SHRM 17 Recap: The Coming Mobile Divide, New Opportunities in Data

New Orleans Street Scene

SHRM’s annual conference is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. This year, 15,415 HR professionals attended 226 presentations and walked more than 200,000 square feet of exhibit space showing off the products of 648 vendors. What couldn’t be estimated was how many attendees appreciated the irony of eating box lunches in New Orleans.

New Orleans Street Scene
New Orleans After Work

For those who didn’t attend, the most comprehensive coverage is probably on SHRM’s own web site, though a full complement of HR trade media and bloggers were on-scene as well.

Each year I spend most of my time on the exhibit floor because it represents something of a leading indicator. Wandering through booths, talking to both vendor representatives and HR practitioners provides a sense of where HCM technology is heading and how well its path aligns with the needs of practitioners and employees.

Here’s what stood out this year.

A Mobile Divide Is Inevitable

HCM specialists have been saying “mobile-first” for several years now. Given the impact mobile channels have had on both service and information delivery, that’s no surprise.

However, neither vendors nor practitioners are sweating many of the details that come along with putting company apps on a personal device. This isn’t about BYOD so much as the treatment and reaction of employees who don’t have company-issued smartphones or computers: people like warehouse workers, retail employees, or those on the assembly line.

For example: As the use of video grows, at what point will employees balk at the need to pay for extra bandwidth? Are front-line managers allowing their workers to use company apps on company time, or do they assume all smartphone use is personal use?

What’s notable here isn’t that fact that people don’t have answers for such questions, but that they haven’t given the issues much, if any, thought in the first place.

Vendors Find Unexpected Opportunities in Data

Vendors are looking for more things to do with data, even it pushes the boundaries of their current business model—or breaks it entirely. Companies that specialize in monitoring data are thinking about ways to compile their streams into on-demand solutions while others who’ve compiled swaths of evergreen data are wondering if they can build real-time reporting services as they gather it. There’s growing realization that information that’s peripheral to a tool’s core mission—which two separate vendors referred to as “data exhaust”—may hold significant hidden value. While some vendors have decided to stick to their knitting, others are intrigued by the possibilities offered by new lines of business.

The Answer to Most Questions: ‘Because The Millennials’

When asked about why they’re focused on mobile, social networking services or the increasing use of video, every vendor’s answer included discussion of their need to address the preferences of workers aged around 20 to 36. These are the millennials, and employers and vendors alike paint them in broad strokes—better educated, more open to diversity, generally more progressive, urban and hip.

But a lot of this is trend talk. In terms of hard numbers, 62 percent of millennials speak only one language, 77 percent don’t have a four-year college degree, one-third are obese and 28 percent are smokers. To paraphrase demographics expert Matt Carmichael, no one should be surprised not all 80 million millennials fit the stereotype of hipsters eating organic foods, drinking craft beer, hanging out in coffee shops and living in big cities.

This begs the question: Is HR setting itself up for trouble as the differences among the millennials themselves become more apparent? Does the 28-year-old manufacturing worker in North Carolina have the same expectations as the 28-year-old accountant in Boston? Can those workers afford the same smartphones and service plans? Does “personal development” mean the same thing to them both?

My guess is probably not, but I’ve yet to hear anyone talk about segmentation within the generation itself. That indicates a real risk of focusing technology solutions on a single slice of the workforce —the urban Gen Y—while neglecting others—the millennials living in the exurbs or rural America.

User Experience Counts

This wave’s been building for some time, but it’s finally reached the point where an easy-to-use, dynamic and consumer-like is a given in any new product. Vendors take pains to point out usability and how their products can be used in different ways by different audiences.

As part of this, more vendors spoke about compiling services into single apps. So, for example, a core ATS provider will wrap in features from a provider of more specialized services—like wellness or financial wellness—so that employees can access one app instead of several. One developed called 2017 “the year of the API.”

What Contingent Workforce?

Notable by their absence were HR solutions for managing the growing contingent workforce. This wasn’t a surprise, given that HR continues to have little involvement in the hiring or addressing the needs of independent contractors. They remain Purchasing’s and the hiring manager’s responsibility, and HR still seems to have little excitement for figuring out how they can increase engagement while a growing proportion of the workforce slips out from under their umbrella. As we’ve written before, HCM tech vendors seem ready to work on solutions here—as soon as HR decides they want to tackle the issue.