When used effectively, human resource systems can elevate HR’s role in supporting organizational strategy. A critical component of any such effort is identifying and fulfilling talent requirements — present and future. How to make that happen is the job of Chris Pinc, global director of product management at Willis Towers Watson, were he is responsible for leading the vision, strategy development and ongoing enhancement of the company’s human resource software line. He recently shared his thoughts with EBN; edited excerpts follow.

EBN: How does HR technology not just support, but in some cases, lead a corporation’s strategic decision making?

Chris Pinc: It is critical for organizations to think realistically about what they can implement in terms of forward-facing talent strategies that support their business strategy. Software can definitely help analyze how quickly you can hire people in certain roles, future attrition rates, which roles you’ll want to use contractors or contingents for instead of full-time employees, and the available labor pool for that kind of role. That kind of forecasting is absolutely essential to helping organizations think through how they can implement on a business strategy.

EBN: So, HR technology becomes critical to an organization’s business strategy?

Pinc: Yes, but the distinction I’m drawing is the difference between business strategy and talent strategy. Business strategy is, “We need to be able to develop this new product and deliver it at X cost in order to compete against Y competitors.” But talent strategy is, “How do we find the talent to develop the product, who can deliver it, who can sell it, and where is that talent available, and what kind of talent does it require?” So absolutely, software is critical in terms of developing and implementing on talent strategy that, in turn, supports the business strategy.

Chris Pinc

EBN: It’s not enough just to find the people you need and get them in the door. How can HR systems help to keep those people focused and engaged?

Pinc: There has been a lot of exciting evolution and innovation in employee engagement, and it starts with measuring. The world has moved beyond using only traditional annual employee surveys, although those are still valuable. Most organizations are realizing that they need to supplement their annual survey with additional listening tools and to get employee feedback on a much more regular basis.

EBN: And how do you do that?

Pinc: People provide feedback all the time in their lives outside of work, whether that be on Yelp, or through social media. They’re looking for more and more opportunities to provide work feedback besides when they’re at work. Organizations are getting smart about incorporating more frequent pulse surveys, looking at the employee experience from end to end — starting from the pre-hire process and on-boarding, listening to employee feedback and then all the way through to the end of exit surveys. The smartest organizations are compiling that information and looking at it together in a single software product and starting to draw out interesting conclusions about what engages employees at different stages.

EBN: What about software that is supposed to make employees more engaged?

Pinc: You see that a lot in the recognition space. For example, a company might give an employee 50 points for doing a great presentation. When that happens, the employees feels more engaged. I think the jury is still out on whether that really works to increase engagement. But I definitely think that the right software can help you attract and retain the right talent, and the wrong software can be disengaging if people feel like they’re using something that’s old and clunky — if it’s not consistent with the experience that they expect out of technology. I think that there’s a lot more value in understanding what uniquely motivates your people and building the kinds of changes in your organizations to allow those people to thrive and be more engaged.

EBN: What about software that does employee surveys. Are those packages basically a commodity item, then, or are some better than others?

Pinc: The right software will tell you what every pocket of the organization thinks about a topic, and can analyze those results based on a lot of variables — like where they work, how large their team is, who their manager is, etc. It’s the granularity of the reporting that good software enables. It makes it easier for managers to understand what they need to focus on.

EBN: Are you just talking about individual surveys with a fixed set of questions and a multiple choice answer format, or…

Pinc: No. There are some cool new technologies out there that allow organizations to have interactive conversations with employees, online chats and jams, for example, where a moderator will send out a question and then people can respond to that question in real time. It’s sort of like doing a focus group, but doing it with hundreds of people at once.

And another thing that’s really catching on in is giving feedback back to individual employees about their own experience. Instead of a survey where all of the responses are aggregated, there are tools that help employees understand more clearly what it is that they care about at their work. Through the right kinds of questions, you can help people think about what’s really important to them, what’s bothering them, and what isn’t, then give feedback on where they can take advantage of what their company has to offer to become more engaged. We call it a personalized engagement solution.

EBN: Is that automated?

Pinc: Yes. The way that we deliver to our own clients is we work with them to understand what programs they do offer. For example, giving employees an opportunity to get paid for a day for community service. The reports that are automatically generated to respond to employees’ comments will pull in specific references and hyperlinks to say, “You can take advantage of your volunteer day and not have it count against your PTO balance, click here to find out how to file your time in the right way.”

EBN: Returning to the bigger picture, how does senior management get a comprehensive — but not overwhelmingly complex — look at what’s going on with employees?

Pinc: The really good software can provide “heat maps” that show you which parts of the organization are doing well, and which ones are doing poorly. You often find trends and can isolate, for example, certain leadership characteristics associated with the parts of the organization that are doing well and have high employee engagement.

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