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Inside HR Tech Column

http://www.hreonline.com/images/SteveBoese106x106.jpgA 3-D View

The best and most successful HR and workplace technologies take a more comprehensive approach and address the needs of the organization, manager and individual.

Friday, September 5, 2014
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The recent in-depth examination in the New York Times of coffee mega-chain Starbucks' scheduling practices and, notably, the impact that advanced or "smart" worker-scheduling technology can have on  employees' well-being, has been quite eye-opening for many observers who might not be aware of just how powerful these kinds of technology solutions have become. If you have not read the Times piece -- and really you should -- the salient points, from an HR technologist's perspective, are that Starbucks' workforce-scheduling tools are now so proficient in matching demand and supply for labor (essentially, its 130,000 or so baristas) that individual worker's schedules were often subject to significant variability and last-minute changes, and, as is so well portrayed in the piece, has caused intense and frustrating challenges and demands on a worker's family and "non-work" life.

There is plenty to dig into in the Times piece and, in fairness, Starbucks has already responded by stating it will review scheduling rules and practices in order to ensure more consistency and consideration for worker's needs going forward. While Starbucks and other large, complex retail operations need to have at least some degree of flexibility and control over staffing levels in order to align customer demand with staffing practices, this story reminds those of us responsible for the selection and implementation of HR technologies that these solutions often have a very real and profound impact on people's lives.

I think there are a few HR tech lessons to be learned from Starbucks story, the first one being the dangers of implementing HR solutions that are essentially "management" tools and not "worker" tools as well.

In fact, I believe that for HR -- and really any type of enterprise-technology solution -- to have enduring impact and create lasting value, it must address the needs in three dimensions: organizational, managerial and individual. So let's break each one down and hopefully it will get you thinking about your HR technologies in these three dimensions.

Organizational

Perhaps half -- or more -- of the more modern and innovative HR and workforce technologies I have seen this year have had, as their primary focuses, the analysis and display of data and information of the workforces overall, or at least sizable segments thereof.

Think of tools that are becoming expert at the extraction of raw HR or transactional data and transforming that data into amazing and interactive data visualizations: technology that allows business leaders to see the 30,000-foot view of the organization and its people. Solutions that are meant to answer questions both mundane ("Just how many people work here?") and complex ("Where should we locate the next factory such that we will have an ample supply of skilled labor?").

Frequently, you will see demonstrations of these kinds of technologies given on iPads or other tablets; i.e., the (seemingly) preferred device of today's C-level executive. Make no mistake that these kinds of HR technologies can deliver value to this important executive-level users. But unless these leaders are actually facing profound and complex business problems, and are also prepared to act on the information these amazing technologies can provide, the overall business impact of these "organizational" tools can be limited.

Managerial

Let's take a step back -- possibly a long step for larger organizations -- to think about technology solutions that are aimed at and, designed for, the front-line or first-level managers in the organization.

Most obviously, this is the Starbucks scheduling example - the implementation of an HR-technology solution primarily meant to make the lives of store managers and shift supervisors easier by allowing them to spend less time figuring out individual worker's schedules (as well as their needs, wants and preferences) and help them meet store-level goals for revenue, profitability and customer service.

From an operations and store-level perspective, these kinds of tools must seem like the Holy Grail of HR tech and, as we see in the Starbucks story (and the literally thousands more like it), they have become increasingly powerful and sophisticated. But, to cop a line from comic books, with great power comes great responsibility.

It may sound like an operations nirvana to be able to predict customer demand on a daily, or even hourly, basis and then use scheduling algorithms to match actual staffing levels to expected shifts in demand at these discrete and precise levels. But often that can negatively impact the worker's well-being. Inability to count on a set number of hours (and earnings) in a month, difficultly in arranging their lives outside of work and, finally, the increased stress that comes with job/work uncertainty are all by-products of "manager-first" HR and workplace technologies.

Individual

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The idea of HR or other workplace technologies seeking to create value at an individual-worker level is becoming more and more common.

Perhaps it is an offshoot of the consumerization of the IT approach, in which solution providers and in-house IT departments have recently committed to create and deploy workplace solutions that are informed and influenced by broad technology trends -- the Internet, the consumer or e-commerce paradigm, and the proliferation of smartphones and apps.

Simply put, individual employees demand and expect workplace technologies that are on par with, and add value commensurate with, the tools and technologies that they choose for themselves in their personal lives. For HR leaders and decision makers, thinking about the kinds of HR technologies that are deployed from this individual-value perspective is likely to yield increased adoption (the primary goal of most HR tools) and enhanced value.

But the key is that the solution has to do more than just look good or be easy to use; it must deliver specific individual value that aids one in doing his or her job better, enhancing his or her skills and marketability, and/or positively reinforcing his or her relationship with his or her organization, manager and peers.

When evaluating any kind of HR technology, HR leaders should consider all three dimensions of value before making a decision. The very best and most-important workplace technologies provide critical perspective and insight to the organization's leaders, give front-line managers tools and capabilities to get the most from their teams, and offer individuals compelling and easy-to-see reasons for engaging with them.

That is a pretty tall order, I know. It is hard to nail the value proposition on all three dimensions, which is why we hear stories such as Starbucks' pretty regularly. But hopefully, just as Starbucks is making changes to give its individual workers more value, your HR technology initiatives will do the same.

While still giving your execs fancy, iPad-ready charts and dashboards, of course!

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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