The Ongoing Reinvention

As in years past, the 2016 HR Tech Conference illuminated the changing role technology plays in transforming the way employees -- including those in HR -- work.

By Mark McGraw, Andrew R. McIlvaine and Jack Robinson

The excitement swirling among nearly 400 vendors on display in the exhibit hall at Chicago's McCormick Place was matched by the energy of thousands of HR professionals taking part in the 60-plus sessions. In both settings and among both crowds at the 19th Annual HR Technology Conference and Exposition®, held Oct. 4 through 7, the fervor around the rapidly growing, changing role of technology in HR was almost palpable.

The exhibit hall, home to demos of nearly a hundred new platforms and applications creating a buzz in the HR tech space, offered attendees opportunities to network with fellow HR leaders looking to change their systems -- not to mention the chance to talk politics with frighteningly realistic Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump look-alikes.

Attendees sitting in on sessions saw a number of themes emerging as well. Employee engagement, for example, is still a tough concept to describe, but HR technology continues to help organizations build what this year's opening keynoter Barry Libert referred to as human "networks" to strengthen their bond with workers. 

Leveraging technology to find and keep talent was another topic evident throughout the conference. One example was a vendor panel exploring how technological advancements continue to transform talent acquisition and retention. 

We'll see how these and other HR tech-centric issues shape the profession in the coming months. In the meantime, here's a review of what was seen, heard and learned at the 2016 HR Tech Conference.

Setting the Stage for Change

Looking at the road ahead in the HR technology space, be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Such was HR tech guru Josh Bersin's message in Reinventing HR: A Radical New Approach to HR Technology and Solutions, a pre-conference "mega-session" on the eve of the conference's official kick-off.

Bersin, principal and founder of the Bersin by Deloitte consultancy, set the stage for the conference by describing a chaotic environment for employers and software vendors.

"We have more disruption and change . . . than ever before," Bersin said. But "despite the best efforts of our technology providers, technology is not making our lives better."

Bersin noted that the digital revolution has produced relatively modest gains in productivity, compared to other major technological advances of history. "All the research we do . . . seems to show we are not adapting to technology very well," Bersin said. In some cases, "it's actually making our work harder."

One illustration he cited is the recent decline in vacation usage by U.S. workers. People are working more hours, but aren't necessarily producing more.

Making companies more productive and workers happier will require a rethinking of the way organizations operate, Bersin said. Few are still strict hierarchies. Rather, in practical terms, they are interlinked networks of teams. HR leaders must choose digital tools that help workers connect with each other, he said.

In kicking off his opening keynote the following morning, Libert, CEO of Open Matters and co-author of The Network Imperative: How to Survive and Grow in the Age of Digital Business Models, emphasized the importance of making such connections.

His message was sweeping: Digital networks are fundamentally transforming business by connecting companies with their suppliers and customers to form new kinds of collaborative enterprises. And HR needs to make that journey as well.

"You are at the epicenter of our collective future," Libert said. That future rests on tapping "the power of us . . . the power of human connections."

Libert called development of networks and platform companies such as Uber a disruption on the same scale as the industrial revolution. He suggested that even the concept of nationality may change as networks connect people around the world in ways that can be more meaningful than simple geography.

The power of platform companies is clear if you look at market values, Libert said: Uber is bigger than GM. Airbnb is bigger than Sheraton. Amazon is bigger than Walmart. And they grow quickly because "networks scale exponentially," he said.

Yet many businesses are vulnerable to disruption because they fail to take advantage of the data and connections they own, Libert said. One example: Though hospitals or medical groups have access to vast stores of knowledge in their medical records and in their patients, they do not harness that network to help educate someone newly diagnosed with an illness. "They just know how to bill people," he said.

So it was not hospitals or doctors, but a start-up platform company called that built that network. The company shares information from more than 400,000 people on more than 2,500 conditions.

What does all this mean for HR? Libert didn't offer an explicit prescription. But he did predict that the traditional model -- pushing employees through a pipeline, from recruitment to retirement -- will change. Instead, he envisions a more holistic approach.

Libert acknowledged that many companies have a long way to go. Indeed, an informal poll he conducted in the middle of his presentation via text messaging found that 59 percent of the participating audience members think their organization operates at the "amateur" level in tapping its networks.

