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Technology Changing the Game

Industry analysts offered their thoughts on new products, vendor viability and the impact of software-as-a-service during the second day of the HR Technology Conference. Other sessions explored global implementations and solving recruiting and LMS challenges.

Friday, October 12, 2007
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At this year's industry analyst panel, moderator and HR Technology Conference® co-chair Bill Kutik put the panelists on the spot with a series of "blunt statements" that he challenged them to agree or disagree with.

The first blunt statement: "Upcoming major releases from vendors will completely change the game."

Jim Holincheck, vice president of research for HR applications at Gartner, said a number of upcoming releases from vendors built on service-oriented architecture may be game changers in that it will make it easier for customers and vendors to change and update software.

"Software-as-a-service will also be part of these products, and that may be the most game-changing part," he said.

Jason Corsello, vice president of the center for excellence at Knowledge Infusion, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, said he didn't see anything on the product horizon that he considered "game changing," but said the impact of emerging interactive technologies such as Web 2.0 will be "huge."

Kutik asked the panelists to name the most innovative HR technology product they'd seen in the past year.

Holincheck said he was particularly impressed with the succession planning and performance management products from a small Australian vendor called Sonar 6 (among the winners of this year's HR Top Products competition). "They've radically re-thought these processes and have a very nice graphical user interface."

Corsello said he was most impressed with products that featured Microsoft Outlook plug-ins, which allow users to access the software from commonly used applications such as Outlook instead of logging in to a different system.

"It amazes me that everyone's got a new user interface, but why not simply go to where users hang out -- places like Google and Outlook?," he said. "Make the applications more innovative by using the users' application of choice."  

The next blunt statement posed by Kutik was this: "Having an integrated talent-management suite is the only way for HR to be strategic, and such a suite is available today from a single vendor."

"HR is not going to become strategic by using software," said Naomi Bloom, managing partner of Fort Myers, Fla.-based consulting firm Bloom & Wallace. "If   you don't know the key things your company has to do to get the people you need, software won't help you."

Added Corsello: "Lots of vendors claim they offer an integrated TM suite, but no one's really there yet."

Kutik asked the panelists whether the major enterprise-resource planning vendors' efforts to update their talent-management functions would enable them to catch up with -- and ultimately replace -- niche vendors.

Corsello said he believed they stood a chance, but doubted it would happen within three years.

Bloom said that regardless of what the ERP vendors did, stability and staying power among the niche vendors was an issue. "There's so much churn in this industry -- there are too many vendors trying to do the same thing."

She urged attendees to "please take a hard look at the implications of choosing a vendor that's not going to be around to exhibit at this show next year."

Kutik asked Lisa Rowan, program manager for HR and talent management services at IDC in Framingham, Mass., to explain Software-as-a-Service -- its importance and advantages and disadvantages.

"SaaS requires a one-to-many model, managed by the vendor but accessed by many clients," she said.

A SaaS-delivered application can be upgraded to many clients at the same time, but is limited in how it can be customized to each client, she added.

Although many vendors advertise, she said, on-demand was more a marketing term and not necessarily interchangeable with SaaS.

Rowan added that she thought SaaS would eventually become the HRMS model of choice for large companies, but it would probably take at least several more years of development before that happened.

HR Visionary

A few little-known facts about HR technology veteran Naomi Lee Bloom: As a child growing up in Springfield, Mass., she spoke only Yiddish until she enrolled in kindergarten. She founded a group called the Brazen Hussies, a networking group for women working in technology. She started her consulting firm, Bloom & Wallace, 20 years ago after spending decades designing and developing HR software.

But the focus of the "Visionaries of HR Technology" session at this year's conference wasn't so much on Bloom's life as it was on what she sees as the ongoing challenges facing HR technology.

The biggest problem, she says, is that the systems and software simply don't work very well.

"I have enormous respect for the programmers who write the code that makes possible the software magic you see out on the exhibit floor," she said in response a question from Kutik, who served as moderator of the session: "Why are we so unhappy with our HR technology?"

"But we're not doing a very good job," Bloom said.

The issue isn't the software so much as the disconnect that still exists between HR and the actual mission of the companies it's supposed to serve. HR leaders continue to be too focused on processes that haven't evolved with the times instead of tying the HR strategy to the organization's business drivers: time to market, speed in serving customers, etc.

Rather than designing processes that are tailored to their firm's business strategy, HR people continue to be too focused on transactions and processes that don't take into account today's workforce, with its mix of full-time, part-time, contingent and global employees, she said.

This is reflected in software that, though it may appear "shiny and new," continues to be based on outmoded data designs that date from the era when punch cards were used to program computers.

"Look under the covers of today's shiny new software and you'll find the same old crappy data designs," she said.

Newer innovations such as service-oriented architecture offer HR the promise to change over to something completely new and different, said Bloom.

But in order to take advantage of it, HR must be prepared for a whole new implementation process in which the previous tools will be discarded completely, and it must ensure that the new software really is new technology, rather than a dressed-up version of the same old data models, she said.

"Go with a vendor that's really making the leap, rather than one that's just toddling along,'" she said.  

Global Implementations  

In implementing a global recruiting solution, companies have to weigh a variety of factors before determining an approach that best matches their needs, Elaine Orler, former principal consultant for The Newman Group, told those attending a session entitled "The Challenges of Implementing Recruiting Around the World."  

