How can HR tech help users to own their data?

I read Josh Bersin’s excellent blog post on Employee Experience platforms last week with great interest, as this touched on a lot of the problems I was trying to solve while at Cisco, and have been discussing with HR technology vendors since leaving just over a year ago. While I agree entirely with Josh’s take on how the HR tech ecosystem needs to evolve to enable a greater focus on employee experience, I would like to advocate that as a function, HR should set its sights higher than just building a new service-based experience platform for employees. 

In the graphic below, you can see how Josh is positioning the concept of an employee experience platform and how it has evolved in a similar way to the recent growth in learning experience platforms. However, I feel that this is just another example of HR falling into the same trap that it has fallen into in the past, of focusing too much on its own internal processes, effectiveness, and systems and looking for technology solutions to solve HR problems, rather than implementing technology that employees actually want to use. Let me explain....



Moving beyond the “core system of record”

As Josh mentions, many HR leaders have come to the conclusion that the ERP systems from Workday, SAP, and Oracle are better used as “core systems of record” rather than a one-stop shop for everything that we need. Consequently, HR buyers are now looking to new tech vendors and startups for the innovation that they bring to rapidly evolving areas such as performance management, selection, assessment, coaching, and wellness. One of the impacts of the increase in HR tech startups is that HR professionals are often overwhelmed by the number of tools in the marketplace. Those companies that have pushed ahead with purchasing several of these tools are now struggling with complex integrations and a negative impact on user experience, as employees are faced with an ever-increasing number of tools in the workplace.

Linking employee experience to business value

With this dramatic shift in the way we buy and deploy technology, a focus on employee experience has become increasingly relevant. I think it is encouraging that we are seeing the conversation around measuring employee engagement expand to also include mapping employee journeys, measuring critical touch points, and seeking to measure employee experience as a way of better understanding the overall experience that individuals have at work. I am a firm believer that using design thinking in HR is an essential step for HR to think beyond annual programs and think more like a product manager in how they design experiences and implement technology in their organisations. Companies like TI People are doing a great job of helping HR departments to map employee journeys and enabling HR departments to focus on fixing the touch points that really matter.

“Organizations that score in the top 25 percent on employee experience report nearly three times the return on assets compared to organizations in the bottom quartile.” (IBM research, 2018)

While it is clearly understood that employee engagement is linked to job performance and to business outcomes, I think the shift to thinking about measuring employee experience and how that can also link to business value is particularly beneficial when you look at some of the recent research that suggests almost 50% of the variability in employee engagement could be predicted by people’s personality.

So, if focusing on employee experience is clearly a good thing, then what’s wrong with a move to employee experience platforms?

HR needs to take control of managing the total workforce experience

Over the last few years, there have been lots of articles about HR becoming more like marketing, and using the findings from marketing on measuring customer experience and applying that to employee or candidate experience. However, if we truly want to take an outside-in perspective and to think about our end customer, then HR must think more broadly about everyone that comes into contact with its tools or processes, not just full-time employees. Most companies have some form of contingent workforce, contractors, or freelancers working for them. They are also often trying to manage a large candidate pool and possibly an alumni network too. We need to implement software that supports all of these users, and that does so from their perspective.

Increasingly, companies are tapping into labour-sharing platforms, and contractors or freelancers are used as a source of scarce talent and expertise by companies that need to rapidly adapt to shifting customer demands. We need to accept the fact that in a world with platforms like LinkedIn and Glassdoor, people are going to join and leave organisations on a much more frequent basis than they did in the past and we need to adapt our processes and technology to allow for that, as well as accommodate the rise of other working types such as contractors, freelancers, and contingent workers. All of this points towards a shift in the way that we think about our core technology stack. We need to think beyond the historical labels of an ATS for recruiting full-time employees and a VMS for managing contingent workers, and think more about tools that help managers see all the talent across their organisation, and a tool that workers want to use to manage all aspects of their careers.

