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UPCOMING
HR Tech, Las Vegas, 10/8-10/2014
HR Tech Europe, Amsterdam, 10/23-24/2014

PAST BUT AVAILABLE FOR REPLAY
Workday Predict and Prepare Webinar, 12/10/2013
CXOTalk: Naomi Bloom, Nenshad Bardoliwalla, and Michael Krigsman, 3/15/2013
Drive Thru HR, 12/17/12
The Bill Kutik Radio Show® #110, 8/12
Webinar Sponsored by Workday: "Follow the Yellow Brick Road to Business Value," 5/3/12 Audio/Whitepaper
Webinar Sponsored by Workday: "Predict and Prepare," 12/7/11
HR Happy Hour - Episode 118 - 'Work and the Future of Work', 9/23/11
The Bill Kutik Radio Show® #87, 9/11
Keynote, Connections Ultimate Partner Forum, 3/9-12/11
"Convergence in Bloom" Webcast and accompanying white paper, sponsored by ADP, 9/21/10
The Bill Kutik Radio Show® #63, 9/10
Keynote for Workforce Management's first ever virtual HR technology conference, 6/8/10
Knowledge Infusion Webinar, 6/3/10
Webinar Sponsored by Workday: "Predict and Prepare," 12/8/09
Webinar Sponsored by Workday: "Preparing to Lead the Recovery," 11/19/09 Audio/Powerpoint
"Enterprise unplugged: Riffing on failure and performance," a Michael Krigsman podcast 11/9/09
The Bill Kutik Radio Show® #39, 10/09
Workday SOR Webinar, 8/25/09
The Bill Kutik Radio Show® #15, 10/08

PAST BUT NO REPLAY AVAILABLE
Keynote, HR Tech Europe, Amsterdam, 10/25-26/12
Master Panel, HR Technology, Chicago, 10/9/012
Keynote, Workforce Magazine HR Tech Week, 6/6/12
Webcast Sponsored by Workday: "Building a Solid Business Case for HR Technology Change," 5/31/12
Keynote, Saba Global Summit, Miami, 3/19-22/12
Workday Rising, Las Vegas, 10/24-27/11
HR Technology, Las Vegas 10/3-5/11
HR Florida, Orlando 8/29-31/11
Boussias Communications HR Effectiveness Forum, Athens, Greece 6/16-17/11
HR Demo Show, Las Vegas 5/24-26/11
Workday Rising, 10/11/10
HRO Summit, 10/22/09
HR Technology, Keynote and Panel, 10/2/09

Adventures of Bloom & Wallace

a work in progress

HRM Software/Services Q1 Vendor Briefings — Ambition Matters

When I Could Still Climb Mayan Pyramids

Many of you know that I’ve been doing a ton of briefings/demos with HRM software and services vendors this quarter, with many more to come.  So let me start this post with a major shout-out to all the vendors with whom I’ve met and will be meeting for their time, their preparation, and their courtesy.  I know that it’s a major draw upon vendor leadership time to keep all we so-called influencers informed about their business, their products/services, and their industry perspectives, and I for one am very grateful to everyone involved in these briefings.  Hopefully I’m giving as good as I’m getting so that their time is as well-spent on these calls as is mine. 

One of the questions I always ask vendors, as context for learning about their business and products/services, is “what is your ambition?”  Ambitions for organizations change over time, and they should do so as competitive, industry and organizational changes argue persuasively for such changes.  It’s a wise leader who is realistic about what it will take to realize their ambitions and the extent to which their assets are sufficient and a good fit for doing so. 

Within the HRM software/services industry, we’ve got leaders with enormous ambitions in whom we have confidence of their achieving them because they bring so much to doing so in terms of experience/track record, financial resources in hand or easily obtained, and tons of talented people ready to follow them wherever they lead.  And then there are those leaders in our industry who have squandered their assets, damaged the talented people who found themselves working for them, and never come close to realizing their ambitions because of their own fatally flawed  KSAOCs and decisions — and their inability to adjust their ambitions to fit their capabilities.  

And then there’s Naomi.  One ambition I had personally and did achieve before my legs stopped working well enough to do it (which adds the dimension of timing, because ambitions must evolve to meet the current reality, or at least they should) was to climb a number of the more remote Mayan pyramids.  Professionally, one ambition I set for myself in 1987 when I started my solo practice was to help change the practice of HRM from a focus on administration with an emphasis on labor cost control and systems which were basically file cabinets and payroll calculators to a focus on achieving business outcomes via integrated strategic HRM processes enabled by systems that managed KSAOCs as their core, with all that implies.  I know that I wasn’t the only voice pushing for these changes, but I will take a tiny bit of credit for the fact that most of today’s HRM systems are KSAOC-centric, focused heavily on enabling strategic HRM processes, and very much attempting to drive business outcomes via improving workforce decisions.  Climbing those pyramids and seeing my fingerprints on a good bit of today’s HRM software are two ambitions realized, each in their own time and each requiring me to make fundamental choices about what I would do and, VERY importantly, what I would not do in using my own limited resources and KSAOCs to achieve my ambitions. 

