READ the August 2021 issue of our magazine: The Rise of Work Tech
It was often said that we are at our most creative when we are suddenly put under extreme pressure or when we are soaking in a lovely hot bath with a nice glass of wine. Well, the last 18 months or more have certainly proven the former. The proliferation of COVID-triggered HR Software “solutions” has been gargantuan.
Overnight, individuals who had previously claimed would “never run meetings or training sessions virtually” became “experts in remote facilitation.” Providers of virtual platforms such as Microsoft (MS Teams), ZOOM, Verizon (BlueJeans), Webex etc raced to beat each other in the burgeoning virtual meeting space. Collaboration tools, whiteboards, and all manner of applications now litter the HR software market. And, we now have a new raft of acronyms such as AI, EX, BYOD, PCI DSS, 2FA, IOT, NLP, ML, AMP, … the list is endless.
And, now, the modern-day Nostradamuses, inform us that, “HR tech has put employees centre stage.” Top analysts inform us that, “the employee experience is now and will continue to be the primary motivator for HR software development.” HR Tech vendors inform us that their tools will enable us to optimize recruitment, to be more agile, to increase productivity, to enhance employee engagement, and to ensure talent retention. HR technology is where it is at!
Well the hype is there. But are the claimed benefits genuine?
That may sound cynical but let’s be clear, I am very pro-technology. Indeed, I have invested over 35 years of my career directly in systems design and software development. I love it! I was a CEO of a bespoke HR software-house. I have a passion for unleashing potential and transforming performance by designing integrated systems, processes, and working environments that are based on an understanding of behavioural engineering. Therein lies the rub! My training in critical thinking has led me to be conscientiously curious and healthily skeptical about some of what I now see.
So, how do I view our current situation? Prior to the pandemic many, if not most, organisations were in the first of the three classic phases of HR software deployment – “Automate what we currently do” – believing that this brings efficiencies and better access to data. Many of the recruitment, performance management, and learning management systems from that era are either gathering dust or, embarrassingly, being reviewed due to low utilization or ROI.” We automated flawed processes!
The pandemic then kicked us into the second phase – invest in the lastest and greatest available. We scan the market for the newest tools, developed by some of the greatest software brains. We put the decisions in the hands of IT. Sales of SaaS HR software for virtual meetings, remote learning, project management, remote employee monitoring, work and productivity management, employee engagement measurement, etc., have gone through the roof and uch of this software has indeed given us short-term and major benefits.
So, why my continued and evident skepticism?
I have previously written about why I believe that we in HR must develop and maintain a number of skills not typically associated with HR:
- Technology acumen – an in depth understanding of the behavioural engineering power of contemporary technology, not merely knowledge of what is being sold to us;
- Analytical acumen – the ability to measure the impact of contemporary tools, over the medium to long term, not merely the short term;
- Courage – the willingness to question what others believe is obvious until evidence for it is found; the willingness to fight for what we know is right;
- Business acumen – the ability to truly understand the impact of new processes and tools on the core business of our organisations;
- Personal Effectiveness – the capability to put together powerful business cases for HR technology that truly adds value, and to present convincing arguments against those that do not.
Let me share five examples of why I believe the above are necessary.
The availability of technology to support virtual meetings has clearly added substantial value, both personal and professional. Use of these tools has substantially increased the number of interactions between managers and their staff. It has enabled people to maintain social contact. It has increased our ability to share information and reach collective decisions, no longer restricted by the geographical spread of participants.
However, why has there not been the healthy skepticism about it that has flourished over COVID vaccinations? We are only just beginning to see the medium to long-term impacts. We do not know yet whether these will outweigh the benefits. For example:
- We have seen massive increases in the number of meetings with more than two attendees when, prior to COVID, meetings were already a huge drain on individual productivity;
- Virtual meetings have two key downsides that we now know of – social distancing and emotional disconnect. We are losing the informality and flow of peripheral data that face-to-face interactions supported, and the quality, depth, and sustainability of relationships are significantly reduced;
- The novelty of back-to-back virtual meetings is wearing off. People are becoming tired of them. Any apparent initial increase in productivity might not be sustainable (research in the 50’s into the initial positive impact, and its rapid decline, from positive workplace changes predicted this);
- Remote working is leaving managers bereft of behavioural and competence data about their remote employees. That was an issue before the pandemic; it is now critical when organisations are approaching post-vacation talent reviews;
- Remote working is reducing the quality of impact that many individuals now have within their organisations. A recent conversation with an executive level coachee brought that home. He said, “I used to be important around here. Now, I just feel like a blob on the virtual meeting wallpaper.” We have a generation of employees floating in a virtual world, having not yet been equipped to manage their brand or to exert influence through this less personal HR technology.
AI has equipped us with tools to identify causal relationships in big data – to predict attrition; to empirically uncover critical competences; to debias assessments and evaluations; to manage security, to detect emotions during conversations, etc.
However, if left solely in the hands of the technical teams, we can end up building biases and all manner of negative features into its algorithms and features if they do not understand the psychological influences already present in the data that they are analysing.
Collaboration tools have equipped us to engage in asynchronous problem solving and decision making. Far better to equip a team to work on shared documents and in collaboration APPs than get up at 2 am to join a meeting run by someone in another time zone.
Or, is it far better? We now know that a substantial part of a message is conveyed in the tone of voice, the use of pauses, the inflection, the body language, and the facial expressions – ALL of which are missing in most of these collaboration tools. A barrister once told me that the sentence, “I never said she stole the money” if presented as written evidence in a trial could be shown to have over 60 different meanings. Only when the vocal and visual characteristics, conveyed by the spoken word, are there do the true intent and meaning become clear.
There are now many excellent SaaS tools to support performance management. They offer immense flexibility, supporting traditional cyclic processes through to contemporary real-time feedback, agile goal setting, collaborative feedback, etc.
However, do we really want our employees’ performance being “managed” through an APP? Haven’t we learnt that it is the interaction between the employee and the manager that brings out the best? Hasn’t COVID taught us that employees want to know that their manager cares? Yes, these tools make the process efficient. But, I question whether evidence will be there to support the claims of increased productivity, employee engagement, and staff retention.
Many of the larger HR software providers are falling over themselves to copy or emulate others’ features and so persuade us to use them for everything. They even have teams of business development people whose sole job is to penetrate our organisations, to build a set of strong executive level relationships so that they can control our purchasing decisions. Integrated single-vendor solutions is their mantra! For IT, that makes sense. For procurement it is easier. For HR? Not so sure. Isn’t it somewhat hypocritical for those vendors to argue that they help us to be more agile … trapping us into their one application? One of the most prized values of SaaS technology should be the ability through API’s to integrate best of breed applications so that we have the best tools to do each task. As a tiny example in my own case, I am staggered by how many organisations force their trainers to use their virtual meeting platforms for training sessions when the specific platform concerned is far from suitable.
Yes, many of the flood of new HR software tools are very attractive and exciting, and they do have a place in our toolkit. But, we really must assess the cumulative, medium term, and long term impacts before seeing them as panacea solutions. What people like and what most people use are poor criteria for such investments.
As HR professionals, we must bring those five additional skills into play, to partner with IT, to partner with procurement, and to make sure that we move to phase 3 of software deployment – “Optimising the behaviour engineering power of contemporary software tools.”