HR Leadership Column

At Home in a 'Foreign Land'


Thursday, November 1, 2012
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After a visit to the HR Technology ® Conference, there's no doubt that the data and analytical tools available through current and future HRM systems will enable HR executives to add even greater value to the business.


A year ago, I followed the tweets and blogs from the HR Technology ® Conference, and I was struck by how excited the attendees seemed to be about new human resource management tools that were showcased and deployed. I knew then that I would attend this year's conference in Chicago. I realized that there was a lot more learning I needed to do in the HRM systems space.


At the outset, let me confess that I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I love it when it's in place and working, when I know how to use it, and it's giving me the data I need.  


I hate technology when it's new, being set up, and I have to learn how to use it and what it will give me.  Like many others in my demographic, technology became a part of my professional life mid-career. How many of us recall our first fax or email? So, while I can "speak" some technology, it's not my first language -- it's more like a second language to me. Sometimes, it feels like it's taking me longer to grasp the promise of a new technology because I need a translation into a language in which I'm actually fluent.  I worried that going to a technology conference would feel like going to a foreign land.


Not so.


The conference attendees were a mix of HR executives, sales and marketing reps, market analysts, programmers and HRIS implementation experts and consultants. The exhibit hall was a huge expanse of vendors with every possible software solution for human capital and business challenges. Product demonstrations were provided, nearly non-stop, often to standing-room-only crowds. Plenty of business was being done. The buzzwords for the conference were "the cloud," "mobile," "social" and "easily configurable.


Something I hadn't heard of before?  "Social exhaust."  That's the term used to describe the information used by one vendor to build candidate profiles. The company does in-depth searches via the web to find   information on what individuals have done online  -- the information potential candidates share across professional and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Meetup and Quora. This "social exhaust" is then mined, refined and cross-referenced to make sure it's the same person, and used to build a profile.  


While I learned a great deal, I'll share three of my biggest takeaways.


First, while they may be at different points on a continuum, all of the major vendors are moving their business model to "the cloud."  A panel hosted by Naomi Bloom, and made up of technology gurus of some major players (Workday, SAP,, Oracle, Ultimate Software and ADP) and covered here all treated the movement towards Software as a Service as a given, while recognizing that their customers will have to decide when and if to make the move.


Of course, all the vendors assured the audience that they would fully support customers wherever they are -- whether "on premise" or in "the cloud," but it begs the question of how they'll be able to do both equally well. As one speaker said, "The reason God was able to create the world in seven days was because God didn't have an install base." Will vendors really be able to support an install base of on- premise customers while growing a SaaS business?


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Second, SaaS providers operate with some very different drivers, and customers should be aware.


One difference that gave me an "a-ha!" moment is that vendors operating in "the cloud" pay a lot more attention to how efficiently their hardware is operating (because it's theirs). As a result, they design the software to run more efficiently than they might have if the software was to run on a customers' hardware.  Similarly, if all customers are operating under the same release, as they do with a SaaS model, vendor investment for support services is likely to be made in a much more cost-effective way, since customization isn't available. As one speaker noted, software vendors with a SaaS business model pay more attention to features the customers are using, and less to what software modules a customer is buying.


Third, and what I found most intriguing, is that while some companies found the frequent new releases of SaaS products to be a challenge, others discovered that the regular enhancements helped them shift their corporate culture. Their organizations became more comfortable with continuous change. Some even commented that they believed it helped nurture a culture of continuous improvement, causing them to look for greater efficiencies in their own operations on an ongoing basis.


There's no doubt that the data and analytical tools available through current and future HRM systems will enable HR executives to add even greater value to the business. But my final take away from the HR Technology ® Conference is this:  The technology will only add value if HR executives know what's out there. And that means spending time immersed yourself in what may seem like a foreign country and working in a second language.


Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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