When do you add culture to your HR tech?

HR tech has evolved with a cultural focus, but it may take a lot more to get businesses up to speed, finds Dan Cave

Culture is a vexed issue for HR. Not only are HR departments expected to foster workplace cultures that better deliver on increased demand for engagement with societal issues, to better diversity and support individuals’ purpose, but they must also do this while being efficient and cost-effective.

As a result, more HR decision-makers are likely looking at their HR information systems (HRIS) as a way to start collecting data for – or answering questions about – their culture; to forge connections between employees; and to build a sense of belonging.

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And the market seems to deliver on these requirements. In fact, the most popular HRIS, according to 2022 reporting from Software Path, now offer core functionality or add-ons in areas of core cultural concern.

These include insights into employee engagement and values from employee net promoter scores, tools designed to improve the experience of work (Oracle) and augmented analytics for diversity metrics (Workday).

What might make these HRIS solutions even more tempting is that, in one place, they would also allow HR to keep an eye on growth, legislative compliance, cost and functionality. These are all key areas which Software Path found HR prioritises when choosing tech stack elements.

Depending on your stage on the D&I journey, employees may not be ready for the more cultural elements of an HRIS. If not now, how do you know when they are?


HRIS is only one part 

Although it’s clear the HRIS marketplace does offer support for culture policies, HR leaders shouldn’t get over-excited. 

Not even HRIS vendors say a technology solution, in isolation, can improve cultural outcomes, though they will provide data collection – the foundation for any good progress.

Daniela Porr, solution marketing lead at Workday, explains that while HRIS can collect workforce data in important areas and package it in easily digestible reports – showcasing trends on everything from the impact of unconscious bias to how inclusive hiring practices are – businesses are only ready for these capabilities when they have a clear (and well-communicated) strategy and sustained budget. HR also has to be given ownership to implement outcomes in this area.

She explains: “The best-performing organisations have recognised the importance of taking a strategic approach. They’ve put the necessary systems in place to collect and use a range of data to plan targeted actions, evaluate and refine their strategies.”


Leader and equity awareness

Buy-in is another area that many vendors think is crucial. Organisations, all the way from leadership to staff, have to be aware of the value of such HRIS-underwritten efforts.

Aubrey Blanche, director of equitable design, product and people at HR platform Culture Amp, says it’s up to the organisation if it’s going to create the understanding and buy-in for them to be used in a way that can benefit culture.

Yet, Blanche adds, even if there is buy-in, HRIS cannot be considered a culture-fixing panacea as often the data they collect is, unfortunately, based on structural equity issues at that firm.

She says: “There are simply equity-aware and equity-ignorant organisations.”

Lynn O’Connor, director of DEI at Sage, adds that any decisions over HRIS must be aligned with the leadership’s business strategy as it will remind HR why they are looking at changes in this area.

She adds: “[This] will keep an organisation focused on creating the best environment to enable innovation, high productivity and business growth from early on.”

Yet Helen Armstrong, CEO at HRIS consultancy Silver Cloud HR, warns organisations are only able to utilise the business-growth abilities of HRIS data if they’ve spent time building trust through other practises, otherwise employees won’t share their sensitive information.


"HRIS aren’t a culture-fixing panacea…there are simply equity-aware and equity-ignorant organisations"


Understanding and buy-in

It is this understanding of what the business needs, and what employees want, that Nisha Marwaha, director of people relations and DE&I at Virgin Media O2, says is crucial when considering either cultural add-ons to an HRIS, or improving DE&I data collection.

She says: “It’s vital to have a meaningful conversation about diversity at the same time; often the two go hand in hand.”

Commentators agree on the need to be able to tell a compelling story to employees about why an organisation might start focusing on culture in their data collection activities.

For Marwaha, this is about crafting a psychologically safe workspace. “You need to have a culture where people feel safe to share their personal data and are clear that providing information can help create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive organisation,” she says. 

Andy Hall, inclusion lead at disability charity Scope, emphasis that it’s about ensuring that employees understand why you’re expanding your efforts.

He says: “It’s about making sure that your people understand the organisational and the individual benefits for having you collecting [culture and DE&I] information.”

As Kelly Metcalf, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at Fujitsu, sees it, the clearest way to showcase how those benefits exist is to link the input [HRIS data collection] to an output, which can perpetuate further good practice.

She says: “We voluntarily published our ethnicity pay gap in September of last year and, since then, we have seen an improvement in the number of employees disclosing their ethnicity.”


HRIS, disability and neurodiversity

While the understanding of the why, as well as the doing, of data collection in areas such as ethnicity and gender is usually quite well progressed there are key areas where it lags behind. Namely disability and neurodiversity.

Before HR can even begin to think about supporting this area with even basic HRIS data collection, Hall says the function has got to get employees into a position where they know the outcome will be both supportive and geared towards individual needs.

He says: “The conversation and subsequent data collection has got to be more descriptive because HR will be better able to design organisational processes as a result, and your people have got to understand it’s about support.”

In fact, Hall adds that because many people may not consider that they have a disability, as well as historic low levels of individual workplace disclosure, HR professionals have to ensure their employees are confident that when they tick a box it makes a difference.

For Jacqui Wallis, CEO at Genius Within, a social enterprise supporting neurominorities, if an organisation is considering better HRIS data collection to drive better understanding, inclusion or even better alignment with customers, they could skip a step: the HRIS itself.

She says that organisations should always want to understand more about their neurodiverse communities and an HRIS might be the best place to store this information but it has limitations.

She adds: “Chances are the data collection will be woefully unrepresentative... so why don’t we make the whole organisation dynamically inclusive anyway.

“It’s much better to put systems in place that allow everybody access, whether they see themselves having a diagnosis or not.”


A focus on outcomes

Wallis’ comments align with what many in HR seem to think about readiness for taking the HRIS-culture alignment step: that the outcome the organisation wants is the most important consideration.

The marketplace appears to be in a place to support this and many organisations already have the technical capability. 

Suki Sandhu OBE, CEO at Audeliss, says: “You’re ready [to start making cultural and diversity improvements] as soon as your systems have the capabilities to do so.” 

There are other important considerations for HR. These include, but are not limited to, winning staff buy-in; building strategies for compliance; business values alignment and formulation; outcome orientation and leadership education in this area as well as considering elements of diversity that might get missed, such as disability and neurodivergence. 

As ever, easier said than done. 


Check out more from the 2022 Technology Supplement: Technology with purpose here.