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Steve Boese: What trends will dominate HR tech in 2020?

By: | October 28, 2019 • 8 min read
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese recently spoke at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at [email protected]

Over the last several months, I’ve been focusing on the planning, execution and post-event activities for the recently concluded HR Technology Conference, which, by all accounts, was our largest and most successful event ever. It’s only in the last week or two that I’ve had a chance to reflect on the conference—and on the year overall—thinking about the technologies and trends that have mattered the most in 2019 and speculating on what might dominate the conversations in 2020. Here’s my semi-scientific look at what was important to the HR-tech community this year, and what we will probably spend more time on in 2020.

2019

AI Tools Maturing

AI in HR tech was probably the No. 1 tech topic and trend in 2019. There were about 500 exhibitors at HR Tech, and I bet easily over 100 of them are developing, deploying, or at least discussing, how AI is driving their technology offerings. Actually,100 may be a conservative estimate. The good thing for HR leaders about all this investment in AI is that more powerful technologies for things like information discovery, job opportunity to candidate/employee matching and employee-sentiment analysis are all maturing, getting more capable and being used by more companies in the “real” world. Also, consultancy and analyst research is shining more light on the technologies, approaches and results being driven by the application of AI in the workplace. Bottom line, in 2019 and beyond, AI tools are moving more toward the mainstream of HR tech, and will increasingly be evaluated, deployed and measured like more traditional HR technologies have been—with a focus on fit, capability and return on investment.

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Employee Experience for the Win

If there was one phrase heard more at HR Tech in 2019 than “employee experience” I can’t think of it. Originally, it seemed like the “experience” conversations were an offshoot of the decades-long discussion about employee engagement. “Experience” allows us to think more specifically about the individual moments in an employee’s relationship with work and the organization, and to develop processes and technologies that are meant to elevate these moments to make them easier, more valuable and designed with the employee in mind. In HR tech, the influence of employee experience has manifested in much more user-centric designs, cleaner and simpler interfaces, and technology much more focused on users, as opposed to back-office or IT administrators. This is not just “how it looks” but much more about “how it works,” or perhaps better said, “how it helps me at work”—and that last viewpoint should be what HR leaders ask when evaluating all HR tech moving forward.

Related: This is why you have to take employee experience seriously.

Don’t Sleep on VR

This last trend may be one that still feels a little under the radar for most HR leaders and organizations, but to me, 2019 was the year that virtual reality really began to mature and emerge as a viable technology for HR, and most specifically, training and development professionals. One of the sessions at this year’s HR Tech that I was most impressed by was a mega session on how many leading employers (Walmart being the largest) are leveraging VR technology for employee training and development objectives. While VR, not unlike the famous experimental technology Google Glass, might never become a mainstream consumer technology, it seems very likely that the workplace applications are going to be increasingly significant. I think 2019 was the year VR officially arrived in HR tech, and I am excited to see it develop even further in the coming years.

See also: How Walmart, FedEx Ground are using virtual reality.

2020

HR Technology for Me

Above, I mentioned the familiar consumerization of HR tech, an extension of which, I think, is individual personalization of HR and workplace technology. My favorite consumer comparison is the smartphone: Every new iPhone and the like ships to consumers exactly the same—loaded with the same software, layout/interface and installed applications. Within mere minutes of being activated, each of these millions of smartphones becomes unique—as users add, modify, adapt and configure their phones to support their own needs. And, by the way, this unique user-defined configuration is not static—it can and usually is updated almost constantly, as user needs change and different supporting features become available. For 2020 and beyond, I expect to see this individually oriented technology paradigm become more common in HR and workplace technologies. HR-technology solutions will develop even more flexibility, adaptability and modularity (like your phone’s app store) in order to give users almost unfettered ability to tailor their workplace technologies to their own preferences, giving them more control over their data, their workflows and their experiences.

A Return to Wellbeing

Employee wellbeing is not a new idea, but rather one that will see an increased emphasis in 2020, and thus a corresponding uptick in HR-tech investments. We seem to be working more than ever, we are always tethered to work via our smartphones and even the work/life balance people have kind of abandoned the idea that work and life can truly be separated—advocating for a fuzzy concept of a work/life “blend.” Add to this the normal workplace pressures of competitive global markets for most goods and services, persistent labor shortages in many industries and increases in the incidence of mental-health conditions in the population and, to me, this adds up to a potential crisis in many organizations. In 2020, I expect more HR leaders to look again at wellbeing technologies to play a more significant role in their organizations and for the HR-tech companies that provide wellbeing solutions to innovate even more quickly to meet these challenges and opportunities.

HR Tech Everywhere

Anyone who has followed my writing, speaking or the HR Happy Hour Show over the last few years would not be surprised to hear how much I am enamored with my Amazon Alexa device. When I am on the road, I find myself in hotel rooms asking Alexa for information, only then to remember Alexa is sitting on my counter at home. And it stinks! I then have to find some other way to get the information that I expect is only a question away. Once Alexa is available, with an incredibly simple user interface, life gets harder without it. That frustration is why I think access to HR information, interaction and execution of transactions is going to become more widely available on smart technologies like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. For years, most HR-tech experts have made statements about how employees expect the ease of use and familiarity of their favorite consumer technologies be ported to their workplace technologies. I believe that statement is accurate, and the natural extension of is the voice interface used by Alexa and the like. We will see more HR tech on these “everywhere” interfaces in 2020; soon, asking Alexa for a shortlist of candidates for that important open role you are looking to fill will seem just as normal as asking her for the weather forecast.

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As I mentioned at the top of this piece, 2019 was a great year for the HR Technology Conference and the HR-technology market overall. There’s probably never been more interest, innovation, investment and importance placed on HR tech than at any time before. The market is growing and moving so fast it can be hard, even for me, to see past the transactions, developments and announcements to get a feel for the bigger picture and think about what really will matter for HR and organizations. Of course, any “predictions” articles or “trends” pieces are only one person’s view of things, so my best advice for HR leaders who need to make important technology decisions is to read as many of these articles as possible and follow the great HR-tech coverage at Human Resource Executive. Of course, make your plans to attend the HR Tech Conference in 2020, where all of us can see whose predictions for the year were closest to the bullseye. Here’s to 2020 and another great year in HR tech!

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