HR must think smarter about smartphones

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne July 22, 2015
Why is HR such a laggard in exploiting the potential of smartphones and mobile apps?

Americans have smartphones, so does the rest of the world. Millennials think their phone is more important to their daily life than their deodorant, toothbrush and coffee. And there’s support for these apps across the vendor community. So where is HR? Where is HR in thinking about the introduction of mobile applications into the HR department and with their workforce?

This was the question posed by Katherine Jones, VP HCM technology research at Bersin by Deloitte, in a recent webinar: Hungry yet? The Appetite for Smartphones in HR.

The answer to the smartphone question is that HR is doing very little with the technology, and worse still, has few plans to do anything much in the near future. Out of 128 HR executives surveyed by Bersin earlier this year, only 19% of respondents already used smartphones for HR and 23% planned to do so over the next 12 months. That left the biggest chunk of respondents, 58%, who said they had no plans to use this technology in the future.

This lack of activity is puzzling given the ease and ubiquity of the technology. As Jones points out:

There is an inherent value preposition here: never has a corporate device been so inexpensive and so easy to replace.

The more applications we can have on a smaller device and especially one that is affordable to the masses is worth thinking about.

Such is the devotion of millennials to their mobiles that 28% expect to use a mobile device when applying for a job. Somewhat worryingly (and an HR problem in itself), Jones also notes that 30% of millennials think that it would acceptable to text during a job interview.

But there is more to smartphones than keeping millennials happy and Bersin’s research shows that despite the lack of activity, HR is very familiar with the benefits. Six in 10 believe that work productivity is the biggest advantage to using smartphones. This is quickly followed by the ability to have more timely responses form users, better real-time decision making and employee engagement.

What that means at ground level is that workers can book travel and holidays from their mobile device or view work schedules, as well as access applications for recruitment, learning, coaching and feedback.

Many of these benefits are being felt by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which created its own mobile app, Sidekick, to help reduce the admin burden on HR. Pre-Sidekick, HR “was getting swamped with requests”, notes Jones, receiving 160,000 calls a year. Some 8,000 of those were just employees requesting a copy of their payslip.

With Sidekick in place employees can see how many vacation days they have left, they can look for learning, access news about their area or group, as well as many other activities. From an HR standpoint, the number of workers requesting a copy of the payslip has dropped by 46%, while numbers asking for a proof of employment letter required by mortgage lenders are down by 20%.

Impressive stuff, so why aren’t other firms doing the same? Jones notes there are a couple of “gotchas” holding back HR’s acceptance of smartphones. The biggest barrier, believes Jones, is the fear that their existing ERP/HRIS system won’t support mobile apps:

Sometimes the old HRIS system, or their on premise system, didn’t support mobile and while there may be workarounds for some of those things, that may take a great deal of effort…That’s probably one of the primary areas where there’s a gap between the desire and the ability to execute.

The other chief problem is a lack of an overarching mobile policy – deciding whether all, or which kinds of employees should be issued PDAs, for example. She says:

Sometimes we found that a corporation just hasn’t sat down and thought about their total mobile policy which goes beyond HR.

There are other more idiosyncratic reasons for the delay, which are more industry-specific. Those in retail or hospitality are worried about the distraction factor of their devices and whether staff would be checking their smartphones rather than serving customers.

Other sectors are worried about industrial espionage, and workers taking snaps of commercially sensitive

Deloitte’s Dr Katherine Jones.
Deloitte’s Dr Katherine Jones.

material. Another worry is “the social media factor” and the concern that things will be put on Yelp or YouTube that, taken out of context, could be detrimental to the business.

Those looking to move came from the naysayers to smartphone devotees need to look at what is already happening in other parts of the business, says Jones:

You probably have a corporate communications strategy and you probably have a mobile-specific strategy. If it is there, make sure you know what it is and if not, it’s a really good thing for HR to start becoming involved in.

With those basic foundations in place, it’s time to turn to the HR strategy and to work out what you want managers and employees to achieve. But, above all, according to Jones, HR needs to think beyond the walls of the HR department:

You don’t want to make decision in isolation, when you’re looking at your HR strategy you should consider the whole.

My take

Phone and spring landscape
It’s a strange situation. The benefits of using smartphones and mobile apps appear blindingly obvious, so why do so many HR professionals seem to be ignoring their potential?

I suspect that it’s not the ‘fault’ of HR at all, but an indication of the lack of maturity of the organization as a whole.

It’s one thing to write a business case for smartphone-based HR apps when the company already has staff using multiple mobile devices for other aspects of the business, quite another to have to start from scratch and persuade the board.

I also suspect that things will change very rapidly and that the same research carried out in as little as a year’s time will yield very different results.

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