Are We Ever Going to Learn the TM Lesson?

Perhaps the two most striking observations by this attendee while sitting in the HR Technology® Conference’s “Fourth Annual Talent Management Panel” were that the message was still the  same as in past years — know your business and its goals before you buy — and that the room was still just as crowded, with a standing-room-only crowd lining the walls.

Clearly, the message has yet to be fully absorbed. Consider the second half of the session’s title: “How Talent Management Failed and How to Fix It.” For such a panel discussion to draw this kind of crowd, the pain points around integrated-TM failures and fears of failures are still pretty acute.

Guided by moderator Jason Averbook, co-founder and CEO of Knowledge Infusion, each of the four panelists — Mary Beth Drake, vice president of HR planning and services for The McGraw-Hill Cos.; James Dwyer, vice president of HR operations and service delivery for MetLife; David Klein, manager of co-worker services technology for CDW; and Michael Peterman, director of HR administration for the Four Seasons hotel company — pulled no punches in relaying their pains. All four, as billed, had failures to share.

By varying degrees, those failures sounded similar: inabilities to put infrastructures in place before entertaining vendor bids; no core data, such as skills and competencies, business goals, etc., gathered beforehand to build a system on; allowing vendors to make incorrect assumptions that their would-be clients had their houses in order; the list goes on.

And by varying degrees, the warnings resonated with ones issued to standing-room-only crowds of the past: know your business goals going in, know what you want the tools to do before taking them on, make sure everyone in the organization is speaking the same talent-management language.

And this gem from Dwyer: “”We drank the magic juice from the vendors and let them convince us they could solve all our issues. Don’t drink the punch.”

To put it “shortly and sweetly,” said Peterman, “we weren’t ready to implement a talent-management system [several years ago]. Make sure you have your house in order and make sure your data is very clean.”

He went on to describe the scope of his company’s failed attempt to streamline and perfect its TM strategies among 85 hotels in 38 countries and some 35,000 employees. “We basically broke perfectly fine software by not reconfiguring it properly to meet our needs and business architecture. It’s kind of a mess right now at Four Seasons.”

For years, said Drake, “every time we would talk about talent management, we’d talk about five or 10 minutes about business strategy and then start looking for vendors. The business-strategy discussion needs much more time and focus.”

“At the end of the day,” she added, “know what you’re after and what the vendors are after. Know what the vendors can do and what they can’t do.” No one vendor can do all aspects of the talent-management space perfectly, she added. “No one can do it all.”

It’ll be interesting to see where these echoed warnings land, and whether integrated TM will ever be the success story that was anticipated some five or so years ago. Let me just say that when Averbook asked for a show of hands from totally satisfied customers, only one hand in that sea of people was raised.

The Great HCM Debate, Part 2

Workforce planning and analytics: What do they really mean, and what does a workforce planning strategy look like? HR Technology® Conference co-chair Bill Kutik asked the two participants in The Great Technology Debate, Gartner managing vice president Jim Holincheck and Knowledge Infusion CEO Jason Averbook, to give their thoughts on the topic.

“Analytics are great if you have a great data structure in place,” said Averbook. “It also helps if analytics are really ‘in your face’–Amazon, for example, has a great metric: ‘People who bought this book also bought this book.’ That’s an analytic that creates some action–‘Hey, maybe I should check out this other book.’ When you create analytics that are actionable, that’s when this space will take off.”

A metric that alerts a business executive that sales are down in a particular region because of a shortage of trained salespeople is a good example of an “actionable analytic,” said Averbook.

Workforce planning technnology that lets companies predict labor trends and costs, and adjust their training and recruiting programs accordingly, is still in its first generation, he said. “That’s why this space is so exciting–we’re moving toward that predictability model.”

When asked about social media, Holincheck admitted he is “something of a curmudgeon” on the topic–particularly with respect to what he said is the trend of “everyone trying to embed social media everywhere–it just doesn’t make sense.”

“Some HR departments are very progressive about social media in the workplace but for many others, that’s not the case,” he said. “And, employees are already using Facebook and Twitter–why would they abandon those in favor of enterprise versions you’ve installed?”