This is why I’m so interested in each vendor’s ambitions as a backdrop to learning about their strategies, products/services, target markets, etc. etc.  Those ambitions really matter when you evaluate a vendor’s viability, their likelihood of acheving those ambitions, as you look at their organizational assets, their bench strength, their software assets and services infrastructure along with their intellectual property.  Successful organizations are those whose assets are sufficient to realize their ambitions — how obvious is that! — but it’s always amazing to me how many organizations (and people!) are out of sync on this point.  And if you’re a buyer of HRM software/services, you’d better keep a very careful eye on this point to ensure that, as they pursue their ambitions, your vendors are serving yours.

What may be less obvious is that, within our industry, there are generally three very different patterns of organizational ambitions.  These patterns do vary for a given organization over time — and they should — because smart leaders, as noted above, evolve their ambitions along with reality.   However, these ambitions also evolve because businesses that are failing to achieve one set of ambitions may well set their sights differently when faced with that reality.  The three major patterns of organizational ambitions that I’ve seen are:  

  • Lifestyle businesses — these are businesses which are founded or run to support the modest to affluent financial needs while fulfilling the professional passion of their founders or leaders.  Bloom & Wallace is a good example of this where my professional passions are well-known.  What’s less well-known is that I’ve stayed a solo, in spite of opportunities for much greater wealth, so that I could (1) work with many more industry players in an impactful way than I could have done by working with just one industry player, (2) focus exclusively on my clients without the obvious creative tensions of supporting a whole consulting enterprise, (3) accommodate my husband’s career, which was in the Washington, DC area for 22+ years, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of HRM software/services HQs, (4) build/license/support a body of intellectual property that is vendor neutral but influencing widely the current and next generation of HRM software, (5) travel widely when and where we choose with only the need to plan far enough in advance so as not to disrupt client projects, and (6) adapt to the needs of my aging body.  There are many such HRM software and services firms, making money for themselves and their investors (where they have investors), providing often quite wonderful work environments for their staff, and contributing mightily to our industry — and they aren’t all small.  For the customers/clients of these firms, they’re often a great pleasure with which to do business, can be quite innovative and agile, and rarely have unhappy customers because they couldn’t survive if that were the case.  But it’s also rarely the case that, at least among HRM software/services companies, major end-user organizations are well-served by having a lifestyle vendor at the center of their HRM delivery system except where these founder-led vendors are mophing into a form which will survive and prosper beyond the founder’s tenure.  When Bloom & Wallace finishes a client engagement, we’re off that client’s critical path and aren’t responsible for their HRM service delivery foundation.  From the perspective of product/service buyers, you may not want to be unduly dependent on a lifestyle vendor unless they and you are prepared to accept the risks of their inevitable adoption of one of the other two ambition patterns or the ending of their business.
  • Built to be bought businesses — these are businesses, often founded by serial entrepreneurs with their own or investor money, which fill an opportunistic niche in our market, innovate in an underserved area, find a need and fill it.  But, unlike the run/grow/dominate businesses, the built to be bought businesses usually don’t take on a scope of product or services which is large enough, by itself, to generate the type of return that the investors may require or to which the founder aspires via an IPO nor with a large enough and sustainable enough niche to simply grow and profit their way to those wanted/needed returns.  Successful businesses of this type — and they are legion in the IT world and within our own HRM software/services industry — know from their early days who their likely buyers are, what those buyers value, and how they can develop enough interest from enough buyers to achieve the desired multiple when they do sell.  And while some such businesses are started with this ambition from day one, many more start out as lifestyle businesses which turn to buyouts as their founders/owners want liquidity, retirement, or just out.  From the perspective of their customers, knowing that your vendor is going to be bought is VERY important for your own planning.  Are you okay with having your contract now serviced by a much larger vendor, perhaps one which you didn’t select in the first place?  One which may force you off of the software/services that you chose and onto something else?  Or perhaps one that will save you from a dying product, replacing it with their much more survivable one?  Whatever the case, there’s disruption ahead, even if the outcome is a very good one.  And knowing that your vendor/provider is likely to be bought helps you decide where you’re willing to use such vendors within your HRM service delivery.
  • Built to run/grow/dominate businesses — and then there are the businesses that are started with the clear and stated intention of being grown and run to dominate an important industry segment, and one that’s big enough to offer them almost limitless possibilities in terms of revenue and profitability.  These are the businesses whose founders, at least in our industry, are redefining how we think about a major market segment, how products/services are built/sold/delivered/priced/etc., how we think about HRM and the HRM delivery system.  Now that doesn’t mean that these ambitions are always realized — they most often aren’t — but when combined with the right assets, these are the ones to watch over the long run.  And these are the ones on whom we want to bet for our core HRM delivery system platform.  Some to many of these firms go public (hopefully when they’re big enough and with sufficiently industrial strength internal processes not to be overwhelmed by the demands of being public), and some remain incredibly successful but privately owned, but businesses with this ambition become the very backbones of our HRM delivery systems.  From a buyer’s perspective, you rarely get leading edge capabilities for the core components of your HRM delivery system unless you jump on board with one of these vendors when they are themselves early days, and that means being an early adopter.  Once these companies have achieved their ambition, it’s very hard for them to remain as innovative, as agile, as aggressively focused on their customers’ success as they did when they were hungrier, but by then they become the “safe” choices for buyers who aren’t early adopters.  And sometimes these very same vendors, having grown large and successful, surprise us by delivering their own next generation of products/services.

