Why HR leaders can’t let tech be the boss

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The marvels of HR technology’s capabilities grow almost by the hour. No one is more aware of that than tech industry HR veteran Sarah Wagener, who recently joined DoorDash as its chief people officer. The San Francisco-based tech company provides a mobile-app-driven home delivery service from participating local restaurants, using independent contractor “dashers.” It operates in 850 cities in North America.

Wagener’s prior experience in the tech world includes stints at Pandora, Facebook and Genentech. But no matter how high the IQ of your artificial intelligence-fueled HR system, she says, HR professionals are still calling the shots — or at least should be. Employee Benefit News recently discussed the evolution of HR technology and its purposes with Wagener. Edited excerpts follow.

Employee Benefit News: How has HR technology evolved over the course of your career?

Wagener: I entered the field in 1997 when much of HR was managed in binders and paper folders. Technology was viewed more as a necessary evil than an enabler of work. Since then people expect more from technology — and get it. There are all sorts of functionality available that increases the productivity of the entire organization.

EBN: I understand that you weren’t always patiently sitting back waiting for HR applications to come on line to meet your needs in HR…

Wagener: Absolutely. There were times in my career when a technology offering wasn’t available to enable the innovation or the program or the process that we needed at that time. I remember a time when we needed contact management functionality to help enable our talent sourcing pipelines, and there wasn’t a technology offering on the market that supported our requirements. So my team partnered with a company that was able to customize the flow and the functionality in a way that facilitated our process.

EBN: So the idea is to be the master of technology, and not the other way around?

Wagener: Right. You need to build your own process first, and then find the technology to support it, whether or not it’s already on the market. Information technology can be extremely helpful, but it’s still only a tool to meet your needs. You have to figure out what those are; the technology can’t do that for you.

EBN: Flash-forwarding to the present, what are some of the needs you plan to leverage technology for to address at DoorDash?

Wagener: I’m still very new here, but I have some thoughts. As an organization grows, you need to have a way for employees to serve themselves through a portal or through a direct access offering for employees to get what they need in the shortest amount of time.

EBN: What kinds of needs are you referring to?

Wagener: Two examples are access to learning solutions and internal career opportunities. Employee self-service isn’t an end in itself, though. It really matters whether our employees are getting value through a direct-access solution, and are able to access what they need in the shortest amount of time, and go back to doing their job in a really productive way.

EBN: What would be an example of employees not getting value?

Wagener: It could be, for example, direct access to learning offerings that don’t align with the employee’s development needs or with the cultural values of the company. Also, when content is hard for employees to find.

EBN: But it’s up to you, isn’t it, to make sure the content is appropriate?

Wagener: Absolutely.

EBN: What about tools designed to promote employee engagement?

Wagener: Of course engagement is critical, and it can be driven through a variety of things, like professional growth opportunities and direct access to appropriate learning solutions. But another is through recognition, including on a peer-to-peer basis. Peer-to-peer recognition can be an important element of building an inclusive and engaging culture. Technology that facilitates peer-to-peer recognition in a meaningful way is not a heavy lift. As I build our strategy here, that will be something that will be top of mind.

EBN: Any idea what that will look like?

Wagener: There are a lot of real smart people in the tech space developing HR technology who could answer that. If, for example, I have been working with somebody on a project and I think they have been doing a fantastic job, I want it to be easy for me to provide that feedback that makes them feel recognized.

EBN: What other HR goals are you hoping to get help with from technology?

Wagener: Diversity is one. I have seen and piloted a variety of new technologies supporting blind resume reviews that help ensure that you have a broad distribution of people from different demographic segments. It’s incredibly important for DoorDash to grow and retain a really diverse and vibrant employee population. We believe it’s a competitive advantage.

EBN: What other HR technology solutions are you looking for?

Wagener: I think it’s incredibly important to be able to generate reports from the data to generate insights, and gain predictive capability that can help to inform the decisions we make. That requires machine learning and artificial intelligence to help companies consolidate, aggregate and then glean insight from their data, and help them make really good talent decisions. I think that’s really a part of this evolution in the HR tech space, and one that I continue to keep a close eye on.

EBN: I assume you’re looking more broadly than in just your short-term talent acquisition strategy?

Wagener: Yes, getting good people in the door when you need them is just the beginning. Other parts include looking at your employee data generated by your system and being able to assess, for example, the seasonal patterns of the recruiting process. And what are we seeing coming from this talent segment, and what can we expect will happen with it if the trend continues? These are just a few of the forward-looking predictive statements that one can make when they are armed with a very rich dataset and a system that does a lot of the analysis. It’s a great time to be in HR with all of these tools becoming available.

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