HR Technology Column Analytics Dominates My First HR Tech Conference

What a great event thousands of you have been enjoying for 16 years! Meeting and talking with old friends, making new ones, learning great stuff in the sessions and hallways, discovering new gems on the expo floor. No longer co-chair, I finally got to join you this year and attend my first HR Tech conference, where everyone was talking predictive analytics.

Monday, October 13, 2014
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My favorite moment at HR Tech this year came during opening remarks, when co-chair David Shadovitz said, "Now I am pleased to introduce my co-chair ... " and it wasn't me!

Of course I loved the job for 16 years. But on-site responsibilities kept me from performing my other roles as analyst and columnist. And, in general, from benefiting by being at our annual worldwide Town Meeting as an attendee. So this year I was just that, for the first time, and here's some of what I discovered, did and saw.

Batten down the hatches for the greatest tsunami of hype we've seen since "social recruiting," which doesn't really work BTW, at least not the way most companies practice it.

This time, it will be about predictive analytics, especially for making hiring decisions and identifying employees ready to quit. I literally can't count the number of vendors - coming from different product directions - that were touting it at HR Tech.

Seems Like Old Times

It felt so much like the beginning of the talent-management-suite Gold Rush nine years ago, when vendors specializing in recruiting, performance management, compensation and other areas all jumped into the fray together and claimed to have it - or were about to have it..

Happily, that all turned out to be real; and after many acquisitions, we now have a bunch of solid and integrated suites to choose from. I hope this will also prove true for predictive analytics, once we start and finish arguing over what it really means, and how useful it really can be.

But remember, this is no overnight sensation. My first column here in February 2006 (after 17 years in the print edition of the magazine), noted that the chattering classes (analysts, consultants and marketers) had agreed five years earlier (that's 2001, or 13 years ago) that workforce analytics was the next big thing!

Well, that never really happened, did it? Certainly interest is very high now in workforce analytics, but still without widespread adoption. So I find it ironic (but typical) that vendors are so focused on predicting the future when their customers don't yet have a firm handle on measuring the past.

Dr. Jac's Fault - Again?

As usual,predictive analytics probably all started in HR with Dr. Jac Fitzenz (he recently dropped the hyphen), and the predictive analytics working group in this discipline that he gathered together in the Bay Area in 2007. Wiley published his 13th book this summer, a how-to on the subject called Predictive Analytics for Human Resources.

Humair Ghauri, then at Oracle and now at SumTotal, was one member of that group. He broke away to work separately and is largely responsible for the "advanced and predictive analytics" module that Oracle now offers.

"Advanced" is the term Chief Strategy Officer Dave Weisbeck of Visier would have preferred for the functionality it released in September 2011. At that time, he says, it focused primarily on these questions, mostly on the first two and some on the third:

  • Why employees leave?
  • Who is most likely to be leaving next?
  • Who is likely to become top talent and why? (In other words, what common characteristics do they have?)

Weisbeck says later questions include: what are your best sources of candidates? And of course, the question most vendors want to answer for you: Whom should you hire? Weisbeck says Visier isn't comfortable making those recommendations yet with a shortage of data to do it. Not many others are so cautious.

"The basic idea of predictive analytics is to take past patterns and apply them to future actions," he says. Let the arguments begin! Analyst Holger Mueller of Constellation Research says it has to include an action actually being taken.

Only four years old, Visier is, today, one of our leading analytics firms with 50 Fortune 1000 customers. The company was the next act for many of the executive founders of business intelligence vendor Business Objects, which SAP acquired. These executives left when contractual obligations were met.

Lexy Martin Endorses a Company!

At her ninth and last presentation at HR Tech of the Sierra-Cedar (formerly CedarCrestone) definitive HR Systems Survey, founder Lexy Martin lost control of herself and said "Visier is my favorite company. I know I'm supposed to be vendor-agnostic."

Yes, she is and might have gotten her wrist slapped for that if she weren't leaving the firm at the end of the month after producing 17 surveys (under six different corporate owners) to pursue the next chapter in her long and very distinguished career.

Some of the Newest Entrants

 Talent-management-suite vendor Cornerstone OnDemand jumped in just before HR Tech opened with the announcement that it had agreed to acquire Evolv for $42.3 million.

I plead guilty to deliberately ignoring Evolv for years - even when an industry colleague became its CMO - because I thought the problem it was solving was just too easy: assessing candidates to become inbound call center customer service reps.

Now I didn't say it was a trivial problem - Evolv has 30 mostly very large clients - and call centers are booming while suffering the highest employee turnover rate in any industry in the world, which requires them to be hiring constantly.

Cynically, I thought assessing candidates seemed so obvious: Strap a headset on them and make them listen to recordings of people shouting and abusing them for eight hours (with two 12-minute breaks) and see whether they survived the experience and still wanted the job!

I've long felt inbound CSRs have the worst jobs in America. But that said, I was obviously wrong to ignore Evolv because it was clearly pioneering advanced techniques in machine-learning, Big Data analysis and predictive analytics to evaluate candidates and employees.

Cornerstone will get Evolv's technology platform, plus its data scientists, the hottest job title in enterprise applications today. Evolv had already begun expanding beyond the call-center category, a move that will clearly accelerate with the Cornerstone acquisition.