Above all, said Holincheck, HR should not attempt to implement a social-media strategy without closely consulting with other departments within the organization. “Other departments are using social media–work with them, have a companywide strategy–otherwise, HR is going to be viewed as just trying to do their own thing, and the effort will fall flat.”

So You Want to Be a Blogger?

Among the many firsts at this year’s HR Technology® Conference is the first-ever Blogger Insight panel.

For those toying with the idea of launching their own blog, the five bloggers comprising the panel – Bryon Abramowitz, Mike Krupa, Trish McFarlane, Laurie Ruettimann and Kris Dunn (who served as the moderator) – offered attendees some practical advice.

The panelists seemed to agree on a number of fronts, including the need to find your own voice. “All five of us have very different approaches,” Dunn said.

Not everyone agreed, however, on what limits, if any, should be set on that voice.

“Be reasonable, do what makes sense,” said Abramowitz, a blogger who is HR technology practice leader at Baker Tilly. “Don’t put things out there that reflect badly on the company.”

Posting something inappropriate not only reflects badly on your company, he said, but could hurt your personal brand as well.

Ruettimann, however, had a somewhat different take.

“Some of us in the room are human and screw up on a daily basis,” said Ruettimann, president of New Media Services and the creator of the Punk Rock HR blog. “If you can’t use Facebook to post [certain] pictures, where is the joy in life? Sure, your blog is an extension of your human brand and is an extension of your human resources department, but you’re also human.”

Even though a record number of bloggers attended HR Technology® Conference in 2010, I suppose the conference should brace for even more in 2011. When Dunn asked how many attendees in the room were considering doing a blog, roughly one-third of those in the room raised their hand.

The Great HCM Debate

Although the HR Technology® Conference’s Industry Analyst Panel switched formats this year to a debate between two industry experts standing behind lecterns instead of the four-member seated panel of conferences past, it featured the same occasionally heated and always-fascinating dialogue between folks who live and breathe this stuff. Moderator and conference co-chair Bill Kutik (who also lives and breathes this stuff) kicked things off by asking the two debaters, Gartner managing vice president Jim Holincheck and Knowledge Infusion founder and CEO Jason Averbook, to define “strategic human capital management.”

“It’s plain and simple–strategic HCM helps companies execute their business strategy,” said Holincheck. “Much of what passes for talent managent has focused on automating existing processes. But that’s not strategic. What you want to be thinking about is, what is my company’s business strategy, and how can talent management help me address that?”

“It’s certainly not about buying technology,” said Averbook. “It’s about answering the question ‘Are we going to buy or build our talent and how are we going to do it?’ It’s a business process, not an HR process.”

A bit later on during the debate, Averbook noted that the days of companies buying software licenses for HR “super users” are long gone. ” “Back in the day, we implemented HR systems for HR users. Today, the consumer is no longer the HR department, it’s the workforce. We want everyone in the company to use these tools,” he said, adding that meant HR had to focus on pushing the new systems out to the workforce and ensuring they’re intuitive and user friendly, much like Amazon and Facebook.

Kutik asked both men to share their thoughts regarding Oracle Corp.’s new Fusion system.

“I see a lot of Gartner clients pursuing a ‘coexistence strategy’–they’re using Fusion on top of their existing Oracle products rather than making plans to install a new system,” said Holincheck.

Regardless of whether Fusion meets expectations, Averbook said, it will still give Oracle a big advantage simply because of the integration factor. “We tell folks to go look at best-of-breed solutions–well, what good is best of breed if you don’t have a way to tie those systems together? If you don’t have a foundation to do that, then best of breed is a waste of time.”

“You don’t need a single vendor to tie it all together,” said Holincheck.

“I’m not saying you need a single vendor, but you do need a strategy,” replied Averbook.

Further on, Averbook castigated vendors for luring customers to SaaS solutions with the “false promise” that they won’t need IT support. “The market’s screwed up because vendors are telling HR clients this–our customers encounter failure when they have no IT support for their SaaS solutions.”

Room for Improvement in Workforce Analytics

Research presented Wednesday night at the HR Technology® Conference in Chicago suggests employers have a long way to go when it comes to effectively applying workforce analytics to whatever problem or issue they’re trying to solve. The study, conducted by Ventana Research and presented by eThority, will be unveiled in full on Oct. 7 in a live webinar, but the sneak preview indicates a real gap between what most companies view as the value of workforce analytics and what they’re actually getting out of them.

