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Let tech and innovation save us from the grubby little opportunists

Sadly it’s been a great year for grubby little, opportunistic men (copyright Will Self) on both sides of the Atlantic. With a society seemingly surprised by how the world has changed we’ve opted to look backwards to nostalgia instead of looking forward to opportunity and progress. “The man in the white hat who always rides in to save us” (copyright Gil Scott Heron).

But much closer to home I’ve felt for a long time the same parallels with the world of work could be drawn. Ever since we left behind the 20th century and all its security of common enduring rules and rituals we’ve been trying to find ways to re-establish some form of control, focusing on CEO moneyball (from business schools to a widening gap in executive pay) to hoping that automation gives us our disruptive credentials to help retain a degree of relevance. Maybe not as grubby but the wanton opportunism shown this year by the likes of Green and Ashley shows we have our own pantomime villains to contend with.

Tasked with taking us forward are two major pillars – innovation (cultural) and technology (enabling) but you see, the problem is, as a profession, one thing we have to take on the chin is our heritage is not one of innovation. Any advances in recent times can arguably be attributed to either HR Technology vendor vision or the organisational best practice provided by the young, unshackled free spirited business leaders in California and beyond who had the gumption and intelligence to build new data-driven companies free of the legacy bureaucratic template we offered up in the west for generations.

A quick potted social history of our time in the last 25 years has seen HR technology vendors and the profession dance awkwardly (and slowly) in pursuit of delivering real impactful workplace change that moves beyond automating our processes and working solely on isolated point solutions :

· The early years (late 20th century) – A time when payroll and HRIS ruled the world, mainly thanks to an environment where we needed to comply with increasing levels of employment record-keeping. Culturally we were hanging on to the old norms of yesteryear whilst they ran out of puff before our eyes.

· The installed HRIS years (the noughties) – A first generation of automated, on-site behemoths of record-keeping client servers got HR all giddy. Built by technologists for technologists, the first systems were devised on the indulgent premise of making our profession’s jobs easier. Any decent UX for the employee or candidate was put aside as non-essential as the first generation of standalone ATS, LMS and PMS was born in separate silos for the benefit of the respective HR family. It provided little or nothing to advance our culture.

· From management to integration (2010+ onwards) – The prevailing narrative was that the HR world required integrated talent management (or bring together the 3 pillars above) to feed the frenzy / hype started by McKinsey. Consolidation took place amongst the dominant vendors but their modular systems, whilst an improvement on the 1st generation, were incomplete and not good at everything. The advances in cloud-based technology on the other hand have created a proliferation of point HR solutions flooding the market (overly fixated on the most broken part of the machine in the guise of recruitment), complete with APIs to help thread an unholy alliance between the ERP legacy (the data pipe) and the innovative new shiny HR software plugged in where the need has been deemed the greatest, or where the sales person was most effective. Unhelpfully, this risks letting HR folk get bogged down in siloed parts of a more complex problem at a time when the rate of change is ramping up what is an organisational system-wide crisis.

· The platform-as-a-service (2015+ onwards) – The growing belief system now is that organisational success is based on creating an intelligent and simpler employee environment that finally puts to bed the bureaucracy and complexity of the last century. That's our North Star. Giving culture and structure precedence, enabling HR technology must mirror the smartphone interface and be available at points of need (to hire, recognise, reward, feedback, empower, collaborate, inform etc) to drive a more connected, collaborative, inquisitive, agile and fact-based form of organisation. Think app, mobile and on the move.

So whilst CEOs, according to Korn Ferry, continue to place technology (think AI and efficiency savings) as a higher priority over people moving forward, it seems that ‘tangibility bias’ continues to be the arch-nemesis of the people profession and our pursuit of relevance. Not shirking from the battle, I firmly believe we have a great opportunity to put culture and innovation front and centre and embrace emerging, enabling HR Tech in the context of reshaping our organisations for the better.

Until next time. Don’t let the grubby little opportunists push us backwards. Let 2017 be the year when vendor and HR get it right.

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