Technology played a huge role in shaping the direction of HR strategy in 2017. As organizations struggle with the rapid pace of change, challenges in implementation, and digital skills gaps, being nimble enough to take advantage of emerging technologies has become more important than ever. If done correctly, effective leverage of tech can lead to significant progress for the HR function as a strategic center rather than an order-taking and operations-focused unit.
Here are some highlights from the year that was in HR tech:
Tech Titans Entered the Fray
In the past year, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have made major plays in the business services space, with implications for HR in recruiting, productivity/collaboration software, and more. Google launched an expanded job search offering in June, which serves job seekers as well as large and small businesses. Most recently, in November, the online search giant added functionality for tablet in addition to desktop and mobile and the ability to independently estimate a salary range for job postings based on publicly available data.
Following its acquisition of LinkedIn in 2016, Microsoft began to make some interesting plays in this space last year. To start, the Seattle-based software company has been hiring AI talent by the thousands and plans to develop connectivity between LinkedIn profile data and Office 365 services such as the Outlook mail client. It will also connect LinkedIn data to its Dynamic sales and recruiting platforms, allowing users to quickly get background information on prospective targets. Dynamic will also have an AI-powered virtual assistant to help users with troubleshooting and completing various tasks. Additionally, Microsoft Word will be able to suggest job postings on LinkedIn to users as they are updating their resume, which stands to streamline the job search process for many candidates. Microsoft is also reshaping the next version of its Hololens headset as a powerful enterprise tool.
Microsoft also launched a Workplace Analytics tool as an add-on to Office 365 enterprise plans. The software captures metadata from email and calendars to help companies understand how employees collaborate and spend their time. It could be particularly helpful for understanding how high-performing teams are different from average ones. Microsoft is also launching an AI tool on the Azure Machine Learning suite called Pendleton, which helps with data collection, preparing, cleaning, and analysis.
Amazon is hoping its voice-activated virtual assistant Alexa, which has proven very popular as a household convenience, can deliver the same value in the workplace. In early December, the online retail powerhouse announced the Alexa for Business offering at its annual AWS re:Invent conference. This comes as a marquee addition to a suite of existing offerings from Amazon Web Services, including Workspaces and WorkDocs. Alexa can be programmed with “skills” or apps for business uses such as turning on lights, connecting to conference lines, and managing schedules. Alexa for Business will also be able to connect with third-party services such as Microsoft Office or the Google G-Suite.
Perhaps the most surprising of the tech titans to make big plays in the enterprise market in the past year was Facebook, though in hindsight, it looks like a natural fit. After launching an employee collaboration platform called Workplace in late 2016, the social media giant partnered with ZipRecruiter to expand its job search capabilities and began testing a wide range of options and features to help connect its massive user base to prospective employers.
These forays by some of the largest and most successful companies in the world confirm that technology will continue to drastically reshape how business is done in the coming years. These titans are investing heavily in the talent and assets to get a piece of the enterprise software pie, in competition with some of the more established companies like Oracle and SAP. We can expect this heightened competition to continue driving innovation in this space in the coming years.
HR by VR
As the cost of virtual reality technology goes down, we’re starting to see it used in a variety of workplace applications. In addition to the Microsoft Hololens, Google Glass has emerged as a potentially valuable business tool, though the two technologies are designed for slightly different uses. Microsoft’s headset offering creates more of a closed environment and is capable of displaying much larger graphics, while all the computing power is contained within the headset. Google Glass looks more like a pair of glasses and is less disruptive to the user’s field of vision. It also needs to be connected to a smartphone or computer of some kind to operate. Facebook-owned Oculus and HTC are also selling VR technology directly to companies.
VR has also been used for training purposes, helping the learning and development function standardize and scale training that mirrors real-life situations more closely than any other available option. Walmart has been an early adopter of VR learning, while KFC has also released a campy, gamified chicken-frying tutorial. We have also seen VR being used to support employees’ mental health and wellness, with offerings for anxiety, ADHD, fear of public speaking, meditation, PTSD, and more.
Employee Monitoring: Big Brother or Benevolent Buddy?