Big Blue was Everywhere at HR Tech

Then there's IBM, which seemed to be everywhere at HR Tech pitching the IBM Kenexa Talent Suite - its new talent management suite combining technology and data acquired with Kenexa with IBM's own - and especially IBM Kenexa Talent Insights, powered by Watson Analytics, its cloud talent analytics solution for the data produced by the suite. All of it part of the Smarter Workforce brand. Got all that?

IBM bought HR Tech's first-ever pre-conference program on Tuesday afternoon and produced a session with famous HR analytics whiz Jeremy Shapiro of Morgan Stanley and IBM VP of Product Development for Smarter Workforce Jonathan Ferrar.

Conference organizers were nervous about how many registered attendees would show up so early for this first-time event. No one seemed more surprised than meeting planner Vicky Dennehy when people quickly filled the 500 seats, and she had to bar the door with her body, arms and elbows up to her chest, turning away hundreds more.

Since it was a sponsored event and not a regular conference session, plans are for all registered attendees (just in case they got shut out) to get a link to the video IBM shot of the presentation.

IBM sandwiched the welcoming conference keynote that followed by sponsoring the opening reception in the expo hall after that, and the next morning held an analyst briefing at 7:30 a.m. Everywhere, IBM Watson hovered over the proceedings.

Last January, at its own conference, IBM said "Watson Foundations" would be part of the new talent management suite. This year, IBM said the suite would include "Watson Analytics." Since IBM chooses its words more carefully than any Wall Street lawyer, I was curious about the difference.

As serendipity would have it, Eric Bokelberg, who created the Watson showcase at HR Tech last year and is the product manager for its use in HR, came up to me on the expo floor. I remembered his explanation more than a year ago that Watson is software, not a computer, despite the four-color photographs IBM PR distributes of a big blue box in a futuristic glass cage.

Remember, Watson utilizes cognitive computing, which means it has to be taught new domains to function, such as cancer diagnosis, one of its current uses. It doesn't Google for things it doesn't know. Eric says "Foundations" was a subset of "Analytics," but that Watson Analytics did not quite yet reach the level of predictive capability. But Watson Analytics is growing daily.

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Saba's new module for predicting leavers, as the Brits call them, and recommending how much money would make them stay, was covered in advance in my last column "Death to the Merit-Pay-Increase Matrix."

Why is HireVue Offering Predictive Analytics?

Apologies to the vendors I've missed, but finally HireVue was the most astonishing entrant into predictive analytics with a product called Insights. You know HireVue as the first company to popularize video interviewing, which it now calls real-time video conferencing - something that can be conducted via smartphone, tablet or webcam.  

At his Awesome New Technologies presentation, founder and self-described "Chief Geek" Mark Newman pointed out that his small company has won a "Top HR Product" award from the magazine in three out of the last four years, including this year for Insights, making it likely one of the most innovative in HR technology.

Later in a private demo, Newman, who just turned 30, seemed to be having more fun running a software company - outside Salt Lake City, no less! - than any CEO I've met. He is aided by the only somewhat older but definitely more grizzled Kevin Marasco, someone I consider to be the most creative CMO in HR technology.

HireVue's key discriminator has always been that the video interview was asynchronous: recorded any time with questions presented by the software, stored in the cloud and then available at the convenience of the hiring manager or recruiter.

So what to do with all those interviews? While giving a demo simultaneously on two laptops, Mark answers, "Automatically transcribe them word-for-word and analyze all the words to understand the candidate better."

The analysis offers dials on the candidate's engagement, motivation (how badly they want the job), empathy and other categories. Later, everything gets run through a pot of 15,000 variables that HireVue wrote itself.

Fine, and how did HireVue get from video to that kind of organizational-development expertise? "We hired hedge-fund quant jocks [quantitative analysts], who knew data science but nothing about HR or OD. So they had no pre-conceived notions, but they did have condos in Park City." That's one of the many posh Utah ski resorts about an hour from Mark's office.

"We spent two years working to get the software to tell our customers two things: which candidates to look at first and how good are people at making hiring decisions. Everybody thinks they're great at it, but we found most of them aren't."

So Insights is as much about rating recruiters and hiring managers as it is about rating candidates to narrow them down to a manageable number. This is definitely unique in 26 years of recruiting automation.

How can this possibly work? Mark did have a couple of OD guys around. But the real test has been going on for two months: Five large customers with 20,000 to 50,000 employees have been paying to use Insights, including a bank. Mark will know soon enough.

Next up? Automated analysis of the voice track, of course. Is this beginning to sound like a CIA interrogation in Showtime's "Homeland"?

"Brigham Young University is the language-study capital of the nation, and we've gotten tremendous expertise from there," Mark says. Rollout is expected in January.

While it was great getting washed over by Mark's youthful ebullience, the very best part of being an attendee for me was finally having time for a private drink at the conference with my old friend Dave Duffield. I am happy to report he is still fired up by innovation in enterprise software and fully engaged at Workday, and has even managed to achieve that always elusive state called work/life balance.

Can anyone predict whether that will be me?

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 18th Annual HR Technology ® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 18-21, 2015. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't require prior or future conference attendance to join. Listen to The Bill Kutik Radio Show ® for his provocative interviews with HR thought-leaders. He can be reached at


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