But there are signs that many HR leaders and vendors share Libert's vision. Young software companies such as Namely and BambooHR, for example, are actively building networks of companies -- including some that compete in some areas -- to provide services through their platforms.

Engaging Talent, Today And Tomorrow

Employee engagement remains a concept that's difficult to define, let alone measure. And maintaining high employee-engagement levels remains a key concern for HR professionals everywhere.

In Engaging and Retaining the Talent of Tomorrow, HR leaders from ADP, Cisco, IBM Corp. and Starbucks discussed the role of technology in improving employee engagement with moderator Soledad O'Brien, a Peabody- and Emmy-award winning journalist and CEO of Starfish Media Group.

The four-person panel -- Diane Gherson, IBM CHRO; Dermot O'Brien, CHRO at ADP; Scott Pitasky, executive vice president and chief partner resources officer at Starbucks; and Francine Katsoudas, chief people officer at Cisco Systems -- also examined recent research findings that illuminate just how much workers' expectations are changing.

ADP's recent Evolution of Work study found, for example, that 58 percent of workers say they believe that traditional hierarchical structures in the workplace will soon be a thing of the past. The survey also found 95 percent of employees saying they believe they will soon be able to work from anywhere.

The number of workers who anticipate working where and when they choose presents opportunities as well as challenges, said Katsoudas.

Nevertheless, teams can still thrive while working in disparate locations, she added. Katsoudas and the Cisco HR team have focused on helping managers "really connect with their team members," she said, "and really connect them with the strengths of their individual team members."

For example, managers rely on the company's talent-management platform to check in to see how their team members are progressing on a given project or task, and tweak their roles if need be. Managers can also send brief surveys to their direct reports, to get a feel for the level of engagement throughout their teams, and solicit suggestions on how to improve the employee experience.

As how, when and where employees work continues to change, "technology can actually reconnect us to the workforce," said ADP's O'Brien.

And, "it provides us with enough data to help us find ways to make the employee experience better," added Gherson.

In Using Insight and Employee Voice to Build the Best Team at Lloyd's Banking Group, David Littlefield -- the London-based bank's group head of culture, engagement and insights -- shared how less-frequent employee surveys that sought more substantial input helped boost engagement at Lloyd's. 

In 2015, he said, HR at Lloyd's developed and introduced its Building the Best Team Survey. Including between 60 and 65 questions overall, this new online survey added a series of open-ended questions to the usual multiple-choice queries, "to give employees an opportunity to talk about what they like and don't like" about their jobs, and about their roles within the organization.

The goal of adding such new queries was to gain insight into how employees felt in four areas: their satisfaction with their role in the company, their pride in their work, their likelihood to be an advocate for the organization and their intent to stay with Lloyd's, said Littlefield.

The new approach has paid off. Currently hovering between 85 percent and 88 percent, "participation rates [for employee-engagement surveys] have never been higher," he said, adding that overall employee-engagement scores have increased by 11 percentage points since 2014.  Part of the reason for this rise is attributable to allowing managers to revamp employees' roles to better match their skills and help them achieve "what they want to get out of their work," based on responses from the annual survey.

Why is Recruiting So Hard?

The first step toward developing an engaged, invested workforce is finding talented employees who are likely to thrive within your organization.

Easier said than done. Four panelists at the conference -- all of them from recruiting vendors  --  struggled to answer the question on so many minds these days: Given all the technological advances during the last 20 years, why is recruiting still such a frustrating experience for many job seekers and employers?

Part of the problem may be technology itself, said panelist Jennifer Seith, CareerBuilder's vice president for software solutions. She spoke at a session titled Two Decades, Four Tech Revolutions and Billions of Dollars Later -- Why is Hiring Still So Hard? moderated by Kris Dunn, CHRO of Kinetix and author of the Human Capitalist blog. "Sometimes technology overcomplicates things," said Seith.

Further complicating matters, she added, is the fact that the people who buy recruiting systems are often not the end-users of those systems, so recruiters find themselves forced to use something that they find burdensome and unhelpful, and overloaded with features they didn't ask for.

