What HR wants from tech: an HR director’s top 10 wishlist

5 minute read

HR tech is booming. Investment is up and innovation is everywhere. But is it what HR leaders want? To mark the launch of The People Space's Tech Space former HR director and adviser to investors, HR tech companies and HR directors, Martin Kirke, reveals his wishlist

Martin Kirke

What HR wants from tech: an HR director’s top 10 wishlist

It’s boom time for HR tech investment and even with COVID-19 there are no signs of a slowdown. The latest Unleash survey of investments made in HR tech companies shows the second biggest investment since the survey started, with $1.65 billion of new money in Q3 2020.

Now of course this venture capital or private equity investment is very high risk and they don’t always get it right, but it’s a pointer to what we will be buying in the next year. The money is almost entirely invested in US relatively early stage businesses selling into the HR space. The hottest stars are those with collaboration and communication solutions and learning technology.

Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, recently commented on the problem of remote working not being good for creativity but there’s plenty of innovation in online facilitating tools for creative teams and for learning solutions. Curating content for learning, to filter through the mass of material out there, is still popular, as is augmented reality for learning in technical areas. Not perhaps so obviously an HR issue, augmented reality also allows scarce skills to be deployed more effectively and productivity increased. You have fewer highly skilled expert employees in one place guiding less skilled employees away at sites who are using wearable tech, so the expert sees what the problem is and guides the employee to fix it.

With all this exciting stuff it’s easy to forget that most of us in HR spend most of our time working with old antiquated systems that are unlikely to be replaced any time soon. That’s why investors like solutions which can be bolted on to sort, filter and display data more effectively and integrate data from different systems.

Mentoring matching software, which also automates the work in HR, is starting to attract investment too. The search for more cost effective development solutions is bound to make this attractive for HR directors. So many people are also willing to give their time to mentor those who need it, for example to help them change career or find a job. The skills development benefits both mentor and mentee, so it’s a clear win-win.

Well that’s what the investors think HR needs, but what’s the HR tech wishlist for HR directors? From lots of recent discussions and my work in the private, public and charity sectors here are the top 10:

1. Flexible solutions
Suddenly we need to divide our workforce into new categories which didn’t exist when these goliath old systems were invented. From those who are furloughed to those shielding and those isolating, it’s been a nightmare for many HR teams. We need solutions which can be deployed in days or a few weeks, which bring together the data and can be flexibly reconfigured as the landscape changes.

2. Mining data
Linked but still distinct is being able to mine the data in the same way as retailers mine the data on customer behaviour. We need to reduce the laborious work of the team’s data expert who is the only one who knows how to get the data out. We need simple-to-use tools for the whole team.

3. AI-based tools to improve data accuracy
We need some basic artificial intelligence to help improve data accuracy, which is still a plague in so many organisations. This can be achieved by intelligent analysis of data to spot where there are inconsistencies or improbable combinations of data, such as the employee with a 1980s joining date who is apparently still on the graduate training scheme.

4. Skills analysis
Tools to help analyse the underlying or deeper level skills so that employees can be redeployed from other areas with more training. In areas of scarce skills this also helps to solve shortages by analysing the skills the candidate has rather than just the experience on the CV. That way training can be designed to bridge the gap.

5. Systems to integrate contingent and PAYE workers easily and quickly
The modern workforce consists of many different groups, from employees to self- employed contractors, agency, apprentices etc. The legal distinction means that most organisations will not want anyone except employees to be on the payroll, so we need to be able to integrate the data from different systems when required. For example, on a site we may need to do COVID risk assessments for everyone working on the site regardless of their legal status. We need solutions which can build and integrate data rapidly and be flexible as needs change.

6. Bitesize online L&D delivering faster
Tech-enabled learning communities have been around for a few years now but remote working has increased the need. These use the same principles as social media to connect people with others who have similar interests so that we learn from each other and share our experiences. Coupled with powerful curating of selected high-quality material, these are valuable tools. As leadership training has gone online using video conferencing the pattern of delivery has changed. The old idea of going to a hotel for a few days to do a course may have gone for good. Some management and leadership development providers have pivoted their business very rapidly to deliver learning in shorter modules with more practice in between. Coupled with qualified coaching support, this is a far better way to learn because you come back a few days later and share your experience of putting into practice.

7. Online collaboration tools
Not surprisingly, much of the investment is going into collaboration and communication solutions. In the US there are now schemes in some of the big tech employers to let people relocate wherever they want to. Sometimes this is to attract and retain talent and sometimes it’s about cost. If you move, say, from San Francisco to the Midwest with the same company you may get a salary reduction but there’s still a win-win if the employer saves on office costs and the employee saves on housing cost. The cost of investing in effective tools for teams collaborating online is small beer.

8. Diversity and inclusion facilitators
There’s not much of an obvious link between diversity and inclusion as a key HR priority and HR tech but there’s one exception. Networks of employees such as BAME are a proven way to promote inclusion and enable shared experience. Both mentoring matching software and collaboration tools are a low cost investment to help these networks to flourish.

9. Smart apps for reporting and recording wrong behaviour

Hotlines to report bad behaviour, discrimination or harassment don’t seem to work, but there’s evidence that smart apps which use AI to guide you through recording an incident are much more effective. Following the long overdue focus on issues raised by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter HR could do with all the help we can get on this. In regulated industries and those with safety risks this sort of recording and reporting tool is a no-brainer.

10. What we don’t want!

For number 10 I have saved what I don’t want. No, I do not want to buy tech which spies on employees or anything around surveillance. I don’t want a bot to interview candidates who have taken the trouble to apply for a job with my organisation and I don’t want so-called wellness solutions where you just send me pictures of stereotyped employees all young and fit working out at home with some competitive league table. And yes, I noticed there’s not a disability in site and they all look the same. Whatever happened to diversity and inclusion?

Martin Kirke is an adviser to investors, HR tech companies and HRDs. He has a portfolio of non-executive director roles and is a member of the CIPD Policy Forum which advises government on employment trends and has worked with the RSA’S Future of Work Centre. Martin was an HR director and chief people officer in the public and private sectors

Check out The People Space's new Tech Space here

Published 11 November 2020
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