Q&A: ADP’s Jesse White on Building Customer-Centric HR Platforms

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Jesse White is chief architect of systems reliability engineering at Lifion by ADP, who regularly writes and speaks about the cloud, cybersecurity, DevOps and site reliability engineering. We talked about how organizations in general, and HR in particular, are keeping up with increasingly complex technology.

You’ve written about the “global reliability operating model.” What is that and how does it work? 

There’s a lot of movement in large companies to cope with the complexity of systems that we’ve been building over the last 20 years or so. A lot of firms are coping with that by creating platforms, which really means they’re stitching together software and systems and processes from a number of different external sources.

A platform isn’t primarily a technical feature set. It’s a set of business capabilities that serve your clients, and as such it should be monitored and observed from that perspective—for instance, if a client can see their login page or create a transaction. A platform’s ability to create, compose and manage should always be considered from that functional perspective.

We talked with @ADP's Jesse White about how HR keeps up with increasingly complex technology, and leverages platforms that deliver real business outcomes. #HR #HRTech Click To Tweet

So, this idea of a platform in a global reliability operating model is in service of making sure there’s a customer-centric focus on revenue, or implementation speed, or sales, so that we’re always measuring technical capabilities against business outcomes.

Can you link that idea to HR and to HCM?

When we look at ADP’s Next Gen HCM, it’s what I would call a unified platform. Our main focus is a specific set of technical infrastructures. You can think of us like an electric company. We provide a utility. When you flick the switch, you take it for granted that the lightbulb in your kitchen will turn on; but those pieces between your light switch and your lightbulb required lots of thinking and lots of investment. The wiring and the lightbulb is our HCM platform. It provides the core competencies that ADP wants to provide to the market, things like payroll, time, taxes, employee lifecycle, and HR.

So we’re building a unified set of pieces that we can then offer the market. We’re saying, “Hey, if you want to manage the core competencies of a human capital management system, here’s a reproducible and easy-to-use self-service, opt-in, onboarding model that we can put all of our effort into making wonderful. So you have, in the HCM ecosystem, a really easy and consistent way of operating a large company.

So, in that sense, we’re really building the underlying wiring in your home and under the street for that light switch. We’re building in the conduits, making sure the light bulb sockets are all the same. The global reliability operating model is figuring out what pieces need to be in place so that HR practitioners and implementation specialists can have a predictable and consistent way to interact with these core competencies of time management, payroll, taxes and so on.

You said that technology’s not enough. You need people and processes to make everything work. How do you meld people and processes with technology?

That’s a good question. Let’s use a specific example around a customer requirement.

The customer needs specific application functionality. How do we get that from their brain into a computer, into a distributed system and back out onto the Internet in a way that provides value? In general, the kind of innovation ecosystem that we work with thinks about solving problems within people, processes and tech. Those are the three sides to the triangle that we have to consider when we want to solve a problem.

What “people, process and tech” means is that you need a specific, reproducible, documented way of doing a thing so that we can all agree on how it’s done. There’s a lot of power to writing something down and having a clear mapping, at least in technology, because we often have to take 10, 20, 100, 200, 300 steps in order to move an idea from a customer’s brain onto the Internet. It’s important to have the process mapped out clearly, have it written down in terms that anyone can understand. The technology piece is usually the easiest because it’s a set of things that you use in order to process data and move things around in order to present them to the end user. In this case, we look at things like web browsers and technology that displays web pages and makes changes to data.

The third part, the most interesting piece for me, is the people. I’m a fan of Ray Dalio’s machine-building process. People are a measure of skills and abilities. By “skills and abilities,” he means that people have innate abilities to be self-organized or motivated or driven or good at math or whatnot. Then you need to teach them skills in order for them to perform well within the machine that you’re creating.

When we try to get ideas from a client’s brain to the Internet, we insist that these processes be very clearly documented and written down and well-understood. So writing is a big part of our problem-solving technology.  

You once said that when you’re making decisions, you want to choose the right problems to solve. How does that idea fit into the whole process? And, more importantly, how do you choose?

Yeah. It’s tough to make a smart decision without getting lucky, right?

As a leader, you’re going to make a number of decisions each day. Realistically, it’s probably in the range of a hundred or a couple hundred decisions. Whether you’re a Fortune 500 CEO, an entry-level associate, or a mid-tier manager like myself, you’re going to be faced with a lot of decisions that you have to make very quickly in order to be a productive leader.

To do that effectively, there’s a couple of helpful processes you can go through. For example, choosing which decisions you should be delegating to others in order to build confidence in their leadership abilities, and choosing which decisions you should make quickly, without being too concerned, is really important. We may not realize it consciously, but we really do make many decisions each day, and those have long-tail impacts on our productivity over the course of the following month or year.

There’s two different types of decisions—reversible and irreversible, and high-risk and low-risk. What I try to do is spend a lot of time with high-risk, irreversible decisions—gathering information, understanding the impact of this decision because I can’t reverse it. I try to delegate as many reversible, low-impact decisions as I can in order to develop people’s confidence and skills. And then I spend a little bit of time triaging to understand, can I roll this decision back? Can I only make it go forward? What’s the impact of this decision? What I want to do is free up my time to think hard and gather information for those high-impact, irreversible choices that are going to leave a lasting imprint on my day-to-day for a long period of time.

If you’re really far ahead of the curve, and if you’re at the very leading edge of innovation, there isn’t a lot of prior art in ways of working. So it’s very expensive. I want to do software engineering that’s cost-effective, that has a predictable release cycle and doesn’t rely on unknown unknowns to fall in our favor. By not staying too far ahead of the curve, we can avoid that and focus on things that make sense.

We’ve been talking about all of this from the technology perspective. What do technology professionals and HR professionals each need to do to understand each other a little bit better?

I think the best way is trying to get to a place of transparency and to think about “how does the other side experience the need I’m describing?” Additionally, I think where people get caught up a little bit is when they jumble the discussions about identifying what the problem is while they’re creating a solution. 

When we’re talking to practitioners or implementation specialists, we spend a lot of time figuring out ‘what’s the real problem here?’. Are we addressing the root cause in a way that will permanently resolve this issue for the practitioner?

Say a practitioner had difficulty navigating our platform. Why were they experiencing this? How can we update the experience to make it better? We want to get into the weeds of the problem so that we apply the test of “will this last? Will this come up again?” That way, you can separate out the identification of the problem from the solution space.

So when technology is extremely intertwined with HR, we have to have dialogues where we’re identifying the problem and making sure that the fix will stand the test of time. What we try to do is create a wall between identification of the problem, and then the ideation on the solution

What we do is usually two separate meetings. At the first, we talk about the thing that’s going wrong. What is the detail of the thing that’s broken? We try to use plain English terminology. We stay away from tech words and buzzwords. Then we  think it through and make sure we’re aligned on the problem.

Often, the problem isn’t the first thing you think about when it comes to the medium. It’s something else. Separating out the problem space from then the solution space really helps people jump into the problem-solving space to fix the issue.

ADP Next Gen HCM is designed for how teams work – helping you break down silos, improve engagement and performance, and create a culture of connection. Learn more at flowofwork.adp.com. ADP Next Gen is a sponsor of the HCM Technology Report.

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