If you don’t ask the right questions, you sure as hell won’t get useful answers!
It’s HR technology conference season, and we’d better get our act together if we’re going to get the maximum value from our time spent at these conferences. That means knowing what questions we’re trying to answer before we’re bombarded with vendors, consultants, pundits and blogging fools telling us that whatever they’re selling is the answer to our not-yet-formulated-clearly questions.
That’s why I published the original take of this post on 9-12-2011, just in time for the 2011 HR Technology Conference, and I’ve been doing almost annual updates ever since. I keep finding myself wanting not only to update the questions but also to provide my thoughts on the answers, and that’s a black hole from which I may never extricate myself. Nonetheless, I’ve included a few answers so that you’ll know (as though there was ever a doubt) where I stand.
For 2015, I’ve done a thorough update and added more of my own thoughts on the answers to these questions. So what you’re getting here is a mix: lots of questions with my current thoughts on the answers to some of them. But please note that this is really intended as a “starter kit” of possible questions rather than a definitive list. Please feel free to use my questions as a starting point, but your own questions should be much more specific and complete. And of course what matters are your questions, so there’s no time to waste.
As always, in the spirit of full disclosure, you should presume that I have worked with many of the major vendors in our space whether they are mentioned or not, that my thinking is certainly informed by the smart people with whom I work across the vendor/thought leader/influencer communities, and that I have strong biases (on full view across this blog) about what constitutes great HRM and great HRM enterprise software. Given my already stated plans to wind down my consulting practice, I’ve clearly stepped over the “trying to be ecumenical line” and cast caution to the winds with my answers to some of these questions.
Some combination of these questions almost always has been the impetus for that first call/email/DM/whatever to me from a global HR executive or their IT partner, and they also permeate the online HR technology conversations. Unfortunately, it usually takes a broader planning effort to make sure that sir/madam HR leader isn’t playing that loser’s game of whack-a-mole in resolving these types of questions. You know that game: no sooner do you put one question to rest than two more rear their ugly heads, and soon you’re entangled, not unlike Gulliver, by a hairball of these issues.
Unfortunately, unlike my good friend and fellow Enterprise Irregular Ray Wang, there are no Naomi clones. Just this solo consultant who’s been trying to save the world from crappy HRM and HR software for more years than most of you have been alive. And while I’ve been a pretty productive and hard worker, there were never enough hours to support every HR exec who called about their always interconnected, whack-a-mole HRM delivery systems issues. So I have referred a lot of business to capable colleagues, suggested useful reading/conferences/discussion groups/etc., and helped as many as I could directly.
Knowing the questions is the first important step toward getting good answers regardless of whether you’re doing it yourself or getting (hopefully great) 3rd party advice. Toward that end, and presuming that you have studied my methodology for strategic HRM and HRMDS planning, here’s my list, updated as of 10/14/2015, of the HRMDS questions that have given rise to so many of those requests for assistance — as well as my thoughts on some of the answers — in no particular order. Please note that, in the Talmudic tradition of reflection and analysis in which I was raised, for topics I consider to be of particular complexity and/or importance, the same topic is addressed with multiple questions to explore it from different angles. You’ll also note that I start with the foundations of your HRM delivery system, HRMS/TM.
- Can we afford to/should we upgrade our licensed, on-premise ERP/HRMS? In almost all cases, my answer is a resounding NO. However, you might be the one in a thousand for whom this is still a sensible course of action, perhaps using 3rd party maintenance, at least until the newer true SaaS ERP/HRMS/TM (yes, with truly and deeply integrated talent management capabilities because core HRMS and TM are inextricably intertwined) have matured sufficiently for your industry/geography/business requirements. But if you do plan to wait, please keep an eye on the future because it’s racing toward you, and use this time wisely to rethink every aspect of your HRM policies/practices/data and coding structures/processes/business rules/etc. for the current era and to clean up you ratty data and coding structures for the future. This preparation will help you to move as quickly as possible when you’re ready to move to true SaaS.
- Can we afford/manage the integration of separate talent management applications? Here too, in most cases, my answer is a resounding NO. I’m not talking here about niche add-ons which extend talent management, e.g. sourcing tools, video conferencing, or course creation, but rather about the core applications which make up an integrated talent management suite. Here too you might be the one in a thousand for whom this is still a sensible course of action, and for the very same reasons and with many of the very same caveats as in #1 above. When you develop object models for talent management, the sheer number and complexity of the interconnections are revealed, and it is those interconnections which argue for more rather than less integration of the resulting applications and business processes. That said, some TM processes are less interconnected than others, so there are options here if — IF — you study carefully those interconnections.
