Interview with an HR Tech Expert – what you need to know and how to thrive

Penny Daniels | 4th May 2018

Brief background on Jeff

Jeff is an effective change and transformation thought leader with 30 years experience in the Consulting, Investment Banking and Technology sectors – working for multi-national Fortune 100 brands for 18 years in NYC, then hyper-growth technology companies for 14 years in the UK. View his LinkedIn here.

“Hi Jeff! Firstly, can you explain to me what you do and how you got into this field of work?”

I have been in talent management and HR for over 25+ years now – working in big multi-national businesses for the first half of my career in NYC, then in hyper-growth technology companies since 2004 here in the UK.

I’ve combined my learning, failures and victories to realise that where we need to focus our attention is on treating employees like customers of our policies, processes, tools and environments. We must listen to them carefully, watch how they work, track all manner of metrics and use data analytics to derive actionable insights as to where there are gaps and problems we can fix as cross-functional teams.

I now operate as a Consultant for The Pioneers, and what I bring to the table is that human-centred design methodology called Employee Experience. I help companies understand what they’re wanting to get done as an organisation – then connect that intelligently to what their employees think is the best way to do so – with their interests, development goals and personal approaches added into the consideration process.

“Why are you passionate about Technology and HR, and why do you feel it’s such an important subject?”

I’ve always been a person who loves a great piece of technology that radically changes my life for the better. I was a huge sci-fi punter growing up – and would almost start to believe that the things happening on Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001 A Space Odyssey and a host of other shows and movies were actually real. But I noticed something important in all of those movies – in that the technology alone was never the answer. It was rather supportive of what the humans in those stories wanted to get done, wanted to learn or needed to achieve.

The same is true for HR and productivity tech today – if it’s going to be great, it needs to blend seamlessly into the everyday activities of human interaction – be there when needed, not stop the natural flow of things – and actually accelerate human activity by taking away the boring and mundane whilst propelling people forward toward their goals.

It’s absolutely critical that technology steps in at this stage of our existence in organisations. We’ve now got to automate, delegate and outsource non-core administration, compliance and governance activities – allow machines to manage our tangled complexity – so that we can keep a fresh perspective, strategically shape the futures of our companies and get a lot more intelligent about our employees, our organisational structures, how information flows, what our competitors and disruptors are doing differently – and to embrace a mentality of continuous improvement and constant innovation. You can’t do that if you’re still stuck in the 1980’s moving pieces of paper around between file cabinets.

So embracing applications, tools and digital platforms that facilitate smooth transactions, while tracking all the data and activity behind the scenes for later interrogation is the way forward. That goes way beyond HRIS core HR, ATS, LMS and other basic systems – it’s about all the moments that matter. It’s candidate attraction, integrated flow through to ATS, AI bots, connected hiring and onboarding processes, an intelligent linkage between your company and departmental goals, your performance, your skills and behavioural gaps, learning systems and your progress and project access at work. It’s about making the annoying hard stuff simple whilst letting you and your managers get on with important thinking, working, producing and delivering.

It’s also about tracking and ensuring that we are listening to one another – and tracking what’s important to us human beings – like our emotions, our connections, our sense of belonging and support, our personal sense of our own development and growth – and how we feel about those we work with, for and who work for us. If we ignore our humanity, our intrinsic motivators and our spiritual sense of connection – we risk losing the psychological connection so important to an organisation’s success.

We should be utilising HR and productivity tech where it can help enhance, scale and support the changes in the ways people work (agile), the way they communicate their purpose, mission and vision, management capability and employee experience support (such as listening, sentiment and diagnostic support tools).

“How do we ensure that employees don’t feel overwhelmed with technology?”

Employees can feel overwhelmed with multiple applications they need to utilise – covering things like HRIS, CRM, Finance, Project Management, Communications, Social Connection, and a host of BI tools that were originally meant to make life easier (for the company and its support teams like HR, Finance or Sales & Marketing). But seldom do we think about the knock-on effect that has on a single employee who has to seemingly report on every little thing they think, do or say.

What I see now is a move toward building integration platforms – which capture all the applications within a personalised portal with one-click access, single sign-on, and the ability to personalise how you group your applications together – much like you can shape your smartphone experience. Designing integrated environments in this way takes some of the hassle out of quickly accessing, connecting and using everyday tools that can remove anxiety and frustration from the user experience.

“How can a focus on workplace culture and employee experience link to productivity & business performance?”

I would point to the continually enhanced listening tools we used to refer to as ’employee engagement surveys’ as they are now adding in layers of analytics, actionable insights, communication and learning tools that HR can use to diagnose areas of focus, managers can use to address their own capabilities, leadership can use to gauge sentiment – and employees can use to develop a stronger sense of how their contributions support a more engaged team, department and overall sense of satisfaction working there.

