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Inside HR Tech Column

How Fun is Your HR Tech?

In an environment where the expectations for all kinds of technologies are changing, HR technologies included, the single-most important need your HR systems should be meeting is to engage employees and let them have fun.

Monday, July 8, 2013
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Would your employees use your HR technology systems if they were not forced to? An interesting question.

This column is still a fairly new enterprise, but already I am starting to see a pattern emerge. While thinking about, seeing demonstrations of, and talking to suppliers and customers of human resource technology solutions from a wide spectrum of perspectives and functional areas, one word continues to dominate my thinking: engagement.

Not the classic workplace definition of engagement either -- i.e., the tendency (or not) of employees to give discretionary effort beyond the baseline of expected performance. No, there are plenty of other places to read about that seemingly never-ending organizational problem. Rather, I keep coming back to engagement through a simpler, more tech-flavored lens that I sometimes even use when meeting with vendors directly. Namely, does this technology solution actually seem fun to use? 

Or perhaps stated differently, and in the manner I used when I presented on this topic recently at the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference, would your employees use your HR technology systems if you didn't force them to?

I think both questions are good and take us to the same end point, but there are some important differences between them as well. "Does this technology solution seem fun to use?" is pretty simple to answer and usually doesn't require much research or introspection. A tool or technology is either fun to use or it isn't. You generally can make up your mind in about five minutes where any solution falls on the continuum from extremely fun to no fun at all.

The second question, "Would your employees use your HR technology systems if you didn't force them to?" is a bit thornier. While it may be equally easy to answer as the first, it can also force HR and other leaders to confront some realities about the current state of -- and employee attitudes toward -- the HR and other workplace tools and technologies that the organization has provided. It is a hard question to ask because, all too often, we know the answer is likely to be "No, they wouldn't."

Traditionally organizations have accepted that answer and the reality that the tools and technologies for processes such as time-and-attendance entry, performance appraisal, expense reporting, benefits enrollment, etc., didn't have to be -- or simply were not capable of being -- fun or engaging or something people feel just a little bit happy about using.

Historically, we have accepted workplace technologies that are not fun or engaging for two primary reasons. The first is the simple manifestation of the classic employer-employee relationship. The employer provides tools (offices, desks, phones, computers, software) and the employees, generally, have to use what the employer has decided to provide. The underlying motivation and evaluation criteria for many of these procurement decisions centers around factors such as cost, integration with existing equipment and technology, and even, "We just always have bought from supplier XYZ."

Sure not all corporate-buying decisions are based solely on those factors -- but they almost always come into play at some level. If you are at work reading this right now, just look down at the chair you're sitting in to see what I mean. If it's not a high-end Herman Miller Aeron, then chances are someone, somewhere made a procurement decision on your behalf, and it was probably not the one you would have made if the factors above were not in play.

The other reason, and possibly the most important where HR and workplace technology is concerned, is that the solutions themselves were never designed to be fun for employees to use, or to provide an engaging experience, or even to be mildly addictive like so many consumer and personal technologies are today. Workplace-technology solutions have always been designed to support pretty specific process flows, to ensure adherence to corporate policies (nothing fun about that), to "fit" with existing (and older) devices and systems, and, finally and crucially, to allow their creators to be able to check "Yes" next to every question in the voluminous request-for-proposals that generally accompany workplace-technology-purchase processes.

I've been on both sides of the technology-purchase process (or really, all three sides: provider, consultant and buyer) as it relates to HR tech in my career and I have seen, written, advised and responded to plenty of RFPs in my time. I have never once seen "The system is fun to use" or "The user experience is on par with (insert your favorite consumer app here) for employees."

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And the RFP process isn't the only reason that, for so long and even still today, HR-tech-solution providers don't have "fun" or "engaging" always top of mind when building solutions, but it certainly has played a part. When you are on the provider side of the table, there can be pretty palpable pressure to build what customers are asking for, what they are accustomed to, and -- hopefully -- what will sell.

But I think all that is changing, or about to change. Fun, engaging, exciting, addictive -- we're going to start to hear and say those words more and more when we talk about HR and workplace technology. Some of it will be driven by the few really innovative providers in the space that are pushing hard to improve the experience and emotional reaction elicited from using their solutions. Most of it, though, will come from what has always been an underrepresented source in workplace-technology discussions -- actual end-users. 

Your employees, the customers of your internal technology purchases, have never been more tech-savvy and active in obtaining their own computing devices and solutions. In a world dominated by the ubiquitous smartphone app, they will demand from you and your leadership workplace-technology solutions that mimic or even exceed the best of what they use in their personal lives. Technology in the consumer space is becoming much more agile, personal and even disposable.

The fundamental factors for success of a technology or tool, whether it is one aimed at consumers or one signed for corporate internal use, are beginning to merge. And the reasons for how and where workplace technologies will be chosen and utilized are fast becoming the same as the reasons why your teenagers choose technologies.

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 sboese@lrp.com.

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