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Franken-HR, the unwanted monster stalking Workday's cloud

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 4, 2014
Too many organizations that move HR to the cloud are bringing along legacy paper-based processes that don't achieve business transformation

© Derrick Neill -
I have just spent a worrying few days hearing about the state-of-the-art in enterprise HR technology adoption. Most worrying of all was that those who told their stories are from the small minority of enterprises already aware of the need to change. Heaven help the rest.

What I heard is that these organizations have to radically reinvent themselves to face the business challenges of the modern age — more virulent competition, rapidly changing working practices, increasingly stringent regulation, or whatever else — and then keep on evolving in a world of constant change.

Their HR functions find themselves woefully ill-equipped to participate in this project of reinvention and continuous change. They are hidebound by inconsistent practices, error-prone processes and a consequent inability to muster any data to produce meaningful metrics for decision-making.

This is when HR turns to technology. It sees process automation and standardization as the cure for these ills. Then it can spend less time and resource on administrative tasks and instead focus on nurturing and deploying talent where HR can deliver the best outcomes for the business.

Enterprise HR's monster problem

At its EMEA customer event, Workday's CEO Aneel Bhusri conjured up the now-familiar image of Franken-soft ERP systems, which stitch together ageing software code in a vain attempt to catch up with the demands of a digital age.

But having listened to customers speaking at Workday Rising Europe and at the previous week's HRTech Europe preview, I came to the conclusion that slaying Franken-soft will not end the nightmare. While it's true that cloud-based software provides a means of automating and standardizing global HR processes, most enterprises are going to finish that project and then realize they still have a monster problem.

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That monster problem is the Franken-HR of legacy processes that still permeate their organization. More adaptable software can't save HR that's no longer fit for purpose. Much of the administrative burden that weighs down HR is a hangover from an era when paper dominated enterprise processes. Digitizing the paper as a self-service web form isn't progress, not even on an iPad; it's stagnation dressed up in a pretty outfit.

"HR's almost dead. It's dead as we know it," according to Appirio's chief business innovation officer Jason Averbook, delivering the closing keynote at HRTech Europe. In his view, the HR leaders that don't get it are the ones still laboring to reduce their self-service error rates. The ones that do are preparing for the new demands of what he calls Workplace 2020, where "the future of work is the crowd, the disintegration of the job."

In the emerging, digitally connected world of work, the old processes that were built around paper forms are no longer needed, replaced by simple actions that fall naturally into the individual's workflow. As SAP's Mike Ettling told me during the HRTech event, "If you can standardize, automate and socially enable your processes, your manual processes just melt away."

Reality of digital transformation

I worry about Workday when I hear its customers talking about their journey to standardize on a single self-service process. I fear the need to accommodate their legacy processes will hold the vendor back from more forward-looking innovation. But this dichotomy was already visible at Rising last September in San Francisco, when I observed that Workday caters to both camps:

In effect Workday has to straddle the chasm, giving comfort to its more traditional customers as they painstakingly move their businesses forward, at the same time as continuing its own innovation at a breakneck pace so that it continues to offer value to younger, disruptive digital enterprises.

This is the unfair reality of digital transformation. You can be investing in massive change as you port your legacy processes to the cloud, and still succumb to some more digitally astute competitor that has jumped a generation ahead.

Based on what I heard and perceived from Averbook and others over the past week or so, here are five crucial guidelines that are all too easy for enterprises to overlook, even those who are aggressively modernizing their existing HR systems.

  1. Self-service is about getting things done. Don't look at it as a way of getting your employees to fill out your forms for themselves. Look at it from the employee's point of view — how can you facilitate the outcome they want with minimum fuss? Answer that question correctly and you're more likely to come up with a process that doesn't require training for people to get it right.
  2. Automation should augment engagement, not replace it. All too often, the success of self-service is measured by the extent to which personal contact has been removed from the process. The purpose of automation ought to be to free up resources for more effective personal engagement rather than totally de-humanizing HR.
  3. Talent belongs to the individual, not to the enterprise. In today's world, people look out for themselves and their talent is only ever on loan to the enterprise. Manage it as an enterprise asset rather than something that belongs to the individual and you'll alienate that person.
  4. Contingent and crowdsourced labor is becoming the norm. Frictionless enterprise is breaking down barriers to sourcing external labor and expertise on demand. Not only do your full-time, permanent staff expect to change employers every few years, most of them already have spare time jobs on the side. Employment is becoming something people do as a pay-as-you-go service.
  5. Collaboration is the glue that makes all of this work. The more people work as part of dynamic teams, on dynamic contracts, supported by pervasive, connected automation, the more they'll rely on sophisticated collaboration infrastructure and skills to get things done. HR has a big role to play in making sure enterprise collaboration runs smoothly. But this is a work-in-progress: there's no established best practice as yet.

Disclosure: SAP and Workday are diginomica premier partners. Workday contributed to the writer’s travel expenses to attend its event.

Image credit: © Derrick Neill -

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