The Major Memes of HR Tech!

By: | November 6, 2017 • 6 min read
HR Technology columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, is at the 22nd Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Las Vegas, Oct. 1-4, 2019. Watch Kim Billeter, the new Americas Lead for EY HR advisory group (PAS), discuss the question: Why is Cloud adoption taking so long? Just six minutes for the current video episode of Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. Bill can be reached at

HR Tech Co-Chair Steve Boese blogged that people are always asking him what the “theme” of this year’s conference will be. I think his answer is the same as mine was for 16 years: “Whatever’s new and important.” Hard to judge what that would be almost a year earlier as the speaking proposals come in.

But every few years a new phrase surfaces at HR Tech Conference, or just gathers sufficient volume there, that it really does get people buzzing (why else call it a “buzzword”?). Within three years, the buzzwords generally disappear: either into real software as new functionality or just into oblivion.

To put the current buzz into context, consider the following two opposite historical examples.

In 1998, the same year as the first HR Tech Conference, Lexy Martin and David Link debuted The Hunter Group Survey of HR Systems — research that is still flourishing 20 years later under Stacey Harris, after a half-dozen corporate owners and names. The first report was entirely about the adoption of employee self-service!


In that same year, a handful of small vendors was still selling separate employee self-service technology meant to be integrated into the big HR systems. Naturally, the big systems didn’t bother building that functionality because, 20 years ago, they knew their software was used solely by the HR department, not employees. Some of the small vendor names were Edify, Conduit, Interlynx, ESSence and iClick.

What happened? The big vendors realized it was a good idea and partnered with the smaller ones. And then in the most dramatic case, PeopleSoft announced six months later that ESS was strategic and had to be developed and sold without a partner. Its partner Edify (after bulking up for all the expected new customers) broke up its parts, went out of business, and sold its HR software to Workscape (later acquired by ADP).

The point is ESS was a buzzword that actually entered the fabric of our systems and our lives, though it never worked as well as it should because employees were confused by software they had to use so infrequently.

Now, vendors are promising to replace it with a digital assistant that can deliver HR answers to employees without their hunting through the system at all! So ESS was definitely a keeper.

Not so the following year’s biggie: knowledge management or human intellectual capital management. The idea, back then, was to manage a company’s structured data to be able to retrieve both it and what employees already knew to maximize productivity and profits. And that HR should handle it!

The idea was reflected big in that year’s HR Tech Conference. A keynote panel featured Vinnie Mirchandani, then with Gartner and now the sole proprietor of Deal Architect; Joel Summers, the original top dog of HR software at Oracle; and Juan Moran, no longer the CEO of Meta4, still headquartered in Spain and selling its HCM around the world.

The father of the intellectual-capital concept, Leif Edvinsson, delivered the closing keynote via a truly primitive, low-quality private connection from Sweden during the relatively early days of video conferencing.

The result: HR did absolutely nothing. IT tried a few knowledge-management projects, but as you know, now the focus has shifted to finding the expert within the company who knows something rather than finding what it is he or she knows.

Equal buzz; totally different results.

This year, artificial intelligence was touted by vendors, large and small. The large ones included The Big Three (Oracle, SAP SuccessFactors and Workday), Ultimate Software and Works Applications, the largest HCM vendor in Japan. Definitions of AI vary widely and few agree on them. It’s still a work in progress.

But I think AI will be a keeper — though it will certainly take some time — because it has already failed spectacularly once before, back in the Paleolithic era of 1986. That’s when computer scientists from MIT and Harvard were all working on it as the next big thing. I knew about it from editing my friend Esther Dyson’s leading computer industry newsletter, which nearly folded from devoting all its coverage to AI.