HR Technology Conference 2019 - it’s a crazy, mixed up HR technology world out there

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer October 11, 2019
It's time for the annual trip to the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas. Here are the highlights of this years confab - the good, the bad and utterly indifferent.

HR Tech

For the 20th or so time, I attended the annual HR confab: The HR Technology Conference in Vegas. While many things never change (i.e., cheesy SWAG, tons of new venture-backed HR firms, lots of vendors looking for some PR love, etc.), some things were indeed different.  So, here are some of the highlights and bigger themes from this year’s extravaganza.


Bots to the left of me; bots to the right; bots everywhere!

Bots were all some people could talk about at the show. Everyone, it seems, has one in development or available via slideware.  And there were also plenty of vendors that had Bot + Workflow + Exception Handing capabilities, too. A couple of folks snuck in machine learning with their bots to make them “intelligent” bots. Okay, I get it – HR is going to have a lot of bot technology to chose from.

But when you cut through the hype, excitement and vendor gushing, I often saw:

  • Nothing material is ready for prime time today
  • If a customer actually wants to use this technology, it might require some time-consuming and expensive custom configuration work
  • No vendor could produce process flows of their proposed ‘reimagined’ workflow
  • Only one vendor has realized that the conversational language a bot must use in dealing with your employees cannot be the same copy that exists in your lawyer approved employee manual
  • Most bots are a one-trick pony – Finding a vendor with more than one bot is like finding a cable company with great customer service. They may not exist.

So, go ahead and start typing into the comment section of this Diginomica piece – Brian’s not buying the HR vendor hype.

Did someone mention platforms?

Platforms were also omni-present. Apparently, we need application software platforms, platforms for integrating numerous HR solutions, platforms to extend application software suites, platforms for application development, etc. What I needed was an intelligent bot to not schedule briefings with platform providers.

At the end of one briefing, I upset a vendor’s PR flack. She wanted to know when I was going to write a piece on her client’s product (Don’t you love the presumptive close?). I told her I wasn’t. Her client didn’t have anything new to tell. They had a platform like many others offered. I didn’t see anything different, competitive or compelling. I wasn’t being mean, just truthful. (I guess I won’t get an invite to their analyst summit...). Back in Texas, we’d say that product “is common as dirt”.

Folks, people don’t go to their executive committee or board of directors saying they want to buy a platform. The people that control the corporate purse strings will pay for outcomes and/or solutions. I get that platforms can add value in some cases. What I don’t get is the awful way they’re being marketed currently.

I’m good with platforms for now.

Integration that software buyers want

APIs and integration are important but vendors really need to clean up their talking points here.  Software buyers want a way to connect some discrete HR service (think of an I-9 verification tool) to their core HR application suite. They can usually do this via a micro-services layer.

What buyers don’t want is an HR suite vendor that has grown via acquisitions and has to use integration technology within its own product line. In this situation:

  • Data may be stored on multiple cloud systems and/or databases
  • Redundant data may exist across the different apps and cloud systems
  • Data latency issues can arise as data must get moved from one cloud environment to another. In that situation, one system is out of sync with another system

Worse, when this large HR/ERP vendor needs to perform planned maintenance on this cloud mess, it needs to shut down these different application environments at different times. Instead of a vendor quiescing one system for a few minutes per month or quarter, the large best-of-breed vendor is triggering many different scheduled downtime windows in this same time period. One major vendor’s service level agreement has, wait for it, 13 pages of scheduled downtimes for its suite.

So, when a vendor giddily speaks of their integration tools, I have to wonder why? Is it because they have a dog’s breakfast of cobbled together stuff? Is it because they lack a lot of key functionality and must connect numerous partner products together to give the appearance of a suite? Or, is it because they just want to showcase how buyers can easily tap into their solutions marketplace?  The last answer is the only viable answer.

Bottom line: If you’re going to speak about integration technology in the context of ERP or HR, get clear on why integration matters and exactly how your approach adds value to the customer/prospect.

A recession is coming and HR’s doing what?

A show like this attracts a number of industry analysts and I polled a few as to what they’re noticing. One of them shared the perspective that a recession is coming and that vendors don’t know how to address such a topic and that prospects seem oblivious to the changes about to affect them.

The oblivious point caused me to dig in for more. This analyst saw a lot of interest in smart bots by HR show attendees, but doubted that many of them really understand that:

  • These technologies will quickly automate away a lot of the work that many HR employees do today. Clerical functions, support calls, error corrections, policy clarifications, etc. are going to the bots.
  • The new HR may be staffed with a different kind of team member that is highly skilled in algorithm design, social sciences, machine learning, natural language processing, etc.
  • Alternatively, the new HR department may contain only a fraction of its current staff complement. Employers could permanently retain the headcount savings. This is the scenario a colleague most frets about.