Late in 2016, we started to see the emergence of employee monitoring tech in the form of badges that can track an employee’s whereabouts and even analyze their mood based on their tone of voice. Through this tool, companies have been able to make improvements in productivity, such as finding out that socializing improved performance and that adding lunch tables helped employees socialize more.
In 2017, this trend continued, with some employers even experimenting with implanting microchips in employees. The microchip functions like a badge, able to open doors or unlock printers “with the wave of the hand.” While this particular initiative, first undertaken by a Swedish startup, has little to do with monitoring of health or productivity, it’s easy to see how it could. However, corporate fitness tracking programs using bracelets like the Fitbit seem like a more practical option for companies interested in monitoring employee health.
Another application of monitoring technology has been to help companies use space more efficiently. Barclays was among the companies to experiment with the OccupEye devices, which are attached to desks to determine how much time employees spend there. Part of the bank’s success in rolling out this initiative was a clear communication strategy. “The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”
Automating the Process
One of the primary obstacles to widespread adoption of HR technology has been leaders’ hesitation to dive headfirst into the newest technologies, due in part to concerns over which parts of the HR function are suited for a technological transformation. While there are theories for automating everything from performance management to keeping employees from overworking, the most practical applications of automation technology in HR are in more administrative or repetitive tasks. A survey from CareerBuilder found that employee messaging (57 percent), benefit setup (53 percent), payroll setup (47 percent), and background checks and drug testing (47 percent) were the most common processes currently being automated in organizations.
Recruiting is often compared to sales in the sense that certain best practices translate from one function to the other. In sales, automated solutions in lead generation are reshaping the way both B2B and B2C businesses are finding customers. Recruiting seems to be following suit in sourcing, a practice analogous to lead generation in sales. One of the most interesting emerging technologies is an AI-powered sourcing software called Helena by Woo, a recruiting platform provider, which communicates with and on behalf of both the company and candidate to automate the candidate identification and screening processes. The company claims that 52 percent of Helena-sourced candidates make it to the interview stage, whereas human-sourced candidates move on at a rate of around 20 percent. Woo’s founder steadfastly believes he can automate the entire recruiting process.
Additionally, with so many companies folding AI into their products, not just in the HR tech space, demand for AI talent has skyrocketed. Microsoft more than doubled the headcount for its AI division and Amazon gave priority choice in the hiring process for engineers to its new Alexa for Business offering. Even the auto industry is playing ball, as Ford acquired a majority stake in an AI development startup as it competes with the likes of Google and Tesla in the race to develop fully automated self-driving vehicles.
Enabling Diversity and Inclusion
A number of major companies and startups are working on solutions to help businesses improve their ability to attract and retain diverse employees. SAP announced intentions to add functionality to its SuccessFactors recruiting platform, which will scan job descriptions for terminology that indicates bias towards men and recommend changes to attract more diverse candidates. It will also monitor performance ratings to find women who are overdue for promotions or identify if they experience a dip in ratings after taking maternity leave. Many other companies are working on solutions for reducing bias in the hiring process. They have their work cut out for them, however, as algorithms are only as good as the data that feeds them and there is a lot of evidence that most companies’ data is highly flawed.
Ultimately, this investment in developing diversity-enabling technology shows that diversity and inclusion are becoming more than just PR initiatives, as Quartz’s Sarah Kessler wrote in August, highlighting some of our research at Gartner:
Analysts at Gartner predicted in a March 2017 research note that by 2020, more than 75% of large enterprises will include features that promote diversity and inclusion in their selection process for HR software. John Kostoulas, a co-author of the report, told Quartz that companies have historically monitored diversity mainly to avoid breaking anti-discrimination laws, but he believes that they will take a more holistic approach as evidence continues to build for the case that diversity contributes to businesses in other ways.
It can be hard for businesses to keep up with the rapid pace of change as the capabilities of software and hardware accelerate so quickly. Leaders of large organizations will need to carefully consider the costs and benefits of making technological investments that could fundamentally transform the way they operate. The most successful types of technologies will be those that take much of the busywork out of existing processes in a way that is minimally invasive. Though 2017 was another great year for innovation, adoption is still low as leaders are increasingly less confident in the direction to take their technology strategy. At CEB, now Gartner, our HR practice will be closely studying the best ways to implement technology over the course of 2018.