There’s no such thing as a correct ambition, but there are viable combinations of ambition and assets.  Do you know the ambitions of all of your HRM software /services vendors?  Do you know how well they are doing against those ambitions?  How good a fit are their assets for achieving those ambitions?  Have you matched the ambitions of your vendors, presuming that they are moving toward achieving them successfully (because you certainly don’t want to rely on vendors who are failing to do so), to the role that their products/services play in your HRM delivery system?  Have you bet the farm on a vendor’s failed (or likely to fail) ambition to run/grow/dominate the HRM delivery system platform?  Does one or more of your talent management “best of breed” vendors fit the profile of built to be bought, whether deliberately so or because they’ve failed as a run/grow/dominate business?  Just as I want to understand the ambitions of the vendors/providers with whom I’m taking briefings so that I can look at their products/services etc. against that backdrop, so too should buyers of these products/services take a hard look at the fit between what they need and what they vendor/provider’s ambition will lead them to deliver.  Ambition does matter!

14 comments to HRM Software/Services Q1 Vendor Briefings — Ambition Matters

  • […] much they needed and deserved an update.  If you'd like to read the originals, they can be found here, here, here, here and here.  But I hope you'll be more interested in my current thinking because […]

  • […] much they needed and deserved an update.  If you'd like to read the originals, they can be found here, here, here, here and here.  But I hope you'll be more interested in my current thinking because […]

  • […] of KSAOCs, ambitions, life experiences, values and more to starting and running businesses.  I wrote a while back about the importance of matching the ambitions of your vendors to the needs of your organization […]

  • […] hospitality.  I’ve also been doing many vendor briefings and deep product dives this year (see here, here, here and here for those observations) , and those vendors also deserve a big thank you for […]

  • […] first post in this series focused on the importance of understanding the ambitions of HRM software/services vendors and the implications of those ambitions for buyers/investors/employees/the industry.  Next came a […]

  • […] first post in this series focused on the importance of understanding the ambitions of HRM software/services vendors and the implications of those ambitions for buyers/investors/employees/the […]

  • […] my last post, I wrote about one aspect of the way in which I look at and learn about the HRM software vendors […]

  • Well thought out Naomi. I think you covered all the bases here. I would love however to see a future essay along the same lines but with the same ambition question aimed at those who do what you do (you ask it of yourself, kudos for that).

    On LinkedIn where I found your post I asked the question ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ ie ‘who guards the guards?’ because all too often in enterprise software selection committees it’s the guards who end up, like the pigs in The Animal Farm, with the correct vision and all the spoils that go along with it.

    Personally I’d would enjoy seeing you and Bill Kutik (the editor of HR Tech on LinkedIn where your essay is posted) explore this assumption that vendors wear black hats while analysts wear white.

    • Naomi Bloom

      Gregg, Everyone’s got an angle, a point of view, an agenda of their own, which is one of life’s first lessons. But it’s far more nuanced than black and white. There are vendors in our community who are VERY customer-focused in addition to running for profit businesses, and there are vendors who are much less so. There are consultants who are passionate about effective and efficient HRM as well as being knowledgeable about technology, and those who are much less so. And there are end-users who are entirely competent in both areas, and others who are much less so. As for the analyst community, they come in as many flavors as do the vendors, consultants and end-users. As it happens, I’m much more of a consultant than an analyst, and I spend a lot of my billable time working with the HRM software vendors and service providers, so evaluating the analyst community would not be a focus for me.

  • Alan Maxwell

    Interesting & insightful. Thank you, Naomi.

  • Got it, that’s a very good and simple approach. Transparency plus detail equal clarity that people can understand!

  • Loved the read and agree that being able to clearly state your ambition is key to knowing that you actually have the strategy to move forward. Out of curiosity, were all the vendors able to answer the question? Or were some caught by surprise and mumbled? Thanks!

    • Naomi Bloom

      Maksim, thanks for this feedback. When I send a briefing/demo inquiry to vendors/providers, I send them a very detailed (some would say exhaustingly so, and that would be fair) list of the topics I want to cover and for which I request a briefing package well in advance of our scheduled time together. The question of ambition is raised then, so no one is caught (no one should be caught) by surprise. I don’t do gotchas, at least not deliberately, but there are certainly vendors who don’t prepare for these meetings as carefully as I try to do. My goal in these briefings/demos is to use the valuable time of the vendor attendees to exchange information that’s not easily captured in a briefing package, to ask them more strategic questions and open those questions up for discussion, to challenge their thinking and have them challenge my own, to give them a chance to highlight what they think is interesting/new/different/important about their company and products/services, and to try and come away with a good understanding of the types of prospects and situations for which the particular vendor might be appropriate for more detailed evaluation. I’m also trying to come away with what insights I can draw across our industry by seeing a lot of the best as well as the usual of what’s on offer.

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