- Are we better served by getting our talent management capabilities already integrated with our system of record’s (SOR’s) foundation from our SOR’s vendor than by piecing together/layering on a variety of separate talent management applications, no matter how supposedly integrated they may be? Yes, but only if that so-called integrated talent management software from your SOR vendor is really integrated rather than glued together with some complex set of marketing-speak “integrations” across disparate object models, architectures, and underlying assumptions about HRM. With so much M&A across the HR technology industry, not to mention separate development efforts at the same firm, many brands now own a hodge podge of HRM software, including talent management software. While many of these applications may be quite good on their own, most are not integrated in the deep, profound way that’s only achieved through organic development of an HRMS/TM suite based upon a shared set of object models, architecture and development environment. But, and it’s a huge BUT, organic development doesn’t necessarily produce great software. So we need both deeply integrated and great HRMS/TM. That’s the ideal, but all manner of approximations and combinations may work for you depending on your current HRMDS and your overall HRMS/TM strategy. Here too, modeling the domain leads to an understanding of what it is about core HRMS and TM which are inextricably intertwined and where there are less interconnected areas. But please note: if you plan to embed predictive analytics, calculated on the fly across a wide range of HRM processes and delivered “point of sale” to decision makers along with the related and actionable advice, you’d better ensure that all of these are resting on a common object model, with a common approach to effective-dating etc. so that your analytics aren’t a house built on sand.
- Are the so-called integrated talent management capabilities from our SOR’s (system of record’s) vendor truly integrated or are they in some stage of being interfaced and given a more or less common user experience? This is where those “killer” scenarios (and do search my blog on that phrase to find many posts covering the actual scenarios) come in along with your vendor’s own documentation. If there are integration processes/documentation/roadmaps etc., then you know a priori that you’re not dealing with the deepest level of integration which is only achieved during an organic build. Should you care? That depends entirely on where you need deep integration and where perhaps you don’t, and this is another great question best answered via using your own vision of HRM.
- Does our system of record’s (SOR’s) coding structures/data granularity/data accuracy/data-entry style self service/processes/business rules/etc. support talent management at the level we need? Let me say for the umpteenth time that you can’t do succession planning (executive or more broadly), position-based staffing, position-based organizational design (or even great org charts), workforce planning at any level of granularity, and so much more in TM if you don’t include a reasonable understanding and implementation of position in your coding structures. No pain, no gain. Organizations which continue to implement new software on top of outdated processes, data and coding structures, and business rules are fooling themselves. Yes, you’ll be able to deliver analytics of some flavor to mobile devices, but you won’t have valid analytics or know if you’re even asking the right questions.
- Are the right capabilities available in our SOR and/or have they been implemented properly? So many of the ERP/HRMSs implemented with the help of major SIs were customized within an inch of their lives, often at the customer’s insistence — “we’ve always done it this way” — thus becoming a nightmare to upgrade. And with that huge sunk cost, on-premise ERP/HRMSs are going to have a long tail. But there’s a potentially huge opportunity cost to not having up-to-date capabilities, of not being agile in the face of business change, of not being able to attract and engage workers with a consumer user experience, etc. That opportunity cost can and must be measured as part of making the business case for staying on or moving off of your current SOR; use only TCO (total cost of ownership) at your peril.
- How can we bring our data entry-style self service into the mobile and social world? The bad news is that if you don’t build it, they won’t come — or they’ll sidestep everything you provide in favor of the consumer apps they know and love. Today’s workforce, especially those special folks with scarce KSAOCs who fill the key roles driving business outcomes, expect high quality technology enablement of their business processes, to include a consumer grade (but industrial strength) user experience. And they vote with their feet. In some cases you can upgrade a legacy on-premise HRMS or even an older standalone TM application with a new user experience, but that can often look like putting lipstick on a pig. So beware the shiny mobile thingy that doesn’t address the fundamental issues of having modern data structures, processes, business rules, etc.
- If we’re running on an ERP/HRMS, should we upgrade in place, implement that vendor’s next gen (when it’s ready, and whether or not it’s more or less next gen than we need), mix and match, or consider the options from other brands? I think I’ve already answered this, but let me say it one more time. Whatever else you consider, it’s absolutely necessary to take a hard look at all your options and not just those from your incumbent. This will be a new implementation even if you stay with your incumbent’s next generation, so you might as well take a look around before you make these decisions. Just because it’s time for a divorce, however civilized, it’s absolutely NOT the right time to jump into bed with the first person who asks.
- Will our smaller, primarily domestic, totally focused on HCM and still independent core HRMS vendor(s) be able to make the needed global, regulatory, architectural and functionality investments needed in their products to support our growing business? Will they