HR Technology Column

The Hottest Trends in HR Technology

Innovation is alive and well in Silicon Valley, where vendors continue to develop new apps that can benefit not just HR's own productivity, but the entire business.

Friday, September 16, 2011
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There is a genuine new trend going on in HR technology right now.

Define a "trend" as three or more companies working on more or less the same idea, only vaguely aware of the others' efforts. My annual week of vendor briefings in Silicon Valley unearthed one new important trend, in addition to substantial delivery on last year's promises.

After four years of talk and PowerPoint screen shots, many vendors are finally delivering software using the forms and functionality of popular social networks. Not offering a separate internal Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, but embedding those networks' familiar modes of communication and operation inside their enterprise applications for corporate end-users.

While SAP has definitely taken the most astounding leap here, every company I visited is doing it to some degree to make HR applications easier for managers and employees to use.

The old software usability boast of "as easy as buying a book on Amazon," which was rarely true, may soon be replaced by "no harder than hanging out on Facebook." And if they succeed, these new offerings will directly benefit the business, not just HR's own productivity. 

Work Management

Nobody reports to me (lucky for them!), so I really don't know how most managers keep tabs on their usual six direct reports, not to mention the people cascading below them. Hewlett-Packard famously espoused "managing by walking around."

Many friends complain about their bosses "managing by meddling," or micro-managing. Other executives seem to employ Ronald Reagan's famous Nuclear Test Ban Treaty phrase, "trust but verify," which sounds like a lot of emails, meetings and monthly reports to me.

The new trend is creating what I call "work management" software that helps employees manage the work they're doing. It also gives executives and managers insight into what employees are actually working on and helps the former better manage the latter, which is getting their own work done. Not a typical HR task, to be sure, but it's being pursued in varying degrees by a start-up called 4 Spires (with solid HR credentials), Rypple, Workday and SAP.

4 Spires is furthest along. Founder Dave Arella is not nearly as well-known as he should be. After managing HR systems for Apple, he started NOAH Software in 1991, built a series of manager self-service tools, including a compensation-planning application, and sold the company in 1999 to Workscape.

There, he was a senior vice president until 2002, getting his comp app generally acknowledged (though some would argue otherwise) as the best in the world for large, multinational companies. ADP now owns it, along with the rest of Workscape.

Arella sometimes talks about 4 Spires as "managing conversations" or even doing "performance management" -- proving he is better at software design than marketing. I prefer "work management" or, in this case, "commitment-based work management." His software actually tracks and manages the performance of work through a heavily structured email metaphor. While that may not make him a social-network-interface adapter, his product seems devilishly effective, nevertheless.

Within the system, a manager (the requester) sends a message to a subordinate (or a group of them), requesting work (including details) and a desired due date. Those requests are delivered as regular email outside the 4 Spires system, so in that way, at least, it works like a social network.

A negotiation (call it a "conversation," if you prefer euphemisms) takes place among all the parties over the details until the "performers" of the work click the "Agree" button. How quickly this happens varies wildly according to management styles, of course.

Meanwhile, a workflow system tracks just about everything: all comments by all parties involved in the request, the dates of who did what when, progress status, the agreements and commitments. The performer(s) can decide to display the status of the commitment with colors: Green (on track), Yellow (in trouble) and Red (not gonna happen!).

Because everybody works for someone and many have people working for them, users can see all the commitments they have made to others and all commitments others have made to them. Commitments are tracked by requester, performer, due date, status and project. Dashboards show work in progress, project overviews, the status lights and performance by person.

And at the end of the year, yes, there is performance management: a year-long record of exactly what everyone has done, complete with graphical displays for various metrics, including on-time delivery.

Get the picture?

In a way -- very different from existing work-, project- or task-management systems -- executives and managers get incredible new transparency into what their people are actually doing, without personally having to ask, meddle or verify. It's all just there, including a hierarchy of dependent requests to see how your request has been delegated down or around.

Back in July, Arella was looking for investors, with several 4 Spires clients in beta, a dozen in the sales pipeline and the first commercial version scheduled to be available by now on the App Exchange ('s platform store for third-party applications). Because it is browser-based, users can access the application from their desktops, laptops, smartphones or tablets.