Seith and Colin Day, founder and CEO of iCIMS, said the market is oversaturated with too many vendors. "How many vendors came along, showed a lot of promise initially and then either fizzled out or got acquired by a much larger vendor? I think we vendors can't recuse ourselves from blame for what's going on," said Day.

"The ATS is still a really important, fundamental part of recruiting," he said. "But we've got to stop putting so much reliance on the ATS -- it's a system of record, but you need much more than that. You need to be building up your sourcing pools, improving your recruitment marketing, strengthening onboarding."

What's needed, he said, is to move beyond Software-as-a-Service to "Platform as a Service," an open system that lets companies add their own tools and applications to an existing cloud-based platform that is hosted and maintained by a vendor.

"The open-platform ATS is critical, because it allows all sorts of innovative companies to plug into it to help the ATS be even better and add more value," said Jon Bischke, CEO of Entelo.

Later on during the session, Dunn asked the panelists when they expected technology to be able to make better hiring decisions than people, and whether people would ever be comfortable giving up that amount of control.

"I think we're already there," said Mark Newman, founder and CEO of HireVue. "The selection process we use is very flawed. If we built cars the way we hire people, then those cars would explode as soon as you turned the ignition."

Bischke said the recruiting community should be most embarrassed by the unconscious bias that pervades hiring. "So why not let technology strip out information that would indicate race, gender and nationality, because so many companies have biases?"

All That Glitters Isn't Gold

After a week of bold pronouncements about things to come, one respected observer wrapped up the conference with a sober warning: New software isn't always the answer.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and veteran thought leader in human resources, urged executives to think critically about the practical benefits of shiny new HR technology.

The multibillion-dollar industry offers dazzling possibilities through applications of cutting-edge techniques such as artificial intelligence. But that doesn't mean new software will always produce results worth the cost and effort, Cappelli warned.

"All kinds of things are possible," he said in a closing keynote address on Friday. "That doesn't mean they'll take over."

The pace of technological change seems faster than ever, which makes buzzword-laden vendor sales pitches tempting because they offer a chance to catch the edge of the next big wave. But Cappelli believes we overestimate the pace of real change.

To illustrate the point, he noted that offices are not much different today than they were a half-century ago. Word processing, for example, has been in offices since the 1980s. A visitor from that decade to a modern office "wouldn't be surprised by that much," Cappelli said.

He said tech experts generally agree that the pace of technological change in recent decades is slower than in the 1960s -- with transistors, for example, and sweeping advances in chemistry. The pace was even quicker in the 1910s, with telephones, radios and automobiles transforming business in fundamental ways. "Now that was dramatic technological change," he said. The social-media revolution of recent years, by contrast, "didn't change the way people live."

That's not to say that software hasn't transformed business, of course. Certain innovations have been particularly important to HR: file-sharing technologies that allow outsourcing, for example. Others include job boards and their successors, enterprise-resource-planning programs and LinkedIn as a tool to find candidates.

But Cappelli urged caution in adopting platforms that promise dramatic results from "big data," "machine learning" or "predictive analytics." Those techniques have value in some settings, he said. But deriving valuable insights from a complex analysis of HR data often will cost too much and take too long.

Cappelli's prescription is for HR leaders to focus first on what problem they are trying to solve, and get the data needed for a straightforward solution. Instead of focusing on employee engagement under the assumption that engagement improves performance, for example, employers might be better advised to just study what characterizes high-performing workers, he said.

Solutions that allow organizations to standardize, organize and simplify their data often make sense, Cappelli said. One example: Switching from a ratings-based performance-management system to one based on frequent manager check-ins cries out for technology to properly organize records of those conversations.

Cappelli also thinks dashboards are valuable -- digital tools to measure what is happening with a workforce in real time. They can give HR leaders early warning of trouble or important trends.

In the end, Cappelli said, employers need to take a back-to-basics approach before splurging on advanced analytic capabilities with uncertain potential.

"If you want to spend some money, you want to spend it first figuring out your own data, figuring out who is a good employee," he said. "If you don't have that, 'machine learning' isn't going to do anything for you."


The 20th Annual HR Technology Conference and Exposition® will be held Oct. 10 through 13 at The Venetian in Las Vegas. For more information, visit


Nov 3, 2016
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