The consumerisation of HR tech

The usability gap between workplace and consumer software is getting more noticeable, so HR must take inspiration from tech employees use at home

“It’s become a cliché to say employees want the same experience with their workplace software as they get with their personal software,” says Chris Pinc, director of HR software product management at Willis Towers Watson. “But that doesn’t make it any less true, especially when it comes to HR software. Employees’ expectations for the quality of their HR software are only likely to increase, not decrease.”

The degree to which we have become dependent on technology is staggering. In 2016 research for travel company Expedia discovered people see their smartphones as the single most indispensable item when travelling: ahead of their toothbrush, deodorant and driver’s licence. Consumer technology is all-pervasive and with that comes heightened expectations of what technology should deliver at work.

“The key is for technology to be simple and intuitive to use, and be accessible anywhere, anytime and on any device,” says Ricoh’s UK director of people and corporate responsibility Rebekah Wallis. “HR systems need to support an increasing number of people who are working flexibly and remotely. They also need to be secure and optimised for mobile. This is particularly important in recruitment where potential applicants expect to be able to search and apply for roles on their smartphones.”

Neil Morrison, director of strategy, culture and innovation at Penguin Random House UK, says the obvious consumer tech parallel with recruitment is customer acquisition. In his view the recruitment technology space could be improved by following the lead of user-friendly online shopping sites.

“The experience on most ATSs [applicant tracking systems] is like ecommerce 10 years ago,” says Morrison. “The way the data is presented and organised, the fields that are required, the multiple click-throughs, all make it clunky and slow. Some of the smaller companies have come on a way but ultimately the experience is far from a Shopify [shopping platform specialist] or equivalent. Yet recruitment technology is probably at the forefront of HR technology.”

Rapid advances in the L&D field mean that traditional learning management systems and the strategies that have supported them are being turned on their heads. Deloitte’s 2017 Human Capital Trends survey found that employees are looking for instant answers to their development needs and forms of learning that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, over a range of mobile platforms.

Worryingly, the research reveals that the UK “shows signs of lagging slightly behind other countries”. For example, when looking at advanced learning solutions such as gaming, video and simulations Deloitte found that 74% of UK organisations consider themselves weak, compared to 64% globally. Similarly, 59% of UK respondents stated they were weak at providing mobile learning.

There is growing evidence to suggest that gamification can be highly effective when applied to CPD. And not just for younger members of staff. Design consultancy OPX has been working with a global professional services client to create a platform that encourages senior leaders to increase dedicated professional development time from a low base of 15 hours a year.

“Using a carefully selected range of gameplay techniques we tapped into the desire of high achievers to do well and keep pace with their peers,” says OPX client director Simon Goodall. “Virtual rewards enabled them to measure progress, with the competitive element carefully targeted so that it motivated the best without discouraging the rest.”

Early results are “really encouraging”, adds Goodall, with 92% of the firm’s time-poor executives now engaged with substantial lifelong learning programmes through the game-based interface.

Reward is another area where consumerisation of the employee experience has obvious advantages; flexibility and clarity are the ideal.

“Benefits are an important area of an employee’s package – as well as being a differentiator between employers – and employees expect to be able to manage their benefits in a similar way to an online shopping experience,” says Ricoh’s Wallis. “A benefits selection website that automatically adjusts your monthly salary as you select is one way of providing greater transparency and uptake in this area, as well as helping people to appreciate the true value of their reward package.”

The consumer explosion of wearable fitness trackers and phone-based fitness apps is already exercising, as it were, an impact on organisational wellbeing strategies. WTW’s Pinc believes wearables are likely to become indispensable in the workplace.

“You already see this with products focused on health and wellbeing such as Fitbit, but this will likely expand to other areas such as stress management and disease-prevention applications,” he says. “Beyond that, wearables are likely to help enhance the performance of work itself; for example products that alert employees when they’re showing signs of risk for an accident, e.g. drowsy truck drivers.”

This point about performance brings us neatly to performance management. Here too there is scope to apply consumer technology techniques. GE, for instance, has developed an in-house app to gain PM insights from employees, including upward feedback on managers. And the conversational nature of social media is unquestionably having an impact on the design of PM programmes.

In short, they have become less top-down and much more interactive. As noted in the Deloitte report, the focus has shifted from talking about people to talking with people in open conversations.

Clearly there is a huge amount of activity in the HR tech space. Yet there is also a long way to go.

Morrison thinks the HR tech model is an “odd” one. “Ultimately the aim is to try and get companies on to one system for everything. But what is the likelihood that any company is going to have the best recruitment systems as well as the best payroll systems as well as the best learning systems? It really is counterintuitive.”

He makes the point that, as a consumer, you might have an underlying operating system but you then have bespoke interfaces that sit on top. These apps come from multiple providers, each an expert in its field. Ideally the same approach will hold sway when applied to HR.

So should organisations build their own solutions in-house? Morrison thinks not, arguing that it’s not a task most teams are well-equipped for.

“Ultimately it has to be about HR teams being more demanding of vendors,” he says. “There are great tech companies that are simple and intuitive as well as helpful. The simple thing is that they balance value for the HR function with a positive user experience for the employee. Too many enterprise systems focus on supposed efficiency for the HR team, but with little thought to the end user.”