It wasn’t too long ago that the debate about “bring your own device,” in which employees are able to use their own mobile device for work, dominated the human resources conversation.
While security concerns still have many firms skittish about allowing employees to access work content on their own smartphone or tablet, research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2017 half of organizations will require employees to supply their own mobile device for work.
But BYOD isn’t the only HR tech trend worthy of talent leaders’ attention (See special report, page 16). Chief among the trends sweeping business is cloud technology — technology that moves a company’s data infrastructure and software from hardware on-premise to a connected, elastic network of off-site servers.
As with most progressions in technology, new services, software or devices often come with an expanded set of capabilities. The move to the cloud is no different. But before discussing the possibilities of how cloud technologies can be used to influence talent management, consider an overview of the different models.
The three main models of cloud technology organizations are most likely to encounter are Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Platform-as-a-Service and Software-as-a-Service.
IaaS is typically a hosted service where storage, hardware, servers and networking are provided by a third-party vendor. This type of model normally does not include software components such as an operating system or applications. Examples include Amazon.com Inc.’s Web Services and Microsoft Corp.’s Azure offerings. In these cases, vendors provide the hardware and networking components; companies provide the software to run on the infrastructure.
On the other hand, PaaS offers the infrastructure that IaaS offers but with the added benefit of software and tools, such as an operating system and development tools. An example is SAP’s High-Performance Analytic Appliance cloud service. By using a PaaS service, an organization can get up and running and begin developing its own applications using the provided tools.
Finally, the SaaS model is a service built around a platform and infrastructure that can usually be accessed by the client through any device with a Web browser. Examples include Lynda.com and Microsoft’s Office 365.
Benefits, Drawbacks of the Cloud
The customers of cloud technology services are often not members of information technology departments. In fact, according to a report by Daryl Plummer, an analyst with Gartner, line managers in many instances are bypassing IT to get applications from the cloud, paying for them as they would a magazine subscription.
There are several advantages to using cloud technology. And with the various services available at talent managers’ disposal, organizations are being increasingly approached to implement them.
The case for adoption can be compelling when considering the benefits, which include lower initial costs and easy ability to upgrade. Still, some of the cloud services available may prove more threatening to organizations than others.
For example, SaaS offerings that includes learning and development content tend to be more appealing than those that house corporate data. With learning and development, content is being consumed by users, with no data going to the provider. This is different from a database option, where the data would be going to a provider.
Some issues related to cloud services, however, are considered easy to tolerate. Using the training content delivery example, IT may have no problem setting up single sign-on to simplify access to the offering, although the learning department could have an issue with its use.
So, which way should the organization go? For any organization to make a wise decision, it is vitally important that all of the stakeholders — in this scenario, learning and development, HR and IT — work together.
Learning and development will most likely be concerned about the quality and level of the materials, as well as how the service will integrate with its learning management system. HR might be concerned with policy issues related to using an outside vendor for the materials. And IT could have concerns about security, bandwidth and content that might be housed in the organization’s network, such as downloadable media.
While each group may appreciate the advantages cloud technology might offer, their concerns are still valid and must be addressed. To move forward, the service will need to be researched and vetted against the concerns, including how such concerns will be addressed in the future.
To understand what some of those concerns might be, let’s take a deeper dive into each of the models.
The PaaS model, for example, is composed of an operating system and the computing that comes with it. The model is designed to give organizations the tools needed to develop their own applications. Though a PaaS has a relatively simple implementation, there are a few concerns talent leaders should be mindful of.
For starters, there is the possibility of sensitive information being sent into the developed applications — information like sales or revenue, employee information and other data traditionally housed on-premise. As stated in a Gartner study, “Predicts 2014: Cloud Computing Affects All Aspects of IT,” “an equal number of organizations are taking unrecognized and inappropriately high levels of risk by placing sensitive data in cloud services that are not designed for it.”
To avoid this scenario, include a wider group of stakeholders — including the C-suite and other specialized subject matter experts — in the cloud services decision-making process. This isn’t to say that PaaS cannot or should not be implemented, but it will need to be thought through more carefully.
An IaaS model offers the same concerns as SaaS and PaaS, with added concerns about reliability, business continuity and disaster recovery. All are issues organizations need to become more sensitive to as a cloud-enabled world becomes more pervasive.
Another concern for talent leaders when it comes to cloud-computing services: Whose data is it? What happens when the client organization wants to stop using the service or move to a new provider? Can the data be extracted easily?
The answers vary depending on the cloud model.
In the case of IaaS, the answer is mostly yes. After all, IaaS only offers the infrastructure, so anything built on the infrastructure will almost certainly be a service developed by the organization. As such, the organization can ensure that it has a process in place for retrieving and deleting the information from the cloud provider’s systems.
As you move into the PaaS and SaaS models, however, the answer becomes a little less simple. If the PaaS offering is an industry standard package that has been set up in the cloud for use as a subscription-based service, then it should be relatively easy to get the information out. But if it is a highly customized service using a third party’s proprietary platform and tools, then extracting the data becomes less likely.
In the SaaS model, the organization accesses the provider’s software on a subscription or per-use basis. Therefore, it’s likely this service will be very specific and proprietary, making it difficult to move either out of the cloud or to a competing SaaS service.
Another aspect to consider is cost. While cloud services usually have a lower entry point, some organizations are finding that the ongoing running costs are more than anticipated. In a scenario where the entire IT infrastructure is deployed to the cloud, different cloud models might be needed for different workloads.
An IaaS offering might host an organization’s proprietary software. A PaaS model might be used for development or database workloads. And SaaS could be used for business applications. In a scenario like this, an organization might pay by usage hour (typical for IaaS services) or per-user/per-month (typical for PaaS and SaaS).
With the per-user/per-month pricing scheme, it is pretty easy to anticipate what the running cost will be. But the IaaS model is less easy to calculate. Will it be used 24/7 or only during certain times per month? Unanticipated variables or unexpected uses could break the bank.
However, according to the Gartner study, by 2016 the majority of SaaS contracts will include price escalation limitations and the ability to terminate contracts. The cost and reliability of these offers could become less of a concern than they are today.
There is no doubt that the cloud is here to stay. With this development come several services and opportunities for organizations — especially talent management, a function increasingly intertwined with IT. These services can usher in terrific gains and should not be shunned. Instead, they should be examined carefully with a thought process bent on maximizing these tools’ benefits.
To learn more about how specific employees use the cloud to improve business, read the sidebar that accompanies this feature.
Johnathan Lightfoot is a principal SharePoint architect at GP Strategies Corp., a performance improvement company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.