Sky's the Limit

Software delivered via the cloud took center stage at the 15th Annual HR Technology® Conference in Chicago, as a record-breaking number of attendees mingled with their HR colleagues and industry thought leaders.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012
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By Kristen B. Frasch, Andrew R. McIlvaine and David Shadovitz

The Lake Michigan shoreline was mostly balmy and breezy as an estimated 3,500 attendees -- a conference record -- swarmed Chicago's sprawling McCormick Place to hear about and see the very latest human capital management solutions and trends at the 15th Annual HR Technology® Conference, which ran Oct. 8 through 10.

Tom Koulopoulos delivered a rousing keynote to a crowded auditorium on the conference's opening day. "My premise is you folks are the rock stars of HR," said Koulopoulos, president and co-founder of the Boston-based innovation consultancy Delphi Group and author of numerous books, including his latest, Cloud Surfing: A New Way to Think About Risk, Innovation, Scale and Success.

"My premise is you're the most important people in the world now because you hold the reins of where organizations are going," he said. Where that is, he added, is into an uncertain future where technology itself takes second seat to behavior. And it will be the cloud that will "alter the fundamentals of how we manage work and human capital," and this behavior, he said.

"Our kids are thinking through technology," as opposed to applying technology to their thoughts and innovations, said Koulopoulos. "Human capital will be defined more through the notion of community and how to manage that community. And your role in HR will be to continue the connections that define that community.

"Our kids are inhabiting our organizations with the expectation that everything is being personalized for them," he continued. "If you're not looking at the way these kids will be expecting this intimate personalization and community . . . where there will be no need for patents anymore . . . if you're not capitalizing on that, then you're missing out."

Wrestling with the Cloud

At this year's conference, "the cloud" was the one buzzword that was possibly mentioned even more than "social media." Seems like everyone has, is planning to or is seriously considering moving their HR systems to an outside, hosted, Software-as-a-Service platform. But how will they reap the full business benefits of such a move? The conference's first ever "master panel" devoted solely to the cloud, moderated by long-time conference panelist Naomi Lee Bloom of Bloom & Wallace, offered the perspectives from senior executives at six of the most important vendors in the space: Workday, SAP,, Oracle, Ultimate Software and ADP.

"From a user-adoption perspective, how do we make these [cloud-based] tools truly usable?" Bloom asked the panelists.

"I teach a course at Stanford University, and one of my students -- a hardcore technologist, by the way -- asked me 'Why does enterprise software have to be so inhumane?'" said SAP's Sanjay Poonen, president of global solutions. "Building our applications on the cloud gives us a clean slate. We're hiring millennials to be our designers . . . because the way you interact with an organizational chart in a technology landscape where everything now is 'zoom, pinch,' like on a tablet, changes everything. We're taking these core principles and using them as we build the cloud, and ensuring our customer base gets in on the journey."

"Having this clean slate on the cloud lets you build one organic thing, rather than in parts and pieces," said Stan Swete, chief technology officer at Workday. "This is the early part of the trend. Our path in Workday is 'pure play in the cloud.' Our customers can take functionality as we drop it off to them."

Bloom questioned how customers can cope in a world where, thanks to the cloud, vendors can continuously roll out new releases of their products throughout the year -- how can they avoid being overwhelmed?

"Vendors have to be thoughtful -- they can't just be throwing new releases out there and wait for customers to turn them on," said Mike Capone, ADP's vice president for product development and CIO. "We don't bill customers for new functionality until they turn it on. You have to be thoughtful about this."

John Wookey, executive vice president of, said his company takes a different tack: "We tell customers that this new version of the software is coming at this particular date, and you have no choice. And it's helped them change the way they think about their business. Even some of our most conservative customers have embraced this approach. And that would be my advice: Embrace it. Your people are empowered by change."

Ultimate Software's CTO, Adam Rogers, said his firm focuses on "delivery management," letting customers turn on new functionality at their leisure. It also provides free training to customers, he said. "Does this mean 'free training' is going to be the new standard?" asked Bloom, prompting laughter and applause from the standing-room-only crowd.

Poonen said SAP has experimented with new iterations of software releases, testing them with "micro audiences" to see what works. It also has put out a great deal of training videos on YouTube, he said.