Simply taking a survey and staring at the results for a year doesn’t fix things, nor create any goodwill with employees that shows they’re being listened to and are engaged in solution development. Beyond engagement and sentiment, there are terrific OKR transparency tools that link organisational targets and goals with business intelligence tools through API connectors – which then create a company-wide, visible dashboard showing daily how close the company is coming to meeting their objectives and key results. Then using digital tools to link their activities and projects to those higher order goals can create a well-aligned sense of meaning and personal progress in contributing to the success of the company.

“Are millennials focused on mission and purpose?”

This notion of wanting to work for a purpose isn’t a new thing – as I believe the search for a mission and purpose – that sense that there must be meaning in our lives – has punctuated our human existence for thousands of years. We’ve come to an interesting time in our social and cultural evolution in many parts of the world where our focus is now to seek meaning, purpose and a sense of mission to activities such as work – where we spend most of our time. The fact that this happened during the emergence of the Millennial generation, I think, is just coincidence. The forces driving this also stem from being sick and tired of people behaving badly – becoming entangled in corrupt practices, fraudulent behaviour or greedy manipulation.  We’re sick and tired of being lied to, stolen from, manipulated and coerced into doing things that we don’t spiritually profit from.

We expect more from our leaders. We want to hold one another accountable for how we treat one another – and we’re suddenly realising that charity starts from home, from within, and that if we don’t change the systems that govern our lives – we’ll never be free of these chains. So, seeking purpose, meaning and mission that is aligned with our values are essential to our sense of connectedness. It’s not just about the money – it’s about who we are, what we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re making the world and our lives a better place.

Below is a model of intrinsic motivation – that we often use as an aggregate of solid behavioural psychological research, to underpin what people often seek in terms of engaging with the world around them – especially in the work context:

Sources of intrinsic motivation

“Do you think the current availability of information has changed our relationship with work?”

In an era of open accountability and intense media coverage, it’s never been more important to ensure we’re acting in a fair and open manner toward our people – treating their peers and themselves in ways that communicate fairness, consistency, clarity and alignment with their own values. This is a very powerful and often discomforting area for companies, who in the past have managed their environments with impunity – only having to fend off the occasional bit of bad press about a bad leaver, poor management or a seemingly isolated case of misbehaviour.

Now with the advent of anonymous chat platforms – employees feel empowered – and possibly emboldened – to share what their experience is like with employers. Naturally, the negative stuff always grabs the headlines – but there are a substantial number of employees talking about the positive elements too – which is where I think companies should strive toward – a positive Net Promoter Score and doing the things that create authentic, unsolicited ambassadors for their employment brand.

“Is there a focus towards employees being customers?”

The notion of ‘consumerisation’ of the employee experience sounds all a bit fancy – but it’s actually very simple. Our experience as consumers here in the Digital Age has put us in a challenging paradox. We have suddenly been spoiled rotten with our mobile smartphones and tablets as we’re seemingly able to get just about anything we want, from anywhere in the world, delivered to our doorstep in an almost unreasonable short time – all with the touch of a button, a swipe of an online payment app, or simply a fingerprint or facial recognition capture. There is no waiting, only instant gratification. The way you want it, always.

Then you walk into most work environments (or try to sign in via a company VPN so you can work remotely), and what is your experience? Dull, slow, inaccurate, painful, and almost the exact opposite of our consumerised experience outside work. So why do we suddenly ignore that special consumer relationship at work? Because you get a paycheck and some benefits, so why are you complaining?

We’ve always held this belief that since we’re compensating people to work for us, we get to decide how you should work, where we want you to sit, and that you should do things the way we want you to – without complaint and with speed, as this forms a sort of unwritten contract (based on some flimsy presumptions about human behaviour).

If people were only motivated by money, some medical benefits they rarely use and a seat and laptop to work on – employers would be dancing. But what’s happening instead is that it’s become a candidate’s market with record low unemployment – especially in emerging technology areas where talent is scarce, to put it mildly – and where the notion of changing employer is more the rule than the exception.

Thus – engaging with passive and active candidates, new hires and tenured employees as if they were consumers of your employee experience – and to link that to your brand and intentional customer experience – is critical to building a psychological ‘stickiness’ that communicates employees matter, as individuals, and that they are worth the extra effort in treating them like valued contributors across every aspect of their journey. This then all ties into creating internal evangelists and external brand ambassadors, who will likely contribute strongly toward your mission, vision and values – creating a positive, virtuous circle.

“There’s so much literature about HR Tech at the moment… what should business owners and HR Directors focus on in terms of technology over 2018?”

I think that, beyond core HR, ATS and LMS tools – the most important and commercially impactful technology I would focus on would be in the productivity and collaboration space (how to get work done together, virtually, regardless of time zone, geographic location or proximity to the office – and I would also focus on building out feedback and data/sentiment capture mechanisms that address the virtuous feedback loop.

