Looking for Value in HR Technology

Oct 31, 2008

I just returned from the Future of Talent conference put on by Kevin Wheeler. This is a truly exceptional experience for those lucky enough to attend. The quality of content and discussions would be hard to duplicate. Having heard and talked about where talent management might be in the foreseeable future, it was logical to look at what technologies might be there to support it. As luck would have it, the Fall brings opportunities by the truckload to review the future of HR technology.

Judging by what’s on display and what’s being discussed at some other HR tech conferences I’ve been to, HR technology appears to be geared more to the past than the future.

To be fair, technology products tend to be lagging indicators of needs, and HR technology is no exception.

Having said that, the lack of vision for products is substantial. Most of what’s on display at conferences is reminiscent of a Sears appliance showroom — lots of similar products in a few categories, with little changing from year to year. Truly interesting products are about common as a pro-McCain story in the New York Times. We’re still seeing products that have not fundamentally changed in 10 years. That gets reflected in awards — a few deserve them, but most seem to make it just to fill out the list. One company managed to win an award for a product that was just a repackaged product from another company. This is why the Nobel committee has never shown much interest in establishing a prize in this category. But that doesn’t stop people from coming. But that doesn’t stop people from coming to look at products. I’m reminded of the story of the small town where the high school football team had never won a single game, yet the stadium was always packed. When someone asked why people went the response was “just in case they do.” That sums up the situation with HR technology — there’s the hope that we just might see something interesting.

This year there are a few products that deserve recognition. The first is Talent Drive; this product solves the extremely common problem — one faced by every recruiter — of having multiple sources to search but no easy way to do it. Talent Drive integrates all job boards a recruiter subscribes to, along with hundreds of free ones, and allows them to be searched from a single, elegantly styled interface. Results are aggregated in one location and resumes can be matched to job requirements and ranked. Best of all, the product allows a user to create a single search requirement that is adapted to all the boards. The efficiency and productivity gains are significant. There have been others that have tried to do this, but not well. This product is designed for that neglected group of people — recruiters. We hear a lot about serving the needs of candidates (the Web 2.0 experience), and hiring managers (making ATS reporting simple), but little about those that do most of the work. Talent Drive one of the few offerings that actually makes their life easier.

Prophesy from eQuest is another. The product lets a recruiter analyze the effectiveness of job boards and provides a variety of metrics related to candidate responses. Now in its third version, Prophesy can allow an employer to focus its spending where it provides the most value.

A third product that I’d like to mention is Value Networks. This product would not be generally associated with talent management, but it can make a big difference to an organization’s talent strategy. Value Networks allows an employer to visualize and understand the informal network that exists in every workplace — that is, the real organization chart. This can help an organization understand how information really flows and who contributes value, which may be completely unrelated to their title or position within the organization. It helps highlight vulnerabilities and devise strategies to optimize information flows. The implications for talent management are obvious — talent strategies should be shaped based on an understanding of the value network, creating and filling positions that help optimize information flows.

These products have two things in common. One, they deliver tangible value that goes beyond automating a process, and can be measured in dollars and cents. In that regard they are very appropriate given the current economic climate. Second, small companies developed them. Real innovation is never a hallmark of any major vendor. Admittedly innovation in technology in general, and software in particular, is difficult. The U.S. Patent Office issued more patents to products in the category of hunting, fishing, and vermin removal in the last year than to software products in the entire 20-plus years that patents have been available for software. But it’s not impossible — as these three have demonstrated.

So if you’re looking for the future of HR technology the product bazaar may not be the best source of information. Perhaps another fixture of conferences — the obligatory “expert” panel — might help. Trouble is that what gets said is mostly of middling quality, based on spin put out by vendors, and dominated by discussions of what the majors are doing. You hear statements like “Vendor X is continuing to fill in their functional gaps and looks poised to take advantage of web 2.0.” Look at the content and the same could be obtained with a few keystrokes on Google. Truly innovative products are almost never discussed because the vendors are too small to tithe, er, subscribe to analyst firms.

There’s also the simple fact that the “experts” don’t use most of the products they are discussing and in general see too many demos to get anything but the most cursory understanding of them and the value they offer. They do have some insights into the situation that specific vendors are in and their likely future, but that is not stuff for a panel discussion. Few have the courage to make predictions about the future — better to say something innocuous couched in jargon to make it seem important, and be right than to make a bold prediction and be wrong. Sitting in on one of these is not unlike being stoned to death by popcorn.

I’ve long said that conferences having to do with HR technology should be on the same schedule as the Olympics. There really isn’t that much going on in the interim that necessitates having these more frequently. Let’s face it, despite whatever we may think of ourselves — this is HR, not astronomy or bio-tech. We’re not finding new planets or sequencing genomes. Then perhaps we’d see many more interesting products that really merit an award that’s worth something. Right now it’s like getting a hole-in-one — in mini-golf.

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