Inside HR Tech Column from 'Big HR Tech'

Two recent events, one sponsored by IBM and the other by Oracle, offer some valuable take-aways not just for Fortune 1000 companies (the target market of these technology giants), but for small and mid-sized organizations as well.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
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With HR technology moving so fast, and demands on HR leaders to get the most out of their technology investments ever-present, it pays to look toward market and industry giants for inspiration.

In the last few weeks I had the chance to attend two industry events, IBM Connect in Orlando and Oracle HCM World in Las Vegas. The gatherings, while similar in that they were both staged by software- and services-industry giants, also had their differences. IBM's attempted to cover a wide swath of its own technologies and services, not just HR/talent management. Oracle HCM World, meanwhile, was much more focused and targeted toward the HR leader and HR technologist.

While both events could warrant their own dedicated columns, I'd like to instead use this month's column to take a step back and offer some thoughts on what lessons small to mid-size organizations, and their HR leaders, can learn and leverage from both of these software providers that typically focus on the large and mega-companies.

Both IBM and Oracle have -- at least, traditionally -- been solutions that were accessible, affordable and relevant only to Fortune 1000 companies. But that doesn't mean that the fundamental nature of the challenges that these large customers face, and the manner in which "big software" is adapting and responding can't have some value to the small and mid-size organization.

With that said, here are just a few ideas, or lessons, that the HR leader at a small or mid-size organization can learn from "Big HR Tech":

User experience trumps capability. In one session I attended, a presenter from a 100,000-plus-employee organization talked about her challenges with user adoption and user experience. When employees would call the HR service center asking for help and guidance on how to complete a task such as updating an address or adding a dependent to their benefits plans, and the HR rep advised them that these functions could be found on the company employee self-service portal, employees often responded with an "Ugh, don't make me try and use that system!"

What the giant, established companies have learned - often the hard way -- is that, for each additional feature that their giant, established HR-technology solutions had to provide, the system itself got more complex, less intuitive and harder to use. Big HR Tech naturally worked to meet the needs of its numerous large customers and, in doing that, often delivered systems that were too capable. But the small to mid-sized company can (or is forced to) avoid that capability/usability trap and can focus on deploying HR-software solutions that achieve their purpose in the simplest, most direct and easiest-to-use way possible.

If I was to offer one tip for gauging a potential HR-tech-vendor-partner's attitude toward capability/usability, I'd tell the HR leader to ask its representatives about whether or not they would ever say "no" to building a new feature that is missing from the product, but has been requested by a customer. A vendor that is truly concerned with usability and user experience simply has to respond in the negative sometimes in order to keep the system usable and manageable.

You are never too small to plan. At both conferences, there were presentations given by large customers that discussed, at least partially, how the sheer number of systems that had been allowed to proliferate across their organizations, and over time, had now become a significant barrier to efficiency and insight, and a huge cost to the organization from a support perspective.

Now, I know what you might be thinking as the HR leader of a smaller company: This could or would never happen to you because you only have a few hundred, or even a few thousand, employees and don't have the need for multiple HR systems. But the system-proliferation problem can become so acute in time -- in fact, one presenter even referred to the visual representation of her company's HR and finance-systems footprint as her "chart of death" -- that it will pay off in the long run to do some early, even very-early, HR-technology-systems planning.

The main realization for the HR leader at a smaller organization is that even a simple systems landscape can get complicated and inefficient very quickly. Once a "second" system is deployed (it could be for employee scheduling, tracking time and attendance, or even performance management), the complexity level of the overall HR-technology platform has just doubled.

And if these systems need to "talk" to each other regularly to complete a business process or enable a full view of HR and workforce data, but are not designed to work together, do not share a similar deployment model or have wildly differing user experiences, then, all of a sudden, a simple technology environment becomes complex.

The key point here for the HR leader at a smaller company is to try and think a little bit more into the future, and to try and take into account any planned growth or expanded talent initiatives when acquiring new HR technology. It might make more sense to buy just a little bit more system than you need today in order to accommodate where you think the organization is heading.

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Small data is Big Data too. One of the enduring lessons from the popular book and movie Moneyball from a few years ago was that a smaller organization that lacked the resources and budget of its competition could still gain an edge in the marketplace by leveraging data more effectively than its well-capitalized rivals. In the baseball story, it was the smaller, more agile leadership team that was the first to embrace data for competitive advantage. In HR, however, the charge toward the utilization of data science and analytics technology has largely been the domain of the large firms that have traditionally been the only ones with access to, and the resources capable of, using these tools and approaches.

At both IBM Connect and Oracle HCM World, there was a focus on how HR leaders, and their organizations, could do more with both the data and the increasingly powerful technologies emerging to analyze that data.

Data can be an asset for the smaller company too, however. As Trish McFarlane -- vice president of the human resource practice and principal analyst at the Brandon Hall Group -- told me, "No matter the company size, most HR leaders have more [Big] data than they realize and . . . are not using it. With the advent of modern, cloud-based technologies, they are beginning to have access to the technologies that will help them make more strategic recommendations."

Some examples of HR technologies that are incorporating more advanced analytical elements and capabilities, while still remaining technologically accessible and affordable for the smaller company, include: SmartRecruiters, which is creating an HR-tech marketplace of sorts in the talent-acquisition area;, which is applying data-science approaches to candidate reference checking; Glassdoor, which is making available, for free, lots of analytical data about candidate search habits; and Payscale, which is making detailed compensation market data easily accessible and relatively inexpensive.

The bottom line to all of this is that, while extremely large companies certainly have challenges and complexities that often are not meaningful and comparable to the small and mid-size company, it is true that small companies can look toward these giants (and the HR technology strategies they adopt) to better inform and prepare their own strategies.

And with HR-technology solutions moving more and more to the cloud and being deployed on mobile devices, the powerful technologies once only available to the largest companies are becoming available to companies of all sizes.

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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