Getting your employees tied into what the company is trying to accomplish, how it measures success toward those goals, and then cascading and linking those activities to department, team and individual objectives are essential now too – with a great degree of automation.

Gtmhub is an adopter of John Doerr’s OKR process, wherein the Executive Board decides what it’s top 3-4 objectives and key results are for the year, and then openly publishes those to the entire company – for them then to align their activities to those OKRs. The magic of companies like this is that they seamlessly link all of a company’s BI tooling through API connectors to capture data input in real time, which then overlays onto a digital dashboard that visualises the progress you’re making towards your OKRs as a company – all the way down through to team level views. This then acts as a diagnostic for management to pinpoint success and failure to achieve objectives, whilst acting as a living document that communicates what’s important every day. Not just at your quarterly review meetings when the boss happens to be in town.

This has a huge impact on performance, being connected to a mission with very specific parameters – so you know what you’re meant to be doing every day you walk into the office. This is where HR should focus its time – not just on tools that make life easier for them as administrative, compliance or governance functionaries. This is how you make a strategic impact on the business’ success and what ties employees to mission, vision and action.

“What isn’t working?”

Isolation and siloed thinking and acting are EXACTLY what doesn’t work anymore – and very much what the Digital Age is seeking to solve. Today it’s all about integration, seeing the whole picture and understanding the context within which you’re operating, to then inform your next decision, your new approach to the market, and what your customers and employees are thinking. This is what the promise of digital transformation is all about – connection, intelligence, holistic thinking and acting. Silos are so 1980’s and there is literally no excuse for continuing that behaviour, unless you’re out of touch, afraid to expose your weak position, short-view minded or generally paranoid. If you see this behaviour happening in your organisation – address it urgently and openly as it’s a poison that will kill your company’s productivity and ability to win anything.

“What do you believe are the most exciting innovations and impactful technologies are within this space?”

I think the most exciting stuff is literally just coming online today – in the AI space – where connectivity, collaboration, problem-solving and complexity reducing software are helping to accelerate our daily impact on business success – by taking on the boring, mundane, administrative, data compilation and examination stuff out of the equation, which bogs us down massively and prevents us from moving quickly to strategic understanding. Online today, there are a host of tools addressing almost every aspect of the employee lifecycle – but especially around passive candidate attraction, recruitment, onboarding, performance and learning management, team dynamics and cross-functional, agile working.

I think this is the space to watch as this is what may finally lift HR people out of their ‘meter-maid’ administrative challenges and shift them toward becoming truly strategic in their activities.

“Which are three HR Tech companies that you think worth mentioning/recommending?”

Honestly there are too many to go into as there are something like 600 HR technologies out there – addressing all elements of the employee life cycle –  but if I had to pick an area where I think it really matters – it’s in cognitive HR tools like those represented by IBM’s Kenexa (for large enterprises).

But also it’s in areas that really solve powerful challenges for organisations such as passive recruitment (finding great people casually looking who fit your requirements and getting them coming to you for a targeted role), remote workforce management and gig economy talent management, building diversity and hiring without bias, gamification intersecting with personal assessment to tease out unconscious strengths, weaknesses, preferences, emotional intelligence and a variety of other fascinating capabilities, and finally in learning & development – when you need it, always available and highly relevant to immediate and medium term needs.

Tools I like in these spaces include PhenomPeople for passive recruitment marketing, InteriMarket for gig economy management, Cognology for onboarding, performance management and learning, Cognisess for self-development, linkage to skills assessment, career moves and learning, The Happiness Index for engagement between employees and customers.

“It’s very much a “sellers’ market” in the war for talent, so what would your one piece of advice be to HR teams with regards to using technology to stay ahead?”

It’s massive. If you are to be seen as relevant to digital natives – than you better attract them with some whizzy cool tech that comes across as game-changing and solves very complex challenges and accelerates employees to be able to do more, faster, with more skill and strategic insight.

Also – you better have tech that is well distributed, secure, highly available on any device, easy to use, powerful in its capability and can be personalised to the user’s preferences – or you can expect low adoption, reduced productivity and lower morale and disenchantment with your company’s vision and mission. The right tech should offer seamless ease of use, propel your processes forward and smooth out rough edges previously caused by bottlenecks, unnecessary or disruptive bureaucracy and manual processing at a snail’s pace.

So Yes! I think absolutely you should be seen as a smart employer, using intelligently designed and well-integrated HR and productivity tools in a manner that is mutually beneficial to both the organisation and the employee. It should be offered via a secure, single sign-on personalised portal environment – and be available from anywhere, anytime on any device.

Your use of technology tech should help inform employees how they’re performing, where they need learning and new skills and know whether they’re having a good week or a bad week and whether they will be rewarded or course-corrected accordingly.

Do this well – and you’re in with a good chance of future-proofing your workforce and attracting the right people to you. Do this poorly, or not at all – and I’ll see you in the CNBC or Bloomberg funny pages as that company that just didn’t get it…