In answer to one of Bloom's final questions -- "Why should HR be paying attention to this?" -- Wookey said, "Businesses of every size run on technology. If you're going to speak the language of business, then you need to speak the language of technology. The cloud, in the end, is all about speed and agility in your organization. As for social technology, it's important for people to be able to work together, and today they expect software to be just as easy to use as what they find on the consumer side. And mobile technology lets people do their jobs, regardless of where they are. So HR needs to be an advocate for this."

The Future of Recruiting

Once again, as in previous HR Technology® Conferences, the union of recruiting and technology -- and what it's going to look like going forward -- was the juggernaut for consensus and debate.

Led by moderators Gerry Crispin, principal and co-founder of CareerXroads, and Sarah White, principal and founder of SW & Associates, this year's panel of four staffing leaders from Lockheed Martin, Key Bank, PepsiCo and Deloitte took up the still-evolving, often-troubling topic in Wednesday's session, "What's Next? What Talent Acquisition Challenges are Seeking Technology Solutions?"

All agreed that, despite great strides in social recruiting, and recruiting technology in general, even their organizations -- leaders in this new frontier -- have a long way to go.

"I would challenge any one of us to say we are fully prepared and where we need to be," said panelist Frank Wittenauer, associate director of global talent solutions for Deloitte. "Recruiting is still the last thing that gets defined. When the economy is good, it's, 'Let's go, let's get the butts in seats, let's do the background checks after they're hired.' When it's slow, it's, 'Let's do six interviews, six times, and then six more, divide the results by pi . . . ' " you get the idea. So did the crowded roomful of chuckling attendees.

The panelists were mixed on whether leveraging new recruiting-technology tools should be a local activity for global companies or a global one. Should companies be allowing their smaller, more remote recruiting teams to innovate and move forward within their own domains and unique sets of circumstances or should they all be aligning under one global-recruitment umbrella?

"It's OK to let your recruiters have blinders on when it comes to recruiting technology," said Mike Grennier, senior vice president of talent acquisition for Key Bank.

Crispin cautioned, though, that "there should be some way for that global alignment to take place. They all have the tools to reach across global boundaries," he said, "but who in your organization is showing them the reach beyond their own domain?"

Still emerging and highly imperfect, panelists agreed, is the effectiveness of workforce planning as a pre-emptive, proactive social-recruiting tool. At the very least, at PepsiCo, "we ask HR to identify jobs or profiles that are hard to find and then keep [candidates] in store there  --  in waiting  --  so there, we're pre-emptive," said Sheila Stygar, PepsiCo's senior director of talent acquisition.

Also fledgling and inadequate, they agreed, are the processes in place for dealing with the plethora and proliferation of new, often smaller, vendors with specific solutions to particular problems, or, as Crispin described them, "small pieces to add to the entire [social-recruiting] function."

"Where do you have in your organization someone who filters through all the solutions out there?" he asked.

Grennier suggested companies trying to find that "solution-filterer" look for someone with "a real passion" for the social-recruiting function and technology in general.

Panelists also agreed that, as social recruiting continues to "find itself" as a defined function within companies, recruiters learn to treat it professionally and network with what Wittenauer described as "those go-to people" in the vendor community -- people they can bounce all these new offerings and suggestions off of.

"If you don't have those networks," Crispin said, "you're not going to be learning in real time."

The Way We Learn Now

The title of Josh Bersin's Tuesday morning session at this year's conference asked the question, "Learning Systems: Where Are We Now?" Well, if you're an HR leader, the short answer might be at a much better place than we were 15 years ago, when the HR Technology® Conference came into being.

Back then, social tools, collaboration and mobile technologies weren't a part of the conversation. But today, they obviously are.

Bersin noted that your best employees are trying to learn all the time. "I was talking to a CHRO of a large multinational earlier this morning about what makes great leaders," he said. "What he concluded is that people on high-performing teams manage themselves differently. They hold themselves more accountable. And they're always trying to learn."

Thanks to technology, he added, continuous development is now possible.

Bersin cited YouTube videos -- one of "the best learning tools" available -- as examples. "When I wanted to figure out how to put a SIM card into my BlackBerry, I went to YouTube, typed in 'SIM card' and 'install' and learned how to put it in," he said.

