Podcast: Vendors Face Noisy, Morphing HR, Workforce Tech Landscape

Technology Landscape

Mark Feffer: Welcome to PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report. I’m Mark Feffer.

My guest today is Ward Christman, founder of HR Tech Advisor and co-founder of HR Tech Alliances. He advises HR technology firms on strategic alliances, partnerships and sales. We’re going to talk about the state of the business, a year into Covid-19…

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In this podcast, we talk with @HRTechAdvisor's Ward Christman about the state of HR technology, a year into Covid-19. #HR #HRTech Click To Tweet

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Ward, welcome.

Ward Christman: Yeah, same here. Thanks for having me.

Mark: You see the industry from a pretty wide perspective, and I’m wondering what you’re seeing out there right now. We’re recording this in February 2021. We’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. How are you seeing the HR Tech industry operate today? What are the demands on them, and how are they going about meeting them?

Ward: Wow. How long do we have here to cover this? That’s a big question. But I mean, from the catbird seat that I sit in on talking to a lot of these executives and the feedback that we get from our clients as we help them go to market as well, it’s particularly noisy out there for the average solution that’s in HR tech and work tech space. So how do you cut through the noise? How do you find your fit actually? Where do you fit in the ecosystem? And yeah, COVID has definitely changed the dynamics of that, even pure SAS play type solutions. There’s still on-premise solutions out there.

But if you look at tech in general, they’ve had to adapt something, if not considerable adaptations, to accommodate the distributed workforce and in particular anything has to do with collaboration or helping employees connect and communicate. Wow. I mean, all the solutions popping up, we’re seeing a lot of shifts towards making the solutions more collaborative, because the employees and even contractors and people that work for these companies don’t have the chance to collaborate the old way in person. And that really changes dynamics quite a bit. And the software has been challenged, I think, in a big way to help with that transition.

Mark: Last week, Microsoft launched Viva into teams and includes a lot of HR capabilities within that. It seems that it stacks up against Slack in some ways, in terms of its approach to providing software, deploying software throughout the organization. And that’s something HR tech vendors can take advantage of. So my question is, do you see more interest from employers in approaches like that, where instead of thinking about an HR tech solution as some kind of standalone, they’re looking for ways to integrate it into other working programs that they’re using throughout the company?

Ward: Yeah, that would make sense. What’s interesting about the environment today, it’s pretty easy to start up a web application company these days, and HR and employees, and even the freelance marketplace type things that are popping up and growing. They’re taking advantage of this wave as well to help people connect and collaborate. And whether it’s a core platform like Slack and Salesforce or Microsoft and their employee experience solution now, you can either build on that or build something that connects to it, so to speak. But having the solutions for employers connect to each other and have the data to flow and the user experience to flow is extremely difficult. It sounds easy on the shirt, “Oh, yeah, we have open APIs or whatever.” It’s never that easy. So the question is, what is your strategy look like?

Sadly, the employers are in a tight spot, because how could they possibly keep up with all this stuff? And most companies of any size have dozens, if not hundreds, of different HR type solutions in-house, and that’s not counting things like spreadsheets, which there’s how many in an average Fortune 10,000 company out there. It’s unbelievable. So I think they’re in a pickle. And thankfully, there are some former HR or IT, HR IT type people out there that are now consulting and advising the employers. We don’t advise the employers directly. We work with the vendors only. But somebody needs to help keep them from making a mess of what sounds like a good thing in a press release from Microsoft, and then they start changing things, and it could get better, but history repeats itself. It usually ends up a spaghetti mess.

Mark: Let’s take a break.

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Ward, It seems that the line between collaboration software and HR software is getting blurred. If you’re thinking about Slack as a delivery vehicle for HR solutions, or TEAMS as a delivery vehicle for HR solutions, those aren’t really what those platforms were built to do. But I do hear more and more people talking about them in the context of HR. Do you hear that too? Or do you perceive any kind of movement? And what’s it mean, if anything?

Ward: Yeah, there’s definitely a movement there. I mean, yeah, Salesforce is making a move. You look at what ServiceNow is doing, moving into more of a product company. I mean, Towers Watson or Willis Towers, whatever they’re called…

Mark: WTW, right.

Ward: Yeah, exactly. It’s like, “All right, it’s too long. Cost too much to advertise.” I remember, even years ago, Unisys was a hardware company, they wanted to become just services. And they did it. They made that migration over a number of years. Now, there seems to be a swing, different directions. But it’s not easy. It’s hard to be both a service, like a consulting type professional service company, and a technology, even SAS type, company where you’re more product oriented. Yeah, if you look at a lot of the ecosystem platforms, like Salesforce, and I guess you can roughly say Microsoft and Din and different things in that portfolio, and now this new thing, that’s the ecosystem environment that a lot of companies are living in, if not exclusively, certainly as part of their collaboration between employees.

And what I think you’re going to see a lot more of is that cross-connect to the freelance world with the Upworks and Fibers and all those different platforms out there. And I don’t know who’s going to be driving that, but it’s probably not going to be employers. Because other than stamping their feet and saying, “This has to work. You told us we could integrate easily, and it’s not.” They play experience. The adage of, “Hey, one solution is all you need.” Which the workdays and even Oracles and whatnot would say that historically has just never proven itself, because there’s too many pieces in that overall puzzle and pie that inevitably point solutions continue to pop up where somebody said, “I need that.” And of course, their flagship platform just can’t bring that tomorrow. Even if they buy the company, it takes time to bring that innovation into the fold of a larger platform type play.

So that’s what I think going to see long-term transition as some of these roll-ups occur. But in the meantime, point solutions are just popping up like unbelievable mounts, and somebody’s going to have to figure out how to make them all play nicely in the sandbox is the way I put it.

Mark: Let me just ask you one more question, which is, again, from your privileged seat, as you called it, I think, what has really got your attention this year in the HR technology landscape? Is there any particular trend, demand, behavior that employers are really worrying about, that vendors really need to be on top of, in your opinion?

Ward: Well, yeah, I would say just frankly, playing nice in sandbox where the vendors aren’t… First of all, there’s an awareness problem. And the employers are partly to blame, because when they go buy these HR tech stuff, they’re usually not very helpful telling them what the environment is. “Hey, we need to replace this system. So if you have that, here’s the RFP. Let us know.” But they don’t have the visibility and love, because the employer’s not sure exactly what they have. But that ecosystem within an employer, again, all those solutions.

So I think that’s got to change somehow. The employers either need to be more open and say, “Here’s the systems we have.” So if they are trying to rip and replace, or just add something on, the vendors are aware of what else is in the soup. If you have a delicious soup, you throw the wrong ingredients, everything just goes sideways. So I think that’s going to be the big challenge, more and more so. Open APIs and things like that can help, but not just saying that we have them, but actually making it easy for the vendors to have that awareness and connection.

There are a number of hubs from a technology standpoint that are popping up all the time that are designed to be more of an interconnection, like the phone systems used to have operators switching plugs. And now, you make a phone call to the other side of the planet, and it just goes through. You don’t have to make all this stuff work. The phone companies figured it out. HR tech, not so much. There’s a lot of work to do there yet.

Mark: Ward, thanks for taking the time to join me today.

Ward: My pleasure.

Mark: I’ve been speaking with Ward Christman, of HR Tech Advisor and HR Tech Alliances about the dynamics of HR technology after a year of Covid-19.

This has been PeopleTech, the podcast of the HCM Technology Report.

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I’m Mark Feffer.

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