Beyond the Trends – 5 Wild Ideas that Will Change HR Technology

December 5, 2013 Appirio

by Bryan C. Pigott, Consultant (@bcpigott)

hr technology

Sometimes I think about the gentleman who maintains my vehicle and how he runs his HR. He has no technology, no documented strategy, and doesn’t think about clouds until it’s time to call it a day. However, he still practices talent management, but with a simple, just-in-time approach. “Social” and “Recruiting” happen when he reaches out to colleagues to find a helper; “Learning” happens when he mentors new employees; “Performance” and “Compensation” happen when the holidays roll around and he considers bonuses; and “Succession” happens when he realizes his best guy is going to retire soon.

While his approach is a bit reactive, we might still learn a thing or two from my mechanic – simplicity and speed can really add value. However, applying these principles at the enterprise level require strategy mapping and great technology to move quickly and absorb the complex structures of big business and the volume of HR transactions.

The current trends of ERP convergence, big data popularity, user experience, mobile, social and global have been deftly summarized by Appirio’s Jason Averbook and Nara Balakrishna. This article looks beyond the trends and postulates on five wild ideas that have the potential to change HR technology by 2020. Let’s take a look:

1. Millennials Kill the Module

Have you ever wondered why theoretical HR models are almost universally represented by dials, wheels and circular arrows? There is a flow and fluidity to HR activities, so it’s no surprise that HR models tend to be circular in format. However, our need to categorize work activities inherently led to logical “chunks” of HR activities – or in HR technology terms, the “module”.

But let’s step back for a moment – in the chaotic world of work, do most employees really follow a smooth flow from one HR stage to the next? Isn’t it more realistic to say that employees and managers are continuously crisscrossing all phases of talent management as they seamlessly blend? Our first wild idea anticipates that functional modules will disappear from HR technology.

The consolidation of modules has already begun. Performance has been linked to Learning for quite some time, and more recently Compensation has joined them as pay-for-performance has gained a solid foothold. Recruiting, and Assessment essentially merged in the 1990s, and Succession is joining them as its remaining distinction is mainly internal vs. external candidate pools. Looking ahead, what will happen when millennials become the designers, decision-makers and purchasers of HR technology?

Millennials’ demand for fast, simple and potent personal technology will need to be mirrored in HR technology solutions. At the enterprise level, I doubt that HR technology will be reduced to bite-size apps, but millennials will demand another form of simplicity – one system, one price, one vendor. Repeating the process of scoping, proposals, procurement, implementation and training for various modules will not sit well with our future customers. This will have implications on system features and structure, revenue, delivery, and training that will need to follow suit when millennials kill the module.

2. Clouds Slamming Clouds

It’s hard to think of an HR activity that cannot be replicated or solved with technology – with enough time and resources to coordinate the design, code, testing and release of new solutions anything is possible. HR technology firms know this and have been in an arms race for new features and functions to complete their HR suites.  Mobile, social, and global will soon become standard features in cloud-based systems. And eventually, they will all catch up to each other. When the HR technology arms-race is over, everybody will finish in a tie.  What happens then?

Pricing and client services aside, what will differentiate great HR technology from the rest of the flock? Our second wild idea predicts that speed will become one of the most valued commodities when choosing an HR technology provider.

In a previous role, I created live, working HR technology implementations that mimicked our competitor’s solutions as a part of pre-sales. It was effective, but laborious and time-consuming. Hold that thought for a minute…remember phone slamming? Not the angry kind, but way back in the mid-1990s long-distance carriers were able to switch customers from a competitor network to their phone network with just a few pieces of information. The “slam” happened quickly and you didn’t know until your next phone bill arrived.

Now let’s put these two concepts together – pre-sales + slamming. New middleware will be built that can recognize and replicate entire configuration settings of cloud-based HR technology…a second generation of “slamming”. The speed at which this will happen allows clients to see a completely built-out system before making a commitment. With consent and some basic data from the client, implementations will be completed in a fraction of today’s time. This momentum will lead to faster procurement, faster cutover and faster user-adoption – the speed of which should finalize the end of any remaining on-premise HR software.

3. Competency Content Becomes King (finally)

The position (or job, or role) remains the centerpiece for HR activities. In theory, HR practitioners know that competency-driven, integrated systems enable a seamless flow from recruiting to performance to learning to career planning and succession (remember those pretty, circular HR models from wild idea #1?). Presenting this vision to clients usually results in lots of head-nodding and smiles, and then we present them with astronomically-priced proposals to achieve that vision…and the room goes silent.

While HR technology provides a powerful home for automating HR processes, too many projects launch without integrated content that link across HR activities. These implementations can never live up to the potential presented during the sales pitch. Nevertheless, our third wild idea predicts that integrated, competency content will finally achieve widespread adoption.

So, what’s been stopping us from launching integrated solutions with competency-driven content? For decades we have been standing in our own way. The process for defining competency requirements at the position level is complicated, consultant intensive and expensive.  And if a position’s competency requirements change mid-stream? Ring up the consultants and start over again. This is a bitter pill for clients and it sends them searching for workarounds and ways to live with compromises.  Ultimately it increases the total cost of ownership and increases the time to reach ROI. It’s time for a change on this front, but it requires innovative thinking and a new process.

In order for competency content to help HR technology achieve more, a new and simpler approach for defining competency models is needed. Cloud-based technology that relies on client self-service, manages the data collection process, automates scoring, makes intelligent recommendations, and shifts from “consultant led” to “consultant reviewed” will be built soon. This will make the entire process of identifying job-relevant competencies easier, faster and less expensive. Better yet, clients won’t be afraid to update a competency models when job requirements change; resulting in more fidelity between what we measure and the actual work performed.

