Steve Boese: 3 ways to catch up to the tech revolution

By: | December 5, 2019 • 6 min read
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese will speak at the 2020 Virtual HR Technology Conference scheduled for Oct. 27-30. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at sboese@lrp.com.

With the recently concluded 2019 HR Technology Conference in the rearview mirror, I’ve had some more time in the last few weeks to travel to a few events, talk to several HR-tech providers about their plans for 2020, and meet with HR and HR-tech leaders, usually informally, to learn about their challenges and opportunities and how they see HR technology as a driver of their business and people strategies. And yes, I’ve also had some time to think about the HR Tech Conference for 2020, and we have some really exciting things happening on that front—but more on that once 2020 is actually here.

Writer William Gibson noted back in 1993 that “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Gibson was referring more generally to how societal and technological advances were effecting change on people, organizations and communities unequally or in widely different ways, but I think the sentiment also applies to the use of HR technology in organizations, particularly large organizations.

Despite what you might think or be led to believe, many large organizations are still more or less behind in their adoption of modern, cloud-based HR technologies, often for their most basic HR and talent-management functions. You’d probably be surprised, especially if you’re new to HR and HR tech—or work in an organization that is less than, say, 10 years old—that it is highly possible that the HR-technology tools you have access to and have deployed in your small organization are much more modern, flexible and capable than those in use at the giant, Fortune 500 company you’ve known for decades.

Related: Do you know how to drive HR-tech adoption?

Yes, the future of HR tech is here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed yet. In the last two weeks or so, I talked with HR and HR-tech leaders from one of the largest banks in the U.S. (you’ve heard of them, for sure), a massive company in the pharmaceutical space, a member of the Fortune 500 and a global powerhouse in the travel and leisure industry that I’m certain you’d recognize. In informal settings, they all shared with me their issues and struggles with modernizing large portions of their HR-technology infrastructures. Each organization’s particular circumstances and situations varied slightly, but are very similar at their core: Each is still running an older, on-premise suite of HR and payroll applications that are suffering from high costs to run and maintain, an inability to offer new and innovative features and, in the end, are keeping each of these organizations from effectively managing and understand their workforces and executing their important HR and talent functions.

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For the large bank and financial-services organization, issues around data security and compliance have kept them, more or less, locked into their legacy technology infrastructure. For the pharma company, an increasingly competitive and global market has driven down margins to the point that additional investment in back office or so-called “non-strategic” technologies was postponed. And for the travel company, two decades of expansion and acquisitions have resulted in a collection of disparate HR-technology systems that are not integrated or aligned, forcing the organization to undergo significant manual steps each month to conduct the most basic HR and talent-management tasks. Again, all three of these are giant companies, two of which are certainly household names in American industry, and the other a dominant player in its field with 50,000-plus employees worldwide.

While these stories are not necessarily representative of what is happening in most large organizations, I can’t help but think there are still many other midsize-to-large organizations with similar situations and stories. I did not try too hard to “find” these tales—actually, I wasn’t trying to find any particular theme or story at all; they kind of just found me. But the fact that, in about two weeks time over three different events, I was able to see this theme emerge was kind of telling. It’s not a scientific survey at all, so take it for what it’s worth. But it is interesting, for sure.

OK, so what, if anything, can HR leaders take from this?

Personally, I found it interesting and just a little bit refreshing to have some of my own preconceived ideas about the state of HR technology in larger organizations be challenged and even reset just a bit. And besides that—and perhaps more importantly than what I think—these stories remind HR leaders who may feel like the HR-tech revolution has passed them and their organizations by that, in fact, the revolution impacts every organization differently. So, while you may be late to the HR-technology-transformation party, be assured said party is still ongoing—and will be for the foreseeable future.

See also: 2020 will be HR’s year to flip the script

What should you do if you are an HR leader at an organization like the bank, pharma or travel company described above? I think three things make sense to try and accomplish by the end of 2019.

First, make sure you really understand the current HR-tech-systems environment, and any specific challenges unique to your organization that would make disrupting that environment especially problematic. These could be related to cost/budget constraints, unique business requirements that have kept modernization plans at bay or maybe the IT or CFO simply being in the way of progress. You have to know/understand where you are and, more importantly, why before taking steps forward.

Next, for larger organizations, take the pulse of the overall attitude towards enterprise technology. Do you have any appetite for adoption of new technology? Does the IT organization prefer to work with a limited amount of providers, or will they be open to adopting a more strategic, “best-of-breed” approach to HR and other enterprise tools? Do you have one “big” provider that the organization has traditionally partnered with that you think will have to be a part of any future HR-technology-modernization plan? Understanding the operating environment at your organization is key.

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Finally, make sure you have identified at least one, but probably no more than three, key business/talent challenges that you have to solve in 2020, or at least be on the way to solving by the end of the year. Whether it is improving leadership development and creating more robust succession plans, supporting a growing and global workforce, executing more quickly on recruiting initiatives, reskilling the workforce to meet the business’ need for specific skills and capabilities—your most important challenges should drive and guide the direction of any new HR-technology strategies in 2020. If your organization to this point has sat out the HR-technology revolution, it is highly likely that direct links to your most critical people and business objectives are going to have to be an essential part of any investment to kickstart a modernization effort.

Understand where you are, assess the climate and capacity to evolve and advance, and determine how HR tech can help you and the organization achieve your most important objectives. Sounds simple, but you and I (and the HR leaders at the companies I described above), know it’s much easier said than done. But we at Human Resource Executive® and the HR Technology Conference are here to help and to provide ideas, resources and learning opportunities to make your journey—even a late-starting journey—easier and successful in 2020.