Although the actual number of organizations polled has yet to be released, the indication is that over three-fourths (77 percent) consider the performance of their workforce to be the most important metric, and performance reviews are the most regularly applied type of analytics in half of them.

But when it comes to using workforce analytics effectively, “the research found a number of impediments,” its initial report states — namely, the fact that findings are made completely available to only 19 percent of company executives. What’s more, in 40 percent of organizations, not all the right people are involved in establishing performance indicators. So, in essence, even the statistics being compiled and disseminated are hardly making an impact at all.

“For workforce analytics to benefit an organization, they must be available to the people in a variety of roles and responsibilities who need them,” the report states. “The research found that, in general, the higher the individual’s level in the organization, the more available analytics actually are [generally, they’re available to 52 percent of corporate executives, 44 percent of managers and 32 percent of supervisors].”

The report urges all organizations to survey their people “to learn how widely available analytics are at all levels and determine where the organization could benefit from increasing it.”

Data Predicts Uptick in Spending

Nice to see encouraging news coming from CedarCrestone’s HR Systems Survey, which was officially released at this year’s HR Technology® Conference.

According to CedarCrestone, there should be a nice uptick in HR technology spending in the next few years, with  respondents forecasting 100-percent growth in talent management, social media and analytics/planning applications.

The study, sprearheaded by Director of Research Lexy Martin, also found Software as a Service is continuing to gain momentum, with much stronger growth than what was forecasted in 2009.

(At the same time, the study found companies that utilized talent analytics, on a whole, outperformed those that didn’t.)

Of course, none of this comes as a huge surprise, considering the strong attendance at this year’s event (around 2,500) and the positive mood that seems to permeate the sessions and show floor. But it’s still good to see meaningful data that suggests many companies are either spending on HR technology again or soon will be.

Saving Time with Social Learning

Innovations and new discoveries occur all the time inside organizations. But how can you shorten the time between the moment those discoveries are made and the results  those discoveries will have in terms of increased customer satisfaction or more-efficient internal processes? Cerner Corp., a Kansas City, Mo.-based health-technology company, believes it’s found the answer, said Robert Campbell, the company’s chief learning officer.

Campbell spoke at a panel discussion on social learning at the HR Technology® Conference on Sept. 29. “We created UCern to reduce the time between discovery and adoption,” he said.

UCern is a virtual learning center consisting of threaded discussion lists, a point system that lets users rate the quality of contributors to those discussions, embedded videos and wikis, he said. When employees need the answer to a question, rather than searching for someone within their workgroup who can help them, they can access the discussion lists or the archived discussions for their particular topic. Solutions to vexing problems can be posted on the company’s publicly available wikis, said Campbell, which are available in “published” and “draft” versions. Material posted on published wikis has been verified for accuracy by the company’s experts; material on draft wikis has not yet been verified and is “use at your own risk,” said Campbell. Either way, it’s drastically shortened the time the company previously needed to document and publish information for employees and customers, he said.

Social media technology can, as in Cerner’s example, allow employees to quickly access the experience and knowledge of their colleagues, rather than waiting to take a formalized course or search for documents that may or may not be properly archived, said Jeanne Meister, the panel’s moderator and author of the book The 2020 Workplace.  Nevertheless, many HR leaders are reluctant to embrace social media, she said. They shouldn’t be, she added.

“You have to ask yourself whether your competitors haven’t already embarked on doing this, ” she said. A good place to find out is the website, a database of hundreds of different social-media policies from a wide variety of companies. The database can be searched by industry, so HR can determine whether their company’s competitors are on the social-media bandwagon, said Meister. “Don’t be left behind,” she said.

‘Yelp’ for Rating Managers??

Many of us turn to the website–the site that compiles user reviews of local restaurants and other service providers–when we’re looking for a good place to eat in whatever location we happen to be. But the folks at Cisco Systems are giving some serious thought to creating a homegrown version of Yelp that would let Cisco employees post reviews of their managers in a public forum available to all of the company’s employees, in a fashion similar to the way users rate the newest sushi joint or Italian bistro.

“We’re trying to figure out how ‘ungoverned’ we can be without getting into legal trouble,” said Don McLaughlin, Cisco’s chief learning officer, during a panel discussion on using social media for corporate learning at the HR Technology® Conference.

