Inside HR Tech Column

A Small Reminder of HR Tech's Greatness

For small to mid-size businesses, even basic HR technologies can drive meaningful business value -- a reminder to us all of HR tech's real promise.

Friday, June 7, 2013
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For anyone following the HR technology market, it can be pretty easy to get consumed by the big enterprise providers such as SAP, Oracle or Workday. Their ongoing battles to provide HR solutions to the world's largest companies and the details of these software giants' strategic zigs and zags can seem like more than enough to follow.

Stories about these companies -- and a few others -- are often about mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings and executive shake-ups. They can make for interesting reading, but to the HR leader at a small or mid-size organization, they don't really resonate. For the SMBs, all that high-stakes intrigue doesn't help them figure out how to efficiently solve their problems.

For them, the challenge might be to hire five new drivers to support a new contract or to convince their staffs to access pay slips online instead of waiting for the office manager to hand out a paycheck on Friday -- you know, the kinds of issues that the mega-enterprises solved, or at least attempted to solve, via technology a long time ago. Spend some time with enough HR leaders from small organizations and you come to realize that, for all the promise, potential and disruptive impact of the most cutting-edge HR technologies, for many of them, finding ways to apply technology to the very basics remains a source or opportunity and impact.

Recently, at an event put on by HR software provider SilkRoad, which focuses on the SMB market segment (lots of customers in the under-1,000-employee category), I was reminded again how so many seemingly easy or simple or "How is it in 2013 you are still doing that on paper?" kinds of technology applications remain incredibly relevant for many, many employers. I sat in on presentations from small organizations about the value of moving new-hire processing online from stacks of paper, and the cost and time savings involved in making that switch. Other HR leaders shared how, prior to having an automated tool for performance management, they had never been able to even conduct formal performance reviews.

Recruiting, however, was another story. And since it's probably top of mind for organizations of all sizes, and probably drives home the true business value of HR technology in as direct a way as you'll see from any size company, I'd like to share what I heard.

A small engineering and contracting company in the South -- think road construction, paving, hauling, that sort of thing -- had for its 50-year-plus existence (and until very recently) filled its open jobs in one way.  Ads in the local paper, in-person application at the office, more in-person interviews in the office, written offer letters sent in the U.S. mail, and finally, a giant stack of paper forms to read, sign, copy and file (again in the office) on the new employee's first day. Lots of paper and lots of time in the office (where hardly any of the hiring managers and supervisors actually worked, as they were out on job sites most of the time) eventually led this company and its new HR leader to discover the system was not only inefficient, but was detracting from their ability to get the best available talent.

You see, while most of the openings at the small contractor weren't fancy science, technology, engineering and math jobs and didn't require advanced degrees, the truth was the company was looking for people with pretty specialized skills who weren't always easy to find. What's more, those target candidates who had such skills and had good track records as well were in pretty high demand. Specifically, in the contractor's local area, the best candidates were almost certainly already working in the field, either for a competitor or perhaps for the state or a local government. Many such candidates were already in their jobs so long, the contractor had to find a way to convince them to consider making a move and had to make it easier for them to learn about the jobs it had to offer, apply to them and interview.

Armed with that very basic problem, that top candidates were already working all day and couldn't make it in one, two, maybe three times during business hours in the recruiting process, the HR leader did something most large organizations did years ago -- got the company's jobs posted on the web and supplied an online application process that would be available 24/7, thereby making it easy to access when they were done with their shifts.

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Again, while this might not seem like a big tech breakthrough to most organizations, to this company, it represented a shift in approach and thinking that had been standard operating procedure for over half a century. In fact, during our conversation, the HR leader mentioned he still has to post ads for a few jobs in the local paper because he has a 40-year-veteran hiring manager who needs to see the ad when he cracks open the Sunday paper to be sure HR is working on his openings. Next, this company is going to try and solve the "in-person" office interview challenge by implementing a new video-interviewing tool candidates can use from their job sites.

OK, admittedly SOP for many of you at this point. But what was great about this HR leader's story were the broader lessons we can take away about how HR technology, even when it seems like a simple automation story, is often about much more than that. Sure, streamlining and web-enabling the application-and-interview processes will save time and money, and be more efficient from a cost perspective.

But, as this example shows, it also helps drive real impact beyond saving a few dollars. By connecting and empowering people via technology, and increasing its chances to find the talent it needs to succeed, this small company is realizing the benefits of HR technology that some of the largest enterprises still have difficulty describing.

And that's a pretty big story for a company of any size.

Steve Boese is a co-chair of HRE's HR Technology ® Conference, and a technology editor for LRP Publications. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at

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