HR Tech 2016, the year of peak HR hype - PT Barnum would have been so proud

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer October 20, 2016
The HR Tech conference ought to be a celebration of the best the industry can show. Instead, we saw far too much hype. Here's where we deconstruct what's going on.

Recently, fellow ERP analyst Frank Scavo and I attended the HR Tech 2016. We tag-teamed numerous vendor briefings and canvassed the expo floor. We went there with a singular mission: to find out what’s really happening in the HR space. Here’s what we learned….

You can’t spell HR without the letters AI – Apparently, I’ve been misspelling HR for decades. Everywhere you turned, there was a vendor telling us about their (artificial intelligence) AI-enabled HR solutions. Sure, some vendors misspelled things by calling it ML (Machine Learning) but they were all on the same bandwagon. Somewhere, hundreds of software PR people felt victorious getting AI into every product discussion but after the 100th time, we all knew this was the moment when AI hit the apex of the HR hype-cycle. Oh well, we’ll have to see what next year brings!

If your solution isn’t getting traction, it’s time to rename the solution space.  This one I (re-) learned from an HR vendor on a panel. In essence, she told the audience that the problem we should be solving isn’t “engagement” but rather “enablement”. If that doesn’t work, I predict that they’ll re-badge the problem to “intractability” by next year’s show. What’s your guess?

Everything is a platform (and I mean EVERYTHING!) – That’s right ladies and gentlemen!  A large HR suite is a platform. A performance appraisal tool is a platform. Even a single smartphone app is a platform. I’m not sure I met anyone who actually knew what a platform really is. Whether you are a software vendor or buyer, watch the Workday financial analyst video (on Workday’s investor webpage). That briefing by Workday executives is chock-a-block full of dynamite tidbits as to what defines a great platform and what so many competitors are lacking. (Truthfully, many companies don’t have one platform – they have multiple platforms, data models, etc. for all of their acquired and older technology). Sorry HR vendors, I didn’t buy all of the platform hype. Like H AI R, it was over-the-top in hype and way too thin on product reality. One vendor did explain to Frank and I how they’re launching an app store – a positive platform development.

Even a single smartphone app can be a suite – You’re reading that right. One vendor told us, with a straight face no less, that their smartphone app was a suite.  Hmmm – does that mean that a single line of code can be a program, too? Call me skeptical on this one, too. Methinks the hype-sters got ahead of themselves on this one, too.

Target markets don’t matter when you sell via channels – Frank watched me quiz vendor after vendor as to their ideal customer profile (ICP). Most vendors could tell you exactly who they pursue (e.g., mid-market manufacturers with 500-10,000 employees mostly in the U.S. and Canada). Some were spectacularly clueless on this point. They have itty-bitty customers and global 100 customer logos, too. They just don’t know (or care) how their channel partners bag these deals.  That’s a shame as their websites, product collateral and even talking points are all over the map, unfocused and tough to understand. What kind of prospects should we refer to them? I don’t honestly know.

Apparently, HR cloud solution innovation ended in 2007.  With few exceptions, HR vendors did not mention second generation cloud technologies to us. There was scant mention of in-memory databases. No mention of Hadoop and an appallingly limited view of Big Data. In the HR vendor world, I’m starting to suspect that few vendors know that large databases exist outside of the HR and ERP systems. HR algorithms and analytics are still plowing the same field full of HR and Payroll transactions.  Most HR vendors still think technology is constrained. They think there isn’t enough memory, throughput, processor speed, disk storage, etc. and, as a result, they design constrained applications. It’s what they’ve done for decades and they can’t break this terrible mindset and habits. It’s a shame.

Let’s make a lack of integration fashionable again!  Different HR vendors had different perspectives when it came to integration.  When a vendor only has a single application, they tout how easy others can integrate their solution to other products and why best of breed is the way to go. If a vendor has a large integrated suite of products, they tout the power of integration and pooh-pooh best of breed approaches. And finally, in HR, if you are a vendor with a pile of acquired products, you pitch the best of breed story like it’s no big deal. But few vendors ever state the integration challenge from the customer’s point of view.

The reality is that customers want out of the software business. They want to be done with waiting for IT to upgrade their applications. That’s why customers like multi-tenant cloud applications as the vendor, not the internal IT group, will always keep the application current.

They also want to avoid seeing broken/failed integrations, too. That’s why companies like Informatica and OneSourceVirtual exist. They take this pain away.

But most important is the realization that customers see the number of integration touch points exploding near term as firms connect more big data stores, operational data, mobile apps and dark data to their core applications.

With all of these new connection points being added to the mix, customers will want few integration points in their core applications. If they have a number of integrations to manage today, they will be knee deep in more integration connections with all of the new peripheral applications and data stores to come.

Integration is a problem that’s only getting bigger. HR solutions (some may have 100+ integrations) are a big concern area.

My take

There are some serious problems in the HR space today. Cute PR names and gimmicks are no substitute for real innovation and problem solving.

Worse, the industry doesn’t seem to address any of the real issues confronting work forces today. With technologies like robotic process automation, new intelligent processes/process designs, etc., the nature of work is being permanently altered. New skills, new kinds of workers, new algorithms, new data sources, etc. are impacting HR but it was the rarest of rare HR vendors who addressed even a small piece of these changes.

A very serious rethink re: HR software is required. Where are the leaders for this?

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