HR Tech Day One: On the Road to Mandalay (Bay)

After a quick day in the office last Friday after returning from the Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Palm Springs last week, Sunday night came around with me on the road again, Las Vegas bound, for the annual HR Technology Conference and Exposition taking place this week at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and casino.

Of all the conferences on the circuit, HR Tech is one of the most anticipated. Many vendors save up their big product announcements for this week and a score of new companies make their debut each year. This year is no exception.

Don Tapscott, author of “Growing Up Digital” and “Wikinomics,” kicked off day one with a morning keynote. I’ve now seen Don speak a couple of times – including at our Talent Management Strategies Conference in New Orleans a couple of years ago – so I know his message pretty well. That message: Technology is driving a systemic change in business. To put it in Tapscott’s words, It’s not your daddy’s Internet. This Internet is more social, collaborative, open and transparent than the one we of older generations “grew” up on.

It’s a message that is worth hearing multiple times, particularly at a conference dedicated to one of the core business areas of that technology, HR.

Tapscott’s basic argument is that the changes we’re seeing in our economy and society are not cyclical or temporary, driven by the market. Rather, they are systemic, and the systems and management theories we use to explain it all are beginning to show their age. The shift to openness and collaboration isn’t a temporary one, it’s permanent. Right in front of our eyes, we’re seeing the networking of human intelligence, something that has never happened before at this scale in human history.

For businesses, this challenges at its core the industrial era models we use to manage people. What this vast global network of people and talent has done is create a pool of talent assets outside your organization that is several orders of magnitude greater than your internal pool. Organizations need to be able to adapt to this reality if they have any hope of thriving, Tapscott argued.

He offered up four principles of what he called the “open” world:

  • Collaboration
  • Transparency
  • Sharing
  • Empowerment

All of them are at the core of talent management in 2013. Sure, it’s driven by the digital natives migrating into our organizations, but talent at all levels is having to stretch in multiple ways, many times unconsciously, to adjust to a business that requires more collaboration and sharing, empowerment and engagement at the individual level and more transparency from what has traditionally been an opaque management structure.

Just as new business models are emerging in response, so are new terms and practices for HR. Analytics and data are driving changes in people management. Jac Fitz-enz, the so-called father of human capital analytics and a Talent Management columnist, has been a lone voice in the wilderness literally for decades on this.

If day one at HR Tech is any guide, we’re finally seeing products and services made by and for HR to address a new way to manage not based on managing assets and shuffling people from your ATS to your LMS, but rather understanding individuals, teams and organizations in a deeper fashion and then acting on their strengths and bolstering where they’re weak.

Case in point: Kenexa made its name in recruiting technology and either built or acquired a suite of products and services from learning to performance and succession to create one of the few end-to-end talent management suites in the industry. So when IBM came a-courting and acquired the company last year, the question was what is this giant global organization that has built its name in services going to do with a talent management company?

Talking to Kenexa’s head of marketing, Tim Geisert, and Kevin Cavanaugh, the head of product development, shed some light on that question. They are making updates and progress in the suite of products, making the learning management system more social and collaborative and introducing mobile capabilities. They’ve added 30 engineers to the product development team. But much of our conversation centered around what the scientists and researchers at IBM are doing and how that is filtering in.

It’s early, said Cavanaugh, who joined Kenexa from IBM’s collaboration strategy group, but that work is focused on concepts like sentiment analysis, taking large sets of semi-structured or unstructured data, such as open-ended questions on an employee engagement survey and analyzing that to identify trends and direction. The not-so-secret sauce is combining products and services with data so that HR tools and processes are underpinned with the type of analytics and data-crunching tools that allow organizations to make better talent management decisions.

I heard that sentiment echoed in another way later that day when I met Dave Weisbeck, one of the executives behind Vancouver, Canada-based analytics company Visier. His point: Analytics is a hammer. Yes, you need a good hammer, but you don’t necessarily need a bigger, badder one. What organizations need to do with their analytics efforts is to figure out where to hammer. Technology is a means to an end, not the end in itself.

For HR, that is a challenge. In many instances, the ends are the means when it comes to typical HR transactions such as hiring, enrollment and development. When it comes to analytics, HR typically focuses on tracking and management of data and building dashboards. But a dashboard is not analytics.

Analytics, Weisbeck said, can be used to identify outliers in data that can drive decision-making. It won’t help you find a needle in a haystack, but it will get you close. What it also does is break through traditional HR stovepipes and collect data from multiple systems and functions to find trends and drive workforce planning.

His company, launched in January 2010, has signed up clients that include Kohl’s Department Stores, Hyatt, Nissan, ConAgra Foods and USC so far. Weisbeck’s estimate is that real analytics – not dashboards masquerading as analytics – really only has about a 15 percent penetration rate in HR.

If Tapscott is right and we’re living through a systemic change in business, then developing the kind of deep insight and analytics on our organizations points a potential way forward. It’s not your daddy’s Internet anymore. And it’s not your daddy’s HR either.