What’s on Mary Meeker’s Radar?

Work and the workplace are key themes in the VC icon’s latest Internet Trends report.


My favorite Powerpoint slide presentation of the year (and yes, it is a little bit geeky to have a favorite PPT slide deck) is the annual Internet Trends report that is presented by the legendary Mary Meeker, a general partner with the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

In her presentation, Meeker takes a deep dive (the 2018 deck contains 294 slides) into the most important trends in internet usage, e-commerce, social networks, advertising and more. Most interestingly to me–and to people interested in HR technology–Meeker also talks about how technology is impacting and influencing work and the workplace.

Since I suspect that you haven’t had time yet to review the just-released presentation, let me share with you the three most important HR and HR tech specific findings, themes and implications of the 2018 report. Since Meeker has a track record of identifying important trends before most others, it’s probably a good idea to become familiar with them, and to think about what they mean for your organizations.

(For a more granular and more targeted way to better understand how new and emerging technologies are changing work and workplaces, be sure to attend this year’s HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas in September.)

Personalization (and Its Close Relative, Consumerization)

In the report, Meeker highlights some of the internet’s most successful companies, such as Facebook, Spotify, Netflix, Waze and others. She points out that a major portion of their success is driven by their ability to tailor and personalize experiences for individual users–even while having massive user bases of millions (or in Facebook’s case, billions). These applications and services become more valuable and sticky because they consistently deliver to users precise and personalized data, information, and most importantly, recommendations.

Many if not most of you have used at least some of these services and can easily see how this level of personalization is a benefit. Meeker recognizes that these companies can create highly relevant and personalized experiences by virtue of possessing massive data sets–everything people “like” on Facebook, stream on Netflix or routes they drive with the help of Waze. Large data sets, combined with smart machine learning (more on that later), allow these services to seem incredibly personal, while scaling to an enormous level.

What other technology companies possess massive data sets? How about the large HR-technology solution providers, the largest of which possess data on millions of employees, candidates and organizations? This push toward increased personalization, powered by “big data,” will be one of the keys for HR leaders seeking to both increase employee adoption and unlock information, insight and decision support from HR data. HR leaders, especially ones who utilize technology from the larger HR-technology providers, should push hard on these providers to ensure that they are making the most of all that data and that the benefits of that exercise are being passed back to customers.

The On-Demand and Flexible Workforce

One of the “tells” that I look for in the annual Internet Trends report is the number of slides in the presentation devoted to a single topic. I use that as a proxy for the relative importance of a subject. So when I saw that about a dozen slides were dedicated to the “on-demand” or “gig” labor market, I had to conclude that this is indeed an increasingly important element of the workforce, and one that HR leaders will need to have top-of-mind.

Here are just a couple of HR-centric statistics that were shared in the report:

  • 77 percent of workers feel technology has made it easier to find freelance or on-demand work assignments;
  • The freelance or on-demand workforce is growing three times faster than the total workforce; and
  • 46 percent of on-demand workers feel that the ability to control their own schedules is the primary benefit of working on-demand.

There’s plenty more data and stats in the report, but I think you understand where this is heading. On-demand (Uber, Instacart, Upwork, etc.) are all growing, and some of the primary reasons why they are growing are due to the deficiencies in “traditional” employment arrangements. Schedule control, flexibility, the notion of being one’s own boss–these factors are contributing significantly (along with the technology platforms themselves) to this increase in the gig workforce.

So what’s the impact of this trend for HR leaders? Well, there are at least two separate but important considerations. One is ensuring that the organization is prepared, both functionally and technologically, to embrace, engage and leverage the growing on-demand and freelance workforce. While taking control of the budget for these workers from operations or procurement is one step that can be taken, another involves making sure that you have a deeper knowledge of the primary platforms and communities where these workers can be found.

Second, HR and organizational leaders–especially if they prefer the traditional employment relationship–should consider how to adapt and change workplace policies to better connect with what these on-demand workers are seeking. Flexible scheduling, control over working conditions, freedom to make decisions and to act more like an entrepreneur–all of these appeal to people pursuing on-demand work arrangements. Thinking more about what modern, flexible workers are seeking can be a way to remain relevant in an increasingly on-demand labor market.

Artificial Intelligence (Because We Had to Talk About AI in a Technology Piece)

At this point in the AI conversation, we must move past the idea that “AI is coming” and lead right to answering the question, “How will AI really impact my business?” Meeker offers some important context, and helps frame our thinking about how AI can, and hopefully will, change workplaces and be an extension of the HR function.

There were a couple of interesting data points from the presentation on the AI topic. One was from a survey of CIOs who placed AI as the second highest area for increased spending in 2018. Second, Meeker points out that understanding data is both a key driver of customer understanding and enables the AI-powered ability to generate predictions.

In the face of increased spending and innovation in this area, the challenge for HR leaders is how to proceed with AI projects in a meaningful and pragmatic way.

First, HR leaders will need to temper any overenthusiasm that their CIO or the CEO may have about AI. As most HR leaders understand, applying AI technology to HCM processes such as hiring and promotions is not all that straightforward. Human biases can still find their way into AI-powered HR processes, since the processes and algorithms are developed by people. Second, “AI for HR” suppliers must be prepared to address such areas as transparency, accountability and fairness. If an algorithm produces a set of candidates to interview or to promote or to include in a high-potential group, HR leaders should have visibility into just how those recommendations were made.

I have always advocated that HR leaders benefit from a solid understanding of the macro trends in the workforce, education and certainly in technology. We have great resources for labor-market analysis in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and for higher education in the Chronicle of Higher Education (among others).

In the technology field, I would rank the annual Internet Trends report as similarly essential reading to help HR leaders–or really any business leader, for that matter–understand how major trends in technology could impact their business and their people in the future.

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. 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.