When this nut is cracked, we should expect immediate gains in system utility, user adoption, and measurable employee outcomes – enabling HR technology to operate in a seamless, integrated fashion for all positions when competency content finally becomes King.

4. Big Data Makes a Comeback

Wait, what? Big data is all the rage right now, so what’s this about a comeback? With quantum leaps in processing speed, data storage and HR transactions, the amount of mineable HR data has grown exponentially. For now, let’s assume that big data stays on its skyward trajectory of popularity, speed and easy accessibility.

While descriptive data and trend analysis are powerful tools, it has led to a leap that big data can uncover insights into predicting human behavior. But having the tools and horsepower is not the same as knowing how to use those tools –  just ask my mechanic. Powerful analysis cannot replace good science; especially in the HR field where we are dealing with complex issues surrounding recruitment, development, performance, and engagement. Human behavior is a pesky thing.

In its current format, big data is on a perilous path toward “dust bowl empiricism” – throw all your data together, run analysis and see what sticks. With enough data and enough computing power, answers are likely to emerge that will influence decision-making in HR. But what questions are we asking? Running too fast, without a theoretical framework, will lead to a series of setbacks for big data.

Appirio’s Jason Averbook touched on this concept over Twitter when he reminded practitioners that we need to keep “outcomes in mind” when using analytics. On the heels of this, Eugene Burke at the CEB recently stated “it’s important to ask the right questions” when it comes to talent analytics.

Why does this matter? Understanding human behavior boils down to science. The scientific method’s call for theoretical frameworks and hypothesis testing provides structure for re-testing, improving and disproving theories. The agility, speed and mobile access of big data is impressive. However, with a hypothesis-driven approach, we can more accurately identify valuable patterns in human behavior and avoid launching HR initiatives based on statistical artifacts.

Hard-to-explain relationships between variables and false-positives will give big data a few black eyes. The good news is that it should usher in a focus on expected outcomes – before embarking on analysis. A good set of brakes on a car is what make it safe to go faster. In turn, developing theoretical models and hypotheses first will make big data a more effective partner for HR. When the dust settles – and with the scientific method providing some restraint – expect big data to make a big comeback.

5. Overall Performance is Re-constructed

Distinguishing between low, medium and high performers is critical for multiple HR activities. However, distinct measures of performance have evolved for annual reviews, 360, team performance, competency assessment, social feedback, compensation reviews and more. Have we gone too far? Our final wild idea is that performance will be re-constructed into a single variable.

The module-driven approach to HR initiatives has resulted in multiple measures of performance that frequently end up becoming siloed. At the same time, improvements in technology have made it easier and faster to gather more types of performance feedback. Even scarier is that many HR technology systems allow for managers or administrators to edit performance scores with over-rides – creating yet another measure of performance.

While over-rides have their place from time-to-time, it seems we have ended up in a reverse state – instead of having one measure of performance that is leveraged across HR activities, we have multiple HR activities each producing their own measures of performance. Which performance score is the best measure? I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that “360 is the most accurate measure of performance, but it’s too honest so we could never use it for promotion or pay”. Interesting…but shouldn’t we be leveraging some part of the most accurate and honest measures of performance, even when the stakes are high?

The time has come for a more centralized, consistent approach to measuring the construct of overall job performance. Even if it’s a combined score from multiple sources, the demand for a single, overall performance score will return. A source-of-truth measure that can be shared across multiple HR activities. From an employee perspective there will be less forms to complete, an improved sense of accuracy, and better engagement in the performance process. This wild idea will also improve outcomes for big data and predictive analytics when overall performance is re-constructed.


Every ten years or so we see a transformational changes in HR technology – CBT in the 80s, internet in the 90s, SaaS in the 00s, and “mobilesocialglobal” in the 10s. The 20s will be here soon and I believe they will be an era of speed and simplicity – we can build any imaginable technology solution quickly with crowdsourcing (e.g. CloudSpokes and Top Coder), and at the same time millennials will push hard for simpler interfaces for addressing complex problems. These wild ideas won’t replace the need for good talent management strategy, governance and client service, but it will require some repositioning of our thinking and offerings to meet the expectations of future customers.

As consultants and practitioners in HR technology, we are fortunate to be able to theorize about the next big thing – and it’s exciting to have a hand in making it happen. Here at Appirio we commit every day to designing and launching smarter solutions for cloud-based HR technology. I look forward to reviewing these wild ideas with you (and my mechanic) in another ten years with a follow-up article.

Keep Exploring Workplace 2020 with Appirio!

While HR technology continues to advance, many of us continue to do things the same way we’ve always done. We must stop now and begin to move from HR technology adoption to HR technology addiction.  Over the next three years we are all going to have to make some very important decisions.  Our time is now!

– Looking Back to Look Ahead: Predictions & Actions for 2014.

– Thursday, Dec 12 2013 3:00pm EST.  Register for free.

Join Appirio experts Jason Averbook, chief business innovation officer, Heidi Spirgi, senior vice president, Appirio Advisory Practice, and Wes Wu, managing consultant, for our fifth annual trends webcast as they look back at what shaped 2013 and ahead to developments they predict for HR and technology in the year ahead, as well as highlight actions that every HR leader should be taking to ensure they are well equipped and prepared for 2014 and beyond.


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