Lessons From a Technology Conference

Oct 21, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Some reflections on the HR Tech Conference in Chicago that ended Friday:

  • Talent management technology will be to the next five years what the ATS was to the last;
  • Recruiters need to engage with line supervisors on a regular basis, and not just when a req comes through, because you will be measured on how well your hires do;
  • For the same reason, recruiters need to play as big a role in the selection of HRMS tools as every other HR division;
  • All HR professionals must become more proactive in identifying and implementing tools to help workers better engage with each other and the company and, for that matter, with their peers in the wide world.

The need for HR to take a more aggressive role was made so very clear in a conversation I had with a bank personnel officer on the last day of the conference.

We were chatting casually after Gerry Crispin’s presentation on “The Growing Power of Private Social Networks” when our talk turned to how her various branch managers network.

Her bank, one of the biggest in her small (by population) state, didn’t offer a formal social networking tool of the kind Crispin had been demonstrating. Nor did it have so much as a discussion list, which, back in the old days, we called a Listserv.

How do branch managers share ideas, get help with sticky problems, or offer guidance to each other? The phone still seemed to be the tool of choice; emails also fit it there somewhere. But the short answer seemed to be that it was up to them and their division to figure that out.

Despite all the evangelizing for proactive HR by the thought leaders who blog and write here on and elsewhere, despite all the conference workshops that teach how to make a business case and how HR can earn a seat at the grownups table, there’s still the need to declare “You are expected to lead,” as Crispin exhorted during his presentation.

If there was any doubt, Prof. Peter Cappelli (pictured), director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, made a compelling case for HR professionals to take the lead in developing new approaches to talent management.

The predictability of demand is so uncertain in today’s world market that it is nearly impossible to estimate talent needs on anything approaching a long-term basis, Dr. Cappelli told the audience, surprisingly large for the final speaker of the 2 1/2 day conference. Instead of even trying, HR needs to take a different approach.

He offered a variety of suggestions, but the heart of it is that HR can lead by inventorying the skills and capabilities of existing staff, implementing development programs that have shorter payback periods — tuition assistance programs are a favorite because the employee shoulders some of the costs and they tend to attract only the most motivated and hardworking — recruiting strategically to develop talent pools that are internal, and using a mix of worker types.

If some of this sounds elementary, pat yourself on the back. But judging from the rapt attention Cappelli got, there are plenty of acolytes left for whom analyzing the economics of layoff versus the cost of future hiring is a mystery. Measuring the costs of the salaries and benefits is easy enough. That’s what HR does.  Calculating the lost opportunity from not having critical workers in place is far more challenging and not something many HR people would even attempt.

Talent management systems can help with that, which is why Cappelli’s closing keynote was entitled “What You Should Know About Talent Management Before Buying Software.” As you’ve probably figured out, his comments weren’t about features, but about what the expectations should be for talent management and the role HR can play in helping their company perform more efficiently.

Talent management, as he described it, is “Getting the right person in the right job at the right time.” If that sounds so much like recruiting, it is. Instead, though, of the outward focus most recruiters have, talent management looks inward at least as often as a recruiter looks out.

To make better use of their human capital, companies are looking at talent management and complete HR management systems. For the first time since the HR Tech conference has been asking the question, the straw poll showed a majority of those voting were not shopping for a new ATS system. What was the top priority to buy or implement?; 21 percent said it was an HRMS. That was followed by 18 percent who said a performance management system was their priority with 16 percent declaring a recruiting system to be theirs. Interestingly, for 10 percent a learning system was their priority.

While accurate forecasting of talent needs beyond the near-term may not be possible for any system, no matter how well designed, efficiently managing the human capital inventory is possible, and these systems can help do that. But in shopping for them, HR needs to take a leader’s role in pressing the business case for its involvement in managing the workforce.

Already, the more progressive companies measure recruiters on the quality of their hired candidates as well as on the traditional metrics of time and cost to hire. And every recruiter of worth should be looking at the sourcing metrics that tell them the most effective spends. Good talent management systems, those that integrate performance management, will expand the usage of the quality-of-hire yardstick. Thus recruiters have a selfish interest in the systems their companies acquire and in promoting the adoption of tools that will help the candidates that get hired perform as well as they can.

Which brings us back to the bank’s personnel officer. I don’t know her involvement in hiring branch managers, but helping them network more efficiently can improve their productivity and effectiveness. It’s worth investigating. And that’s just the kind of HR leader Gerry Crispin was talking about.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.