McLaughlin said he thinks it’s a great idea, although he admitted he’d be a bit worried about getting negatively “Yelped” himself. But the concept ties into Cisco’s long-term strategy with respect to social learning, he said, which is to create a new “capability set” for the company’s next generation of leaders.

Some in the audience were receptive to the idea of a Yelp for managers. “How can you really know what sort of training a manager might need without really frank, honest feedback from his or her direct reports?” one attendee asked.

Others were skeptical. “You might have people afraid to post honestly for fear of reprisals,” said another audience member. “Then you’d also run the risk of managers who are afraid to do anything that might be unpopular for fear of getting trashed.”

“What about combining the employee reviews with hard data, such as metrics on turnover in a manager’s group, and its business performance?” said another. “That might be really powerful.”

Moderator Jeanne Meister, author of the book The 2020 Workplace, said the concept could be an improvement over performance reviews. “Aren’t we all tired of performance feedback that arrives too late? Why not find out immediately if there’s something we may need to improve, skills we need to learn, rather than waiting six or twelve months down the line?”

Face-off on HR Outsourcing

No blood was spilled during the Great Service Delivery Debate, as Phil Fersht and Lowell Williams faced off during a Wed. afternoon session at the HR Technology® Conference. But the two experts didn’t pull their punches either when it came to discussing whether or not HR outsourcing has lived up to its promise.

The benefits of HRO haven’t materialized, suggested Phil Fersht, founder and CEO of consultancy Horses for Sources in Boston.

Consequently, he said, a number of deals have ended up going sour.

Fersht cited Convergys as an example. “Convergys had a great run with HR outsourcing, but in the end couldn’t [make a go of it] and ended up selling the business to Northgate Arinso,” Fersht said. “The whole [first] generation of HRO didn’t work and Wall Street didn’t like it. So people started talking about single process.”

Fersht suggested that the industry is basically back to where it was 10 years ago.

Williams, however, was a bit more upbeat about the model, showing a slide listing 23 HR processes that are being outsourced today.

“The fundamental premise that we could take administrative, repetitive steps out of HR and move them into a service center is a very valid one,” said Williams, executive director of global HR services for EquaTerra, a Houston-based advisory firm.

To be sure, Williams said, HR outsourcing hasn’t fully lived up to its promise. But the benefits of HR outsourcing are equally clear.

If there’s an area employers in need to get better at, Williams added, it’s figuring out “how to repurpose the people in the company once administrative tasks have been outsourced.”

Contingency — A Perfect Storm

I had an interesting visit today at the HR Technology® Conference with the folks from CyberShift, the Parsippany, N.J.-based provider of workforce-management and expense-management software and services. They were telling me about their new product, CyberShift CLMS, designed to help companies through the ever-increasing morass of contingent and nontraditional labor challenges brought on, in good part, by the recession and slow-growth recovery.

But they were also telling me about the opportunities out there, for both employer and employee, in this “perfect storm,” as Morne’ P. Swart, CyberShift’s vice president of product management, put it. His company even has a white paper coming out tomorrow delving into this phenomenon they’re seeing in the world of work.

“Right now, you’ve got more and more employers looking for temporary workers to help them meet their business objectives while maintaining a flexible cost structure,” Swart told me. “At the same time, you’ve got swelling ranks of contingent workers who, quite honestly, are unhappy; they don’t want to return to the old model of work, the model that didn’t work. Because of this economy, contingency is now attractive to them. There’s a real social element to this.”

For an employer wanting to tap into this swelling mass of talent waiting in the wings and frustrated with the conventional model, he said, perfecting the contingency model — which his company can help with — can create the ideal union between the real work world and the new transient and temporary one. Swart likened it to “dating an avatar.” (He did laugh after saying that, but he was serious about the fact that the phenom is growing.)

“With about 26 percent of the U.S. workforce in jobs that, in one way or another, are considered ‘nonstandard,’ it is evident that contingent labor is becoming increasingly important to successful business operations,” said Swart. “How to manage contingent labor processes, such as sourcing and vendor management, efficient scheduling and compliance-risk reduction … all these are new challenges to consider in [standard] workforce planning [now].”