I too share recession concerns, although nothing like what we saw occur in 2009. That said, I am always chagrined at the number of exhibitors and buyers looking for that nice little tuck-in piece of HR technology (eg: we’re looking for a background check tool). These buyers are looking to modernize their HR suite by adding a pinch of peripheral, incremental tech to the ancient HR suite still in use. These buyers are creating their own unappetizing and costly collection of HR technology and it won’t solve as many business problems as it should.

Key question: Are HR software buyers focused on the right business problems and solutions?

Where’s the love?

I also presented at this show. I covered the growing expectations gap of HR software buyers and what is available out there for them to purchase. As presentations go, it was one of my ‘tough love’ talks where I didn’t really wax poetically or longingly about the technologies out there and how they’d cure all manner of workforce woes. Frankly, I’m not big on the content-light talks (e.g., “Engagement – it’s not just for weddings anymore!”) as I prefer to address tough, complex, strategic matters that business leaders (ie: my clients) should be focused on.

When I do one of those talks, I can sometimes stun the audience. This time, I ended up talking to a record 20% of the audience afterwards. They approached me right after the presentation, at the show, via email/LinkedIn and one pair of attendees even buttonholed me at McCarran Airport in the old terminal that Southwest uses. That’s a lot of people that are struggling with HR technology decisions.

What I learned from these audience members is that:

  • Firms, even big ones, are struggling with the offerings of major ERP/HR software vendors. The solutions may not be straightforward to implement. Some, contrary to their marketing hype, aren’t capable of (or can’t support well) private cloud or on-premises deployments in addition to their public cloud offerings. And good luck if you need an ITAR or FedRamp solution.
  • Solutions from the old guard firms lack much of the 'Wow Factor' technologies that buyers really need now.  There are now more HR cloud suites than ever before but it’s hard to find ones with native candidate relationship marketing, video interviewing, advanced analytics, etc. as part of the suite. For that, you need to spend a lot more money with targeted application ‘partner’ firms, integration technologies and implementers.
  • While they are at this show to understand what is the ‘art of the possible’, they absolutely have no idea how to transfer their newfound knowledge to the leaders within their firm. I loved these conversations and could write a small book on clever ways to accomplish this but, suffice to say, vendors and their marketing teams are really missing the boat here. People can’t buy what they can’t explain/demonstrate to others, especially to those who control the purse strings.
  • HR software buyers are struggling with issues like divestitures, acquisitions, global expansion/contraction, etc. – These attendees came to this show to:
    • See if their current mix of HR technologies is still viable with the new business realities that their firm is confronting
    • Understand their options going forward
    • To gather points of view from experts as to how their firm can move forward

I tried to help many of them on these matters but I’m sure there were hundreds of others who are still needing guidance.

In my remarks, I cautioned attendees to not be afraid to seek true love elsewhere. The vendors that served you the last 10-20 years may not be the ones to take you through the next 20. I rather bluntly told them that many of them had held onto their old HR software longer than many audience member’s marriages have lasted.  Yes, nostalgia is a very human feeling; however, it rarely works as a viable technology business strategy.

Growth & transformation

Growth and transformation were topics that got some coverage at the event but transformation received the lion’s share of discussion. Transformation is a word that gets overused and its impact gets diminished with its overapplication. People spoke of ‘transforming HR’, ‘transforming corporate culture’, ‘workforce transformation’ etc.

The degree of change that some spoke of was not transformational. It could have been aspirational, incremental or limited to only the HR organization. Given the kinds of changes businesses everywhere are now (or will soon) face, these items need more focus at shows like this. When firms create new business models, enter and abandon markets quickly,  dramatically alter the way work gets done (and the skills its workers must now possess) and, of course, seek radical new ways to serve their constituents, then transformation must ensue. The question is how to do this well?

I’ve already written a book on this, but subsequent research leads me to believe that HR executives will be most impacted by and must drive much of this change. Can they?

My take

Time spent at this show is always instructive. I learn a lot in a couple of days about HR vendors, customers and the ecosystem. And, I wish more firms would send more people to this event if only to see what the new art of the possible can be for HR. In one place, you can experience the offerings of Silicon Valley backed firms, private equity backed businesses, HR vendors from countries like New Zealand and so much more. This is so much more than convenience – it’s about figuring out what you can do for your firm.

It’s also a way to learn about the business of HR. Many colleagues spoke at the show and you get a solid recap of many of these sessions in this detailed writeup by Saba’s Connie Costigan’s piece .

It’s a transitional time for HR. HR leaders must figure out what HR must become, how it will work and what will be important both near-term and long-term. This is a time of real structural change – incrementalism is not the order of the day.