Orler noted that companies have three options available to them: a phased approach; big bang approach and hybrid approach.

In a phased approach, she explained, companies will have a chance to learn at each phase of the implementation and modify delivery accordingly. The big bang approach, meanwhile, has a shorter time line, while the hybrid approach combines elements of the two, she said.  

In deciding the best approach, Orler said, companies need to determine what their primary objectives, their budgets and time lines, and the short- and long-term recruiting needs for their organizations.  

Other factors, she added, include:

* What integrations are critical for operating success?

* How many solutions will be retired with the implementation of the new solution?

* What is your organization's readiness for change?

* How many other system/application implementations are currently being managed within the organization?

LMS Strategies

Josh Bersin stressed some key pointers with HR and IT professionals in the midst of an in-depth look at the talent-management evolution, "What You Still Need to Know about Learning and Performance Systems."

Top among them was the stern suggestion to HR leaders to decide what kind of company they work for, where it fits in the competitive chain and where they want to go with learning management before beginning the vendor-selection process.

Whether going with a centralized or distributed learning-management system, the system strategy must follow or create an organizational strategy, said Bersin, talent-management guru and president of the Oakland, Calif.-based Bersin & Associates.

In addition to offering attendees a comparative shopping list of LMS vendors and a rundown of the kinds of problems and needs they're equipped to answer, Bersin urged listeners to develop a list of "use cases," those services they especially want carried out and solutions they want delivered.

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Creating test cases for vendors to show how compliance training is tracked and managed, how career development and customer training are managed, even how users access the system, "can be time-consuming and can feel like it slows you down, but it actually speeds you up," he said.

Listeners were encouraged to fully assess how many customers a particular vendor serves "who are exactly like you, of the same size and space ... . Choosing a vendor with many customers much like you will greatly enhance your chances for success," he said.

Finally, Bersin urged employers to consider their business drivers for performance-management systems.

"Think hard about why you are automating," he said.

From automating performance appraisals to developing a standard competency model to increasing engagement and retention through feedback and coaching all the way up to improving business results through goal alignment, "you can create a 'use case' for any one of these," said Bersin.

"Think about where you want to go with this. You're going to be living with this system for a long time."

RPO Success Story

When Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman Warren Buffett bought Fort Worth, Texas-based TTI on March 30, he presented the electronic components distributor with some very real challenges -- key among them to double its $1 billion in annual revenues within three years.

With 2,500 employees in 50 branch locations worldwide, TTI was also charged with increasing headcount by 100 new hires per year in that same time frame in order to carry out Buffett's vision for the newly acquired company.

One of the first things Buffett asked TTI leaders was " 'What do you want to buy?' " Ronald R. Russell, senior vice president of global human relations for TTI, recounted for attendees at a session entitled "Can Recruitment Process Outsourcing Be Key to Revenue Growth?"

Without the structure in place to carry out such ambitious goals, TTI turned to Veritude, a recruitment-process outsourcer headquartered in Boston. With hubs in Dallas and Bangalore, India, Veritude's 24/7 sourcing model offered the kind of flexibility Russell was looking for.

Unlike some RPO vendors, Veritude has since been involved in every facet of TTI's recruiting process from sourcing and screening through candidate selection and onboarding.

In fact, Veritude recruiters even work alongside TTI hiring and line managers as if they worked for TTI, he said. Veritude's strong consulting arm also keeps Russell and his team fully informed about what should be happening and how to fix what might not be happening the way it should.

"Our definition of RPO is being actively involved in all the recruitment buckets, from sourcing all the way to the onboarding process, and actually having a hand in executing the final solution," said Robert A. Lopes Jr., president and CEO of Veritude, as the two men presented their story. "We look at it as much more of a partnership relationship."

So far, the proof has been in the pudding. In just seven months, TTI has reached 40 percent of its new-hire goal and has significantly decreased the average time-to-hire rates.

In crucial times, Russell said, a quality outside consultant can help cut through or identify internal inefficiencies. "They can bring in that objectivity," Russell said.

Recruiting in Africa and China

In rolling out new applications across the globe, it's "really is about influencing and providing solutions rather than a top-down directive," said Kevin Shigley, senior consultant for HR metrics and technology for the Coca-Cola Co.

In a session entitled "How Coca-Cola Recruits in Africa and China," Shigley talked about how his organization used Peopleclick to solve talent-recruitment problems in those areas, noting that there were similarities in the talent and technological challenges in each area.

On the continent of Africa, the company had no recruiting system in place, time-to-fill and cost-per-hire was high and there was no standardization of processes or practices. In addition, there was no employee-referral program and many skilled Africans were working outside the continent and it was hard to entice them to return, Shipley said.

The situation was similar in China, he said, with the additional challenges of a shortage of qualified talent and rampant turnover.

Using Peopleclick's software-as-a-service talent-acquisition application, he said, Coca-Cola was able to quickly implement a solution -- only taking three months to go live in Africa -- and reduce time-to-fill on that continent from about 120 to 130 days to about 60.

In addition, the launching of the employee-referral program saved the company about $53,000, he said.

The launching of the application in China was delayed due to a business restructuring, but it is scheduled to launch this month, Shipley said.

Read the report from the opening day of the HR Technology Conference.

Read the report from the final day of the HR Technology Conference.

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