learning tool on their person most of the time. Learning and performance technology company City & Guilds Kineo recently surveyed its customer base and found the majority of them had access to at least two mobile devices.

“The concept of multi-device performance support in real time is a reality,” says Stephen Walsh, a director at the company. Learning content accessed on these devices could include video, audio, wikis, blogs, animation, infographics or another online resource that will help employees perform the task they are engaged in. Increasingly, this is likely to be usergenerated learning content, which is already prevalent in the engineering and technology sectors. “If someone works out a better way to solve a problem than a central team or what it says in the manual, it takes no time at all to upload something, such as a video, explaining how,” adds Walsh. “It’s not about e-learning or courses any more but contextualised resources.”

Why is it important?

The use of smart technology makes learning directly relevant and enables its effectiveness to be measured at the point of impact. It also maximises use of the accumulated knowledge that already exists in organisations, creating an always-on environment of learning opportunities. Learning is therefore less timeconsuming and much cheaper to deliver.

What should HR do next?

Encourage a culture of peer-to-peer learning and content creation, and experiment. As HR and L&D managers trial real-time learning, they are likely to dream up new applications for it. Walsh points to “real-time/virtual coaching” as one area in particular to keep a close eye on. In a sales environment, for instance, tools such as Skype could be used in tandem with instant messaging to observe and coach an individual on the spot.

“It extends the powers of coaching from anywhere,” Walsh explains. “You don’t have to be side-by-side any more and, to an extent, coaching is all about being in real time.”

Performance management

What does it mean in practice?

A range of online tools, including ‘360-degree’ feedback surveys, training logs and personal development plans can be used to access information on employees in real time to identify barriers and address performance issues as they arise or, indeed, to recognise and reward high performance. Sometimes these tools will be disparate, or built into HRIS or HCM systems. One of the significant developments in recent years is to empower employees to ‘own’ their reviews – “giving them continuous access to their personal development plans and updating them in real time,” explains Cornerstone OnDemand’s Wade. “This means their training log and skillset are up to date, as well as their objectives and how they are feeding into the organisation’s overall goals.”

Why is it important?

Traditional approaches to performance management based on annual or bi-annual reviews and appraisal have become old hat. Leveraging technology to transform this to an ongoing process makes it far more relevant for the organisation and the individual. “It’s also a fairer reflection of how someone is performing,” says Wade. “And it arms the organisation with critical information to make better-informed decisions.”

What should HR do next?

Evaluate performance management processes and explore how related tasks can be transferred to the online environment. Also, encourage employees to take ownership of their careers.

Workforce management

What does it mean in practice?

By extracting key data from workforce management, HCM or similar systems, an organisation can make better-informed decisions. This has been simplified by the emergence of clever data visualisation tools that make sense of information via charts and graphs. These allow users to pinpoint problems at a glance and give them an overview of how the workforce is performing in real time.

As well as general workforce analytics, these tools can be used for specific purposes such as monitoring absenteeism or ascertaining the daily cost of contractors. “Or, for example, perhaps an executive wants to know who among her managers has the best record for hiring top performers,” says Workday’s Wilson. “With actionable analytics, she can find that information and even execute an on-the-spot bonus to the top-hiring manager from within the HR system – a critical workforce decision based on direct insight into the business delivered by analytics.”

Why is it important?

It affords HR a golden opportunity to deliver reliable and in-depth metrics that demonstrate the correlation between superior human capital practices and bottom-line improvement, something it has struggled to do in the past. Babson College analytics guru Thomas Davenport claims data-driven organisations are 6% more productive and 5% more profitable.

What should HR do next?

Joint research from the CIPD and Oracle in November 2013 revealed that even the largest organisations are cagey about their capacity to make big data work in an HR context and, even in data-driven companies, HR has yet to develop a big data mindset. According to Wilson, a significant barrier to take-up is that big data often represents large and complex unstructured datasets that are difficult to manage with “normal database and technology tools”. The challenge for HR, she says, is not that there is insufficient data to best answer key questions about the workforce, but in making this data easy to access and analyse and, subsequently, making the findings actionable.

Engagement and motivation

What does it mean in practice?

Replacing the annual engagement survey is an array of tools that correlate work factors with how an employee is feeling, their motivation and job satisfaction. Like traditional survey tools, they are often score-based, but feedback data is in real time, rather than merely presenting a snapshot of employee engagement tied to the time the questionnaire was answered. 

Why is it important?

Despite the huge advances made in the field of engagement surveys, Jon Ingham, HR blogger and executive consultant at Strategic Dynamics Consultancy Services, suggests “getting a real handle on levels of engagement is still quite hard”. Giving employees the chance to have a regular say means that HR can intervene in an immediate and meaningful way if an issue arises. “Good engagement surveys help us gain a discrete understanding of the elements of satisfaction that correlate with engagement and are, therefore, important,” Ingham explains. “Real-time engagement provides another means of getting that granularity. The more closely we measure engagement to the thing that has influenced that engagement, the more able we are to tie it all together.”

What should HR do next?

Once the shift from fixed-point data collection to real-time feedback has been made, install mechanisms to ensure employees feel their voice is being heard and that appropriate steps are being taken to improve engagement. Beyond this, consider ‘mining’ the data – discovering patterns in large datasets – to bring to light deep-seated factors behind disengagement.