Major Memes of HR Tech!

Often new phrases surface at the HR Tech Conference (or reach a volume) that get people buzzing. Three years later, they disappear into real software functionality or oblivion. Did you hear much about predictive analytics this year, while artificial intelligence smacked you in the face on the show floor? Even more subtle themes snaked their way through the sessions.

By Bill Kutik

HR Tech Co-Chair Steve Boese blogged that people are always asking him what the "theme" of this year's conference will be. I think his answer is the same as mine was for 16 years: "Whatever's new and important." Hard to judge what that would be almost a year earlier as the speaking proposals come in.

But every few years a new phrase surfaces at HR Tech Conference, or just gathers sufficient volume there, that it really does get people buzzing (why else call it a "buzzword"?). Within three years, the buzzwords generally disappear: either into real software as new functionality or just into oblivion.

To put the current buzz into context, consider the following two opposite historical examples.

In 1998, the same year as the first HR Tech Conference, Lexy Martin and David Link debuted The Hunter Group Survey of HR Systems – research that is still flourishing 20 years later under Stacey Harris, after a half-dozen corporate owners and names. The first report was entirely about the adoption of employee self-service!

In that same year, a handful of small vendors was still selling separate employee self-service technology meant to be integrated into the big HR systems. Naturally, the big systems didn't bother building that functionality because, 20 years ago, they knew their software was used solely by the HR department, not employees. Some of the small vendor names were Edify, Conduit, Interlynx, ESSence and iClick.

What happened? The big vendors realized it was a good idea and partnered with the smaller ones. And then in the most dramatic case, PeopleSoft announced six months later that ESS was strategic and had to be developed and sold without a partner. Its partner Edify (after bulking up for all the expected new customers) broke up its parts, went out of business, and sold its HR software to Workscape (later acquired by ADP).

The point is ESS was a buzzword that actually entered the fabric of our systems and our lives, though it never worked as well as it should because employees were confused by software they had to use so infrequently.

Now, vendors are promising to replace it with a digital assistant that can deliver HR answers to employees without their hunting through the system at all! So ESS was definitely a keeper.

Not so the following year's biggie: knowledge management or human intellectual capital management. The idea, back then, was to manage a company's structured data to be able to retrieve both it and what employees already knew to maximize productivity and profits. And that HR should handle it!

The idea was reflected big in that year’s HR Tech Conference. A keynote panel featured Vinnie Mirchandani, then with Gartner and now the sole proprietor of Deal Architect; Joel Summers, the original top dog of HR software at Oracle; and Juan Moran, no longer the CEO of Meta4, still headquartered in Spain and selling its HCM around the world.

The father of the intellectual-capital concept, Leif Edvinsson, delivered the closing keynote via a truly primitive, low-quality private connection from Sweden during the relatively early days of video conferencing.

The result: HR did absolutely nothing. IT tried a few knowledge-management projects, but as you know, now the focus has shifted to finding the expert within the company who knows something rather than finding what it is he or she knows.

Equal buzz; totally different results.

This year, artificial intelligence was touted by vendors, large and small. The large ones included The Big Three (Oracle, SAP SuccessFactors and Workday), Ultimate Software and Works Applications, the largest HCM vendor in Japan. Definitions of AI vary widely and few agree on them. It’s still a work in progress.

But I think AI will be a keeper -- though it will certainly take some time -- because it has already failed spectacularly once before, back in the Paleolithic era of 1986. That's when computer scientists from MIT and Harvard were all working on it as the next big thing. I knew about it from editing my friend Esther Dyson's leading computer industry newsletter, which nearly folded from devoting all its coverage to AI.

HR actually benefited from that effort, when AI expert Tod Loofbourrow developed a product called Beneflex to answer employee benefit questions (ESS again!) and later changed his company’s name from Foundation Technologies to Authoria. (Eventually, it was sold and became PeopleFluent.)

Beneflex was knowledge-engineered and hard-coded, which few now would consider AI. Even though the software knew all about you, it still took several clicks to find your answer.

If you really want to get current on the state of AI in HR, consider a modest investment in John Sumser's new report: "The Emergence of Intelligent Software." Go to to read excepts and order, if you like.

People often ask, "What constitutes a trend?" I take my cue from the old hit song by Arlo Guthrie (yes, the son of more famous folksinger Woody Guthrie) called Alice's Restaurant. In it, he sings if you have three separate people saying the same thing, you've got a political movement!

Of course, he was being ironic. But in business terms, I think three constitutes a genuine trend, just so long as they weren't all talking about it beforehand.

At this year's HR Tech, our top two thought leaders -- Josh Bersin in his closing keynote and Jason Averbook in his "Mega Session" -- both said that, in the future, HR could not possibly run all its applications on a single technical platform because with so much innovation coming from smaller vendors, they would have to integrate with some of them or miss out on a lot.

David Ludlow, group vice president at SAP SuccessFactors, says much the same thing on his current Firing Line interview. And SAP first popularized that idea when it came to the U.S. in 1993 with its ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, which at the time tried to include every line of software code that a company would need to do business. All on one technical platform.

In debunking that, David was referring to his own experience running SAP on-prem for 12 years and the straitjacket it put him into coordinating every innovation with all the other software pillars. David then made the exact same point that Josh and Jason made. He was also referring (competitively) to Workday's tag line:"The Power of One."

To be fair, while Workday does mean a single platform in that tag line, it includes more: all customers being on the same software version (the goal of all SaaS vendors) forming one community with the same online experience and just about everything in common. Plus, one mobile app and security model.

But after hearing the three pros, I'm convinced that the “Power of One” will become the “Power of Many.” As John Sumser writes tongue firmly in cheek about AI: "Self-driving cars transport workers . . . to paradise -- where there is no more work.

"HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, will be at the 21st annual HR Technology® Conference & Expo, in Las Vegas, Sept. 11-14, 2018. Watch David Ludlow, group vice president at SAP SuccessFactors, on the 35th episode of the broadcast-quality video series, Firing Line with Bill Kutik®.


Nov 6, 2017
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