The Abusive Relationship between HR Technology and its Users

A green screen flickers in the corner of the office.  It is “The System”. Management don’t understand “The System”.  It’s a confusing, alien world.  The bright horizons of technological advance leave those that guard the old ways of working squinting in the glow.  As time moves on the piles of paper and files are replaced with computers and newer instances of the same system.  Functionality moves forward, no longer the electronic filing system, now the system has snaked it’s way into all aspects of the HR world.  The system knows when you arrived, you tell it when you’re going on holiday, it knows you got married, it knows about your children, it will will auto-generate your P45 and alert security to escort you our of the door.

Whenever I happen across an organisation that uses one of the “traditional” HR systems it’s never long before the discussion turns a little Orwellian.  I never hear these complaints from the management tier of the organisations – just those that are forced to interact with an outdated system that has been imposed upon them.  As Human Resources became more computerised, efficiencies were created at the expense of those very same resources it wished to aid – the humans.

The biggest offenders of the dehumanisation of HR Tech are those systems that started life in the minds of the suppliers of manufacturing technology.  If an HR system is has at it’s heart the basic stuff of a supply chain management system is it any wonder that your employees will feel used by the system as opposed to valued or better in control of it.  Of course this doesn’t just extend as far as the end user.  Limitations of a poorly implemented HR system can shape or even change HR policies themselves.  You wanted to give that amazing maternity leave deal? Sorry, the system doesn’t support it.  Wanted to award industry beating compensation tracking? Computer says “no”.

Technology in the human resources department became an ivory tower.  The situation worsened as technology advanced in the outside world.  Far from the gaining efficiency technology in human resources forces people to retain knowledge of arcane systems, to manage decaying programming languages and become beholden to dead data structures.  Locked into vendor licensing agreements and having to deal with clunky technology everyday Stockholm Syndrome sets in.  Gradually HR departments began to become more and more like the broken systems they used.  How many HR departments administer to the people they used to represent solely through a system. How many of us have tried to talk directly to someone who works in HR only to be referred to a different part of system.  In building the one-stop shop for everything HR would need, solution providers didn’t stop to consider the the knock-on effects – the people processed by the new breed of catch-all technologies are left feeling empty and embittered.  How many employees have come to resent their colleagues in HR because of the way they are forced to interact by poor software?

The provider of the solutions and those that buy the solutions are in a race to the bottom.  They seem to go to great lengths to alienate both those who try to use the software and those who receive a service via it.  In the ongoing dance between supplier and buyer of HR Technology the dance floor is left all but empty for the minority, whilst the majority stake holders, the users and those that are used, are left un-consulted.  The problem here is a “perfect storm” of wrongheaded software production with a manufacturing bent meeting a buying audience that seem to be wilfully technologically un-savvy.  The buyers of software in human resources are always looking for the new and the shiny, this trend is particularly pronounced in the sphere of recruitment where the improvement is always incremental yet the added value sold to the buyer is always exponential. Is there ever a new recruitment tool that promises an “edge” rather than a magical world changing experience. The naivety of the buying audience allows sub-rate suppliers to peddle hyperbole driven claims like arms dealers of solve-all magic bullets.

How many of the HR buying audience have decided on purchases for less than optimal reasons.  How many of those would candidly admit to having wasted their budgets afterwards?  In my career to date I have used some terrible software that I’ve had to use because of weird purchasing decisions and I’ve heard some terrible reasons for it’s purchase.  “The salesperson used to work here”, “The HR Director knows X from the supplier”, “We held a review and they presented better…” – all lousy reasons, and in all of these cases the person who made the buying decision had very little interaction with the system after the purchase.  The self fulfilling prophecy of imperfect software being purchased for suboptimal reasons continues, locked in, hostages for the term of the next license agreement.

In striving to produce ever more sparkly baubles for HR Directors to purchase in their quest to appear relevant, software producers increasingly look towards other domains and piggyback on their “buzz”.  How many solutions in the HR world are now sporting the reflected glory of “mobile”, “video” or “social” as a reason they will offer increased benefits?  Recently we’ve seen a spate of Tinder clones for recruitment. “Machine learning” solutions who’s matching algorithms seem to be attempting to solve the problem of having hired bad recruiters. Even video interviewing platforms,  because video is the next “big thing”…after all it worked so well for all those cat videos on YouTube.  As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in Jurassic Park “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should” – we’re at a stage where any technological advance is seen as something for recruiters to exploit.  Want to know if a recruiter understands “social”? If they show you all the wonderful work they’ve done with Pinterest and Instagram, they don’t get it.

There is some light at the end of this dark and scary tunnel.  A handful of suppliers are producing software that is not only good for recruitment and HR but good for the users too.  Software at it’s best in HR is responsible for the removal of a lot of the pain of processes, procedures and regulation that would normally cause friction.  A great software solution removes the burden of repetition, it gives momentum and doesn’t detract from HR doing what they used to best connecting with and advocating for the people they work with.  There are some suppliers that understand that HR Technology doesn’t have to be ugly. Using it doesn’t have to leave you feeling miserable and depressed, there are even some suppliers who are making their users lives easier.  There’s the frictionless importing of candidates into the Workable ATS using a Chrome plugin, there are an increasing number of beautiful calendar apps incorporating to do lists that scale to support entire companies and there’s even the easy way to do expenses using apps like Concur or Expensify. The difference is that there’s a great tool for each stage not a mediocre tool for all stages.
The growing fragmentation in the marketplace has allowed for smaller suppliers to enter and give us some true innovation.  I can only hope this also means that the clunky mega solutions of HR history don’t have to be inflicted on many more employee populaces before buyers see the light.  HR departments should realise that whilst technology is the great enabler, when it’s old and outdated it’s a great alienator.  Employees have access to better hardware and software than their employers in many cases and this isn’t tide going to reverse any time soon.  The technically savvy HR managers will win the respect of their organisations or be doomed to lose employees to those that do.  The days of “hired to retired” cradle to grave style bloated solutions are over.  Using the right tool at the right time and having the courage to change that tool if necessary is becoming more and more important.

In October I’ll be attending the HR Tech Europe 2014 European Conference in Amsterdam and I’m looking forward to hearing about the future of an industry which is at a turning point.  The old vendors will be there no doubt, but I’ll be looking for the innovators and the upstarts.

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