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"Forward-thinking companies are asking themselves how they can create YouTube-like experiences for their employees -- where anyone can create a video asset and make it available. That's what young people expect today."

Ideally, Bersin said, the learning-management system is the perfect place to make formal and informal learning happen. The LMS has morphed from being a place where businesses "tracked training" to the place where "people learn," he added.

"Most of the administrative features are available in every LMS these days," Bersin said. "Where you see differentiation is in the [learning experience]."

Bersin also devoted a portion of his presentation discussing the state of the LMS vendor landscape, sharing a list of current market-share leaders -- SumTotal, SAP, Oracle, Cornerstone OnDemand and Saba.

A Still-Fledgling Movement

In rapid-fire -- at times, almost dizzying -- questions and answers, participants in the HR Technology® Conference's Third Annual Social Media Panel grappled with what to do with, how to encourage and how to handle today's also-rapid influx of collaboration tools in the workforce.

Led by moderator Kris Dunn, vice president of HR for Kinetix, the three panelists -- Todd Chandler, vice president of learning and performance for Helzberg Diamonds; Ben Brooks, senior vice president and global director of enterprise communications and colleague engagement for Marsh Inc.; and Phoebe Venkat, director of digital and social media communications for ADT Security -- fielded questions via Twitter (including the conference's own HRTechConf group) and the audience that seemed to underscore just how much the corporate-collaboration movement has entered everyone's lives.

Not to mention how untested and fledgling the movement still is. Perhaps Chandler said it best: "We are just starting this journey."

How do you create that culture change you need? What's it going to take in people and resources? How do you incent those ambassadors you find in your workforce to help champion and sell the idea? What should HR's role be? Who should own it? The questions were perhaps as telling as the answers, indicative of just how vast and untraveled the social-collaboration frontier is.

Interestingly, more than one panelist bemoaned the fact that HR professionals are not out front as some of the best social-collaboration ambassadors. "They say it's because they're told they need to stay removed and keep a screen in place between themselves and their employees," said Venkat. In other words, there's a seeming danger for HR in embracing the real-time, interpersonal transparency that collaboration affords.

"This obviously needs to simply evolve as a mind-set," said Venkat. "It's truly an issue of gradual trust."

No More Annual Reviews?

At technology firm ETS-Lindgren, the annual performance review is a thing of the past, and at Motorola Solutions, it soon will be. "With the annual review, you're trying to recall conversations and events that happened up to a year earlier," said Vicki Colaneri, senior director of global workforce technology at Motorola Solutions, which was split off from its larger sibling, handset-maker Motorola Mobility, when the latter was acquired by Google last year. "We want managers and employees to have regular, ongoing conversations about performance, instead."

Colaneri spoke at the conference's Sixth Annual Talent Management Panel. Also on the panel was David Adrian, senior director of global talent management at WalMart; Dan Guaglianone, global leader of HR operations at Merck; and Heathre Moler, global HR director at ETS-Lindgren. Serving as moderator was Jason Averbook, CEO of consultancy Knowledge Infusion (which was recently acquired by global technology-services firm Appirio).

Averbook began the conversation by asking each panelist to describe his or her current challenges. WalMart's Adrian said he's focused on "simplifying and improving" the talent-management tools used by the 2.2 million-employee retailer and helping it build a "deeper bench of executive talent." "My role right now is mostly about change management," he said.

Colaneri said Motorola Solutions is "undergoing tremendous change," transforming itself into a "fast-moving, innovative company." It's in the process of transferring over to Workday while standardizing its back-office functions on Six Sigma.

Guaglianone said Merck recently underwent a "big bang" implementation of SAP, having every one of its global locations going live at once, and is currently focused on deploying succession-planning tools to the workforce at large.

Moler said her company has been using Rypple (now for performance management, having done away with annual performance reviews.

"A lot of companies want to blow up their performance-management process," said Averbook. "Does doing that start with HR?"

Absolutely not, said Moler. "It starts with a conversation between you and the business leaders -- and you can't use terms like 'talent profiles' and 'talent management' -- you have to talk in terms of how it's going to improve business performance," she said.



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