The rise of the employee-experience platform

The words “employee experience” have become the hottest buzzword in HR these days, and for good reason, says Josh Bersin.

“We’re not building software for HR anymore–we’re building it for employees,” the global industry analyst said during his opening keynote at this year’s HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. “If employees don’t find it useful, if it doesn’t fit into ‘the flow of work,’ then it’s not going to be used.”

A recent survey from Gartner of 5,000 employees finds that 56% agree with this statement: “I expect to have the same quality experience at work as I do as a customer.”

Companies are shifting their focus to addressing the full employee experience, cognizant that they have the same wants, needs and desires as customers, says Lauren Mason, principal in Mercer’s career business.

“Companies that figure out how to make their employees’ experience as delightful as their customers’ experience will have a competitive advantage,” she says.

Employee experience isn’t just about providing a consumer-grade experience with HR technology, says Bersin. It’s also about ensuring that in today’s often-fragmented organizations, employees feel connected to their work and their colleagues, understand the organization’s mission and their place in it and can easily find the information they need for tasks ranging from making benefits choices to furthering their development.

This has given rise to what he labels “employee experience platforms.”

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“Vendors like ServiceNow, Deloitte, Mercer, SAP SuccessFactors, IBM, all have platforms focused on the employee experience,” he said. “You can’t expect out-of-the box ERP to do this. This is going to be a significant market.”

Although organizations tend to prefer a single HCM system of record, it’s difficult to keep all of that data in one place, Bersin wrote in a report earlier this year. “This means we need a set of software to deliver a single user interface; something that lets us build employee journeys, develop apps, create and monitor workflows, and add chatbots and other forms of conversational interfaces to the mix.”

Pulling Together Information

Many so-called employee experience platforms are designed to help employees more easily find information and complete tasks that they’d otherwise have to turn to an HR representative or service center for assistance with.

“We see organizations wanting to provide an experience where employees can address problems themselves or deal with a major life event without having to reach out to someone for help,” says Bill Docherty, managing director in charge of Deloitte’s ConnectMe platform.

“The real genesis is the recognition that employees today are digital consumers,” he says. “The bring that same expectation to the workplace.”

ConnectMe is a digital employee experience platform for service delivery, says Docherty. “Our clients use it for communicating major events, such as a transformation the organization is undergoing. It’s also used to help employees address major life events, such as getting married or going on a leave of absence.”

Major HCM platforms such as those offered by ADP and Workday are good at transactional services but not so good at helping employees quickly find relevant information that requires interaction with multiple systems, he says. ConnectMe is designed to serve as an interface between different systems to provide a more user-friendly experience, says Docherty.

ServiceNow, a large vendor with over 10,000 employees, started off in IT service delivery and expanded into HR service delivery four years ago. It uses natural language processing to power a virtual agent that enables “an omnichannel experience for the employee,” says Blake McConnell, senior vice president of employee workflows.

Deepak Bharadwaj, vice president of ServiceNow’s HR Business Unit, joined the company four years ago from Taleo.

“The charter I was given was how to take our platform and make it valuable and relevant to HR,” he says. “The surge of interest in ’employee experience’ over the last five years meshes nicely with the things we’re able to help clients with.”

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Big “E” Versus Small “e”

When it comes to employee experience, Chris Pinc says, there’s a difference between “small ‘e'” employee experience and “big ‘e’ ” employee experience.

Small ‘e’ refers to the consumer-grade experience employees tend to expect now with workplace technology, he says. However, the big ‘E’ is what’s really important.

“That’s much more about whether employees feel their experience is inspirational to them: Are they inspired by their organization, do they feel like it’s winning in the marketplace?” says Pinc, managing director of product management at Willis Towers Watson’s talent reward business. “If you can deliver that big E experience, that’s what really drives the bottom line.”

A positive big E experience is more directly correlated to better customer service, improved sales and top-line revenue growth and reduced costs, he says. It’s much more than, say, just providing a good experience via a smooth payroll transaction, he adds.

“Big E describes things like opportunities to grow and reach your full potential, to make decisions and innovate and to be part of a winning team,” says Pinc. “But if you merely describe employee experience from a transactional viewpoint, then all you’re doing is just using a buzzword to jump on the bandwagon.”

HR, not IT or finance, is the best “owner” for driving and improving Big E experience, he says. “HR’s in the best position to do two things: one, understand what employees care about and what they want from work, and two, understand how the organization can improve those moments that matter.”

If you don’t have both sides of that equation, says Pinc, then you won’t be successful in improving the “big E” experience.

Willis Towers Watson offers an employee experience platform that’s focused primarily on the communication side of things, he says.

“Ours is focused on driving the right behaviors within an organization and communicating in a personalized way to employees,” says Pinc.

Clients can use the platform to create and deliver “rich content,” including images and videos, that’s branded to their company, he says. WTW’s employee-survey capabilities are considered part of the platform as well.

Related: The 6 key elements of employee experience

“In order to deliver the right messages to employees, you first need to understand what it is that employees care about,” says Pinc. “It’s integration between feedback and listening on one hand and communicating and nudging on the other.”

Clients use the platform to help guide employees through a merger, find new careers or develop skills in their current one and learn more about the company’s benefits offerings, he says.

They also use it to help employees understand their role in helping the organization move forward.

“You need to be crystal clear to employees on how what they do contributes to the big picture while giving them the freedom to help drive that transformation,” says Pinc.

One healthcare system client uses the platform to deliver personalized messages to employees based on their roles. Cleaning staff, for example, will see regular reminders of how their job helps prevent patient infections by keeping hospital rooms clean.

“It’s the first thing they see when they log in in the morning and it reinforces to them the critical role they play in making a difference in patients’ lives,” he says.

Driving Change

A poor onboarding experience or a merger/acquisition can undermine employee experience, says Keith Kitani, CEO and co-founder of GuideSpark.

“Mergers and acquisitions are kind of like a huge onboarding task,” he says. “Sure, there’s some process, but a lot of it is alignment around culture, strategy, organization and rewards. 83% of mergers fail, and half of them do so because of people-related issues.”

GuideSpark’s platform lets companies create sustained employee-communication strategies that can help HR leaders boost engagement during an M&A or support a major new process, such as a revamped performance-management process, says Kitani.

Kitani, who started a tech firm that was eventually acquired by Adobe Systems and is now called Adobe Connect, launched GuideSpark in 2008 to help companies create video and mobile versions of their print communications.

“Eventually we realized it’s not just about creating a great content experience but, how do you actually reach and engage employees in a world that’s increasingly noisy?” he says.

The result was its GuideSpark Communication Cloud product, which is designed to drive change or adoption around key strategic programs via communication.

“Communication is a challenge for most organizations,” says Kitani.

One client, a Fortune 20 company, wanted to overhaul its 20-year old performance management process. Considering that it had 60,000 employees scattered around the globe, this would be no easy task.

“They realized that they needed to drive adoption throughout the entire organization, so they charted out a three-year plan to reach all the different groups within the company,” he says.

The company used Communication Cloud to create campaigns with different messages and delivery mechanisms for each group. The campaign included information on why the new PM system was important and how it worked. The material was reinforced and supplemented with short-form content to guide the employees through the process.

“Changing behavior takes time–it’s about measuring and iterating,” says Kitani.

Optimal employee experiences can’t be created in a vacuum, says Pinc.

“Everything HR does can be done better with the right technology and by listening to employees,” he says.

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Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.