Slightly Less-Managed Work

The other three companies are also managing work, only maybe a little less so.

Rypple has been working on this idea for two years. Its "social performance-management platform" does largely manage work using the functionality of Rypple's original product -- continuous feedback, social (read "work") goals, one-on-one coaching and recognition. When formal "commitments" to work goals are added in September, it will really be doing the job. 

Because 4 Spires is more traditional top-down, command-and-control, it's hard to compare it to Rypple's Gen Y "let's all do a show" approach. But in Rypple's system, people create goals and objectives for themselves (or are given them or assign them to others), invite others to contribute and everyone can create or assign specific actions to reach the goals.

In the Rypple millennial world of collaborative work, co-workers see a public goal on the system and jump in to help achieve it by becoming contributors. With Gen Y "gamification," they may be awarded badges and recognition from co-workers for their helpful attitude and work, thus building their reputation within the company.

Better than 4 Spires, the system knows when an action has not been completed and automatically assigns the status of a goal accordingly, such as "delayed" or "critical."

The conversations about everything are tracked and stored, each objective (or goal) has a thread and each key result (metric) can have one, too. When the objective is completed, its history can be sliced by each individual involved. So again, very useful fodder for performance management.

"The system does support a top-down, hierarchical approach," says the new vice president of product management, Maksim Ovsyannikov (formerly with IBM, ADP and Saba). "But it's not the default because millennials are not so receptive to that."

Which is one reason client Facebook will be presenting at the HR Technology® Conference about Rypple and other technologies its HR department uses to manage its employee population of 50-percent millennials.

A handful of Workday customers already use its collaboration (read "social") functionality for goals management, part of Workday 13 released back in March. There, too, a social conversation can take place around a goal, and that process history aggregated. People can approve or deny requests, as in 4 Spires, and their decisions tracked. The conversation and feedback is structured and then can be sliced by workers, managers or locations.

It doesn't quite feel like managing the work, since reaching a goal may involve a variety of activities, tasks or projects over time, but it's awfully close and offers similar transparency into what people are actually doing.

An enterprise-software company to its core, Workday applies the same standards and controls to social technologies as to formal HR processes. So its system allows for strict control over the use of names or anonymity, recipients and who gets to see what. Similar to seeing salaries, role-based security is being adapted to the new age of social media.

The third company sort of doing this is SAP, but that's part of a much more amazing story.

Enterprise HR: Say "Hello" to Facebook!

About 20 months ago now, SAP freed Vice President David Ludlow from his 10 years of loyal service overseeing the successful on-premise HCM system called R/3, where he was the longest-tenured software executive working on the same HRMS.

His new assignment, after the usual bureaucratic bumps, was to create SAP's next generation of SaaS-delivered talent-management apps that would integrate tightly and easily with installed R/3 systems. Rather than just catching up with the offerings of talent-management- suite vendors (which SAP still needed to do), Ludlow successfully took a giant leap over them and mashed up Facebook and enterprise HR!

He promised it last summer, he delivered it this summer for availability by mid-2012, and I was astounded to see the result. Note that this is an emotional reaction, not a product endorsement, though I'm sure my reaction is already quoted in SAP PowerPoint presentations.

His team has created an enterprise-goal-management app -- with some of the best features and communication functionality of the major social networks -- that looks and acts pretty much like Facebook. Only you get real work done with it!

It's part of a suite under development called Career OnDemand. The first version will include performance, development, informal learning and analytics; later versions will include all the talent-management apps. Two years ago, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison publicly called Fusion talent management "a Workday killer and a SuccessFactor killer" and Ludlow, now a group vice president for SAP's HR line of business, feels the same way; albeit, a lot more quietly.

After all, who has mostly been buying Workday and talent-management suites? Oracle and SAP HCM customers, that's who. Career OnDemand is designed for the same thing Oracle calls "co-existence," when an on-premise PeopleSoft customer, for instance, buys and integrates Fusion SaaS apps.

