What it takes to deploy, exploit HR tech

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Employers digitally transforming their human resource departments have a number of key goals, such as reducing their HR administrative burden and making HR performance indicators more actionable so managers can better allocate staff. For insights on how this can be accomplished, Employee Benefit News recently spoke to Jason Averbook, co-founder and CEO of HR advisory company Leapgen. Edited excerpts follows.

EBN: You have declared that HR needs to harness technology more effectively to help their companies thrive in the “new world of work.” What does that mean?

Jason Averbook: It’s about how we make sure that the workforce has the technology to be able to actually do their jobs. Automation of many aspects of work has been going on for decades, but the way employees interact with HR hasn’t. That needs to change.

EBN: What typically brings employers to the point of taking big steps to make that a reality?

Averbook: It usually happens in one of three areas. The first is where they recognize that their data is bad, that they lack the data needed to make decisions. It might be, “Whoa, I have to create a headcount report” or “I have to create a compliance report,” and there’s a sudden realization that the data doesn’t exist to complete that task. The second place where people hit a snapping point comes in recognizing ineffectiveness at work. People will look at Glassdoor and see that their employees are leaving because it’s so hard to get anything done in the organization. The third is when their technology is so old it’s not going to be supported any longer by the vendor, or it’s too expensive to support.

EBN: What’s the underlying driver of all this?

Averbook: The world we live in today is knowledge-based. HR leadership is saying, “Guys, LinkedIn knows more about people than we do. And if LinkedIn knows more about our people than we do, how are we supposed to gain a competitive advantage when it comes to talent?” You can’t compete in the talent war if you don’t know your people, and data is how you know your people.

EBN: Deploying technology is often a challenge. Are there ways to better the odds of success?

Averbook: Yes. It basically requires 45 percent people, 45 percent process and 10 percent technology. That’s what it takes to be successful in deploying technology today. But unfortunately, what most people do is just focus on the technology. They often don’t think enough about the audience for the technology, which increasingly is the workforce, not the HR department.

EBN: And what’s the biggest implication of that, from a technology standpoint?

Averbook: The workforce doesn’t want to use menus to navigate, and it doesn’t have all this time to be trained on new systems when they use them only once every three months or six months. So technology itself isn’t the problem, it’s applying it to the way people actually work. A lot of employers are realizing they deliver a better customer experience than a workforce experience. They know they need to do something about it quickly.

EBN: Such as?

Averbook: Employees should own their own data, just like we do in the rest of the world today, and the HR department should be a benefactor of that data. HR should be able to get the intelligence they need about their workforce. Managers want to ask Siri a question about their workforce, like, “Hey, Siri, when am I going to have a retirement issue?” Or, “Hey, Siri, how many people do I have that know C++?” The technology is there to do that.

EBN: Can you tie this back to the employee experience?

Averbook: We used to think the best way to deliver the workforce experience was high touch -- I’ve got someone to support me, I’ve got someone I can call. The world we live in today, the best workforce experience is digital; most people prefer a digital experience to a personal phone call. They want information in their device right when they need it. We’re not just putting up a poster and hoping that people consume the information on it. We’re actually saying, “Guys, I know you, I know where you work, I know how you think, I know what you’re doing, let’s make sure that I’m only delivering the information that’s relevant to you.”

EBN: But don’t you think employees still want more personal forms of interaction with their bosses and colleagues?

Averbrook: Yes, but I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about just getting stuff done, things that they do infrequently, like changing their address or letting the company know they got married. When it comes to their career path and their goals, we’re not replacing that with technology, we’re nowhere near that.

EBN: But some employers are using their systems to guide employees toward career opportunities.

Averbook: I see that as helpful, but data like that has to be taken as directional. It’s not like payroll where you can give a precise answer down to the penny. But what we are going to be able to do is say, based on the data, here are some trends we should look at and patterns to think about. But is the workforce ready to listen to IBM Watson tell them what they should do next? I don’t think so.

Justworks, Sage and TrackSmart are among the companies offering software that allow workers to handle HR-related tasks, such as scheduling and payroll information.
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EBN: Can HR technology foster employee creativity?

Averbook: Yes, by pushing the right information to employees at the right time. It’s amazing to look at, first, how much more engaged they are, and second, how that engagement drives creativity -- and productivity. So they’re actually byproducts -- you can’t just make someone more creative. But creativity has more of a chance to emerge when employees aren’t bogged down with administrative tasks.

EBN: How does employees’ relaying basic facts about themselves to HR translate into something more than just having that data plugged into a database?

Averbook: Here’s an example. Say an employee asks a Siri-like tool, “My father just died. What do I do?” The system automatically knows who the employee is, and responds that there are two different options. There’s a bereavement policy and counseling resources. It asks the employee whether he wants to learn more or take advantage of them. It’s immediate. The most important part is there is only one place they need to go. So they don’t think, “Oh, do I have to go to HR? Do I have to go to benefits? Do I have to go to payroll.” Digital breaks down these silos.

EBN: In general, how well are HR executives harnessing the analytical capabilities of the systems they have in place today?

Averbook: One of the things that HR has been doing forever is spitting out reports to business leaders -- cost per hire, time to fill, benefit costs, turnover compared to so-and-so’s turnover. And guess what? About 99 percent of managers have no idea what HR is talking about, or don’t know what to do with the information even if they do understand. So, they think, “Hey, great, my turnover is 17 percent, so now what do I do?”

EBN: And what do you suggest?

Averbook: What I call storytelling. Here’s an example. We recently worked with an insurance company where we reduced time to fill open positions from 52 days to 37 days. Cool, all good. We brought it to the CEO and the CEO looked at me straight in the eye and said, “You have to be kidding me. It takes 37 days to fill a job here?” I thought, holy cow, I just expressed it in the terms of HR, but not in the terms of the business. So I turned it around and said, “Guys, you realize we hired 750 insurance agents 15 days faster, and on average they generate $320 a day. We basically generated $5 million in revenue by cutting the time to fill by 15 days.” And the CEO looked at me and said, “That is how I want you to tell me the story.”

EBN: And where does technology fit into this picture?

Averbook: It’s about knowing how to use it effectively to produce meaningful information. Also, new technology can help you with the prescription. In the example I gave, it’s how to reduce turnover. If my time to fill is 52 days, it can help me understand what’s beneath that number and maybe what I can do about it.

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