The worrying thing is that pace of technology change isn't slacking — if anything, it's accelerating. Within five to ten years' time, enterprises that keep up-to-date with the technology will be using HR applications that look and behave very differently from those that are commonplace today.
To get an insight into what's in the pipeline, I sat down last week with Yvette Cameron, SVP Strategy & Corporate Development at SAP SuccessFactors, to talk about the impact of future technology directions the vendor sees. Here are some of the key points from our discussion.
AI's far-reaching impact
Every vendor is talking about artificial intelligence and what it may enable people to do. Cameron surprised me by highlighting an aspect that often gets lost in all the discussion of chatbots and voice interfaces. She pointed out that there's a much more fundamental change coming along in the way we interact with applications, in that we'll be able to get things done without having to open the app at all:
I think one of the biggest impacts that people aren't even really thinking about is how it's going to replace if not significantly change the navigation paradigm, the way we interact with our systems.
We're used to logging in, looking for notifications ... but imagine a world where your notifications come to your phone, whether you're logged in to the app or not. It says, 'Hey, you've got to enter your time sheet,' or 'The sentiment in your team has declined,' or, 'It's time to have a conversation, you haven't spoken to Joe in three weeks.' Those recommendations, which are based on artificial intelligence, taking me where I need to go in the system as opposed to my logging in.
This creates what I would call a 'headless' application that operates in the background, while people use messaging and notifications to get information or perform actions. It strips out all the friction of having to load up a separate application for each enterprise function.
SAP will make this capability available for iOS users next month with the upcoming launch of its SAP Cloud Platform SDK for iOS, developed in partnership with Apple. This heralds a new paradigm in how people interact with workforce applications, says Cameron — aided by artificial intelligence.
I love that on my phone I'm getting notifications, everything from Facebook, it's somebody's birthday, to my calendar reminder, etcetera. The same thing should be happening in our employee workforce apps. Make it as native and intuitive as that, whether it's Android or iOS.
That's the new paradigm. Within all of that, the intelligence is there for everything from job matching and candidate matching and recruiting, to the creation of service tickets automatically, to forecasting retention and flight risk rates and offering corrective behaviors.
The chat bots are coming too, though, currently available in an integration with Slack and in progress with Microsoft. Instead of typing messages in, people will increasingly just speak to the device, Cameron believes.
People say, 'Well, what's your UI going to look like in five years?' and I'm saying you probably don't have to touch the laptop. It should be fully voice command and the intelligence should interpret what you're saying and take it forward.
Because of the intelligence built into the interface, this will enable a more personalized interaction than the inflexible self-service portal of old, which only had one predefined way of doing things. So rather than dehumanizing the experience, it will enable a more natural, responsive interaction, she believes.
We're calling it 'conversational HR' ... Work gets done with conversations. I have a conversation with my colleagues, we figure stuff out, we do the work, we come back, we converse about it again and isn't that what HR should be doing?
Whether it's information or processes or transactions, it needs to be dynamic and personalized to what you need, not something predefined. That's where the future I think is going.
Embedded workforce analytics
Whereas analytics used to be something that had to be implemented as an add-on capability, it is now starting to be embedded directly in the application. That's forcing the pace of adoption, says Cameron, although HR needs to think through the implications of having wider access to analytics.
We're delivering it in our solution so that natively in the apps it's there. There's not a proactive step that HR has to take to think about, how do I enable this information? It's there in the system and we're helping interpret and communicate it.
Now process-wise, I think the cultural impact is huge. Are you ready for these levels of transparency? Are we ready for the communication of data? How far do we want to take it? Where do we want to embrace more advanced analytics and predictive capabilities?
Data for learning
The underlying systems also perform analytics in order to help suggest the optimal action based on the individual context. For example, some customers are already beta-testing a recommendation engine running on HANA that helps people make learning choices.
This is an area where more sophisticated analytics could have a big impact in the future, providing guidance on learning paths and outcomes. Its success will depend on having access to enough data, which may sometimes need to include external sources such as consumer data, says Cameron.
I think the future of learning is going to be much more, again, personalized and dynamic than we've seen. It's going to be dependent upon systems that can process large amounts of information very quickly and take information from multiple sources.
If we're just looking at the HR data, it's not enough to drive effective recommendations and insights. You have to incorporate broader sets.
It's incumbent on HR professionals to keep up-to-date with what can be achieved with these emerging capabilities, she believes.
We're going to see a lot of improvements in all aspects of reporting, analytics, and predictive and artificial intelligence, just continually with each release. I think that the HR function itself needs to perhaps start growing its skills and start educating itself on what's possible, what's expected.
It's about putting people first
So how does HR adapt to all the organizational and process change driven by more connected digital technologies? The most important step is to look beyond existing internal HR processes and start thinking about how to engage and empower people in the workforce, she advises.
Hierarchical org models, already we're seeing, are shifting to become more team-based, and collections of teams. If you really think about the workforce in terms of individuals and how we're engaging them and enabling teams and collaboration, etcetera, that mindset will help force the process changes and be supported by the technology.
What can HR do? By evaluating their processes and asking, 'Is this about HR simplification or workforce engagement? Is it about workforce empowerment? Are we here putting people at the center or HR at the center?'
In the cases where HR is the center of the strategy, you have to rethink that. Because the CEO doesn't care how efficient HR is running. They care that they are delivering and executing on their strategies, that they're driving profitability or growth or their various strategic initiatives.
They don't care to hear cases that are focused on, 'Hey HR has reduced its time spent on these things by x%.' That's not the goal of the company.
We were explicitly talking futures here, so this is change that will come over time. But it's coming fast and enterprises need to be ready for it. In most cases, that will mean accelerating the change that's planned. For example, this may not the time to be thinking about building a self-service portal or a mobile app when you might be able to leapfrog both with a move to 'headless apps' that can handle routine processes just by sending messages to and fro.
It seems we're leaving the era of self-service and entering the era of machine service, when instead of following a rigid, predefined set of steps, artificial intelligence will guide us quickly and efficiently towards the desired outcome. Cameron was careful to say it's still 'early days' for these capabilities, which need to be refined over the coming years, but it's important to set the roadmap now and understand the direction of travel.
Finally, her advice to focus on what people need to achieve rather than arbitrary internal process targets is well judged and is in line with what we're hearing from many observers. Each functional department in the old enterprise structures, whether that's IT, finance or HR, has to become more outward-looking. Their new role is to collaborate with people across the workforce to help them do their jobs better.