Unlike Oracle Fusion, Career OnDemand will not be available as an on-premise system because SAP already offers talent management in R/3. Whether it expands to become SAP's next-generation HCM (as Fusion is) is unclear. It is built on Business ByDesign's modern technical platform, but that next-generation ERP -- including an in-memory database similar to Workday's -- has so far been confined to the small-to-mid-sized business market.

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Full disclosure about the demo: I'm so busy moderating the HR Technology® Conference group on LinkedIn and hawking my shows and columns on Twitter that I never go on Facebook, except to accept new friends I've never met or even heard of and to check out the occasional picture someone posts of me. So I may have missed some subtleties. Watch Ludlow demo it yourself at the conference at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

First, of course, is the Talent Profile. Ludlow is still trying to get employees the ability to import their social-network information to populate their Talent Profiles.

Of course, Career OnDemand also imports the official employee record from the HRMS with all its mistakes that can be edited and all the formal corporate data on salary, positions and certifications that can't be.

Then there's a basic one-page profile (a subset of the much larger Talent Profile), which looks very much like a Facebook page. Employees can add personal websites as well as their real Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter addresses. (Note: Corporate access will vary considerably.) And what is that rectangular box near the top? Yup, a wall for anybody's comments!

The full Talent Profile itself has a menu bar with "Name, Goals, Activities, Career History, Mentoring and People." Employees create their own networks, all safely within the firewall, and can use them for finding experts and mentors, as well as for collaboration.

Goals can be created in Outlook and brought into the system or created within the system, negotiated in a network discussion and formally accepted or rejected. They can be shared or hidden. Individual activities can be shared or "liked." (All sound familiar?) Activities are archived with the goal.

The point that should be clear by now is that this app, unlike the others above, is primarily designed for the individual, not the manager, to plan his or her work, broadcast it to peers for their help and insight (similar to Rypple), and later share activities and results so everyone can learn from what was done.

The system sends automatic notifications and reports on which goals are on track and which are the most active, and emphasizes specific document attachments (attachments are a future for 4 Spires). But managers do have dashboards with real-time reports on goals, people (even stack-ranking their activity) and comments.

SAP has an internal work-management application called Streamwork, so Senior Director of Product Management Prashanth Padmanabhan insists his app is about goals, not about managing work. OK, let him be that way.

What's Happening at Workday?

That seems to be the question I am most often asked. The answer is, a lot of impressive stuff, in addition to the above, and more to be discussed elsewhere.

On the business side, signed customers have gone from 92 in July 2009 to 150 in July 2010, and 230 this year. Co-CEO Aneel Bhusri says Workday is on the path this year to more than double its 2010 bookings of $150 million. He announced during a Bloomberg television interview that the company will go public in the second half of 2012.

As we always knew it would, Workday is now going after the big clients -- takeaways from Oracle, PeopleSoft and SAP. Its average customer size doubled to 16,000 employees this year, with the addition of many larger ones, including Kimberly-Clark and Thomson Reuters.

At the high end, Workday's only competition for companies wanting a SaaS HCM is Fusion. Oracle and SAP both want it dead (as you've read); good news if you are known by the enemies you keep.

Given Workday's positioning of "unified HCM and talent management," I am most impressed that more than 90 customers are already using its talent-management apps (which are bundled and free) -- with 150 estimated to do so by December -- and amazed that about 70 have bought internal payroll (which is not bundled and costs extra).

Like every good SaaS vendor, the company is coming out with three product releases a year, all of them numbered, bowing to its ERP heritage. So Workday 13 (partly described above) was released in March of this year, 14 in July and 15 scheduled for release in November. Then Workday does it three more times next year.

The result is a flood of innovations (148 new features in Workday 14), which makes it hard to know where to start. So I'm leaving Vice President of Human Capital Management Strategy Leighanne Levensaler's fine briefing to my HREOnlineTM column, as I must also do for other developments learned during my briefings with Oracle, SuccessFactors, Saba and Taleo.

Happily, real estate on the Internet is more flexible.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 14th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, Oct. 3-5, 2011 in Las Vegas. Registration is available online until noon Sunday, Oct. 2. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which does not require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show® and the new video series Firing Line with Bill Kutik premiering on Sept. 29. He can be reached at

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