The platforms we use at work need to move from “company-centric” to “user-centric”

One way of moving to a more “user-centric” and less “company-centric” technology focus in HR is to build on the experience that platforms like Upwork have created, where it is not only easy to find talent based on their skills and past work, but it is also easy to track an individual’s work progress, communicate, and collaborate on projects. Most importantly, these are platforms where usability and adoption is high for the worker, and the worker chooses to use the platform and keep it up to date, because there is an intrinsic value for them to do so. In a recent Upwork survey, the company found that freelancers pay more attention to tech trends that impact their future and are more likely to take the initiative to stay up to date and “skill proof” their careers than traditional workers.

“Embracing the idea of lifelong employability will help workers remain relevant and ensure that employers have the flow of skilled workers they need and could even improve retention by exciting employees about their career prospects and potential.” (McKinsey, 2019)

Implementing platforms where workers have a reason to maintain their data and own their careers can not only help workers to “skill-proof’ their careers, but can also help organisations to build a culture of “lifelong employability” for their workers and better prepare for future talent demands.

If we want to create an experience similar to the consumer experience that people get from tools such as Netflix, Facebook, or Amazon, then we need to not only design HR technology to have an exceptional user experience, but we also need to give people a much more compelling reason to use the technology itself.

“…the reason enterprise software is so bad is expressly because people have been selling to businesses and not the individuals inside those businesses that actually have to use the product…They don't actually care -- not nearly as much as they should -- about how effective it is at improving their business, and certainly not about the usability of the product and how it feels.” (Dustin Moskovitz, Co-Founder at Asana)

Is it any wonder that nobody fills out their skills profile in Workday if there’s no real benefit for them to do so? What we need is much more than a new portal or experience layer, it is a tool (or collection of tools that are integrated) that people will choose to use to manage their work lives, because they can manage their careers, connect to personalised learning, get suggestions on new jobs that they match to, and find work or projects that interest them and where they’re a good fit.

Improving experience by meeting people where they work

Obviously for the foreseeable future, we are still going to need HR core systems of record to deal with a lot of the compliance and governance tasks that HR needs to manage, but hopefully these systems can become more invisible to workers and managers as time progresses. In presentations from a recent CognitionX masterclass that I hosted, HR executives at companies like IBM, EY, and Unilever talked about how they have used chatbots to greatly reduce the friction experienced by users in using tools like employee or manager self-service.

Instead of having to log in to the core HR system to change an address or book a day off, the worker can simply use Slack, Skype, or whichever messaging tools everyone in their company uses every day, to make the change. Using existing conversational interfaces that your employees or managers use every day at work is a great way of simplifying the experience for infrequent tasks. Expect to see a lot more functionality built into messaging interfaces as chatbot technology continues to improve, and this will help companies to move legacy systems behind the scenes, without needing to implement a whole new experience layer.

However, what we are still missing is the tool that is chosen by the worker as the way they want to manage their careers and experience at work, that allows them to get work done for you, but where they could even be connected to other companies where they work at the same time. Most importantly of all, this should be a tool where the user owns their data and can take it with them when they leave their current company.

As Matt Charney pointed out in his recent blog post, decentralisation and democratisation of data control is at complete odds with the entire state of the current HR technology industry. This is the area where we really need to see change if we want to see a shift to more “user-centric” platforms that employees and other workers want to use. However, when speaking to Anna Ott recently, she summarised the issue that we’re facing really well:

“We need more venture capital for brave founders that are tackling the toughest HR problems and we need less risk-averse HR practitioners and C-Level sponsors to approve budgets for pilots, allowing HR leaders to trial new technology solutions.”

Not surprisingly, there are a few vendors out there that have already started building tools to address the problem of career management from a user’s perspective and to flip the current HR technology stack on its head, but the question is, is HR ready to adopt them?


Ian Bailie is the Managing Director of and an advisor and consultant for start-ups focused on HR technology and People Analytics, including Adepto, Worklytics and CognitionX. In his previous role as the Senior Director of People Planning, Analytics and Tools at Cisco Systems, he was responsible for delivering the tools and insights to enable and transform the planning, attraction and management of talent across the organisation globally. Ian is passionate about HR technology and analytics and how to use both to transform the employee experience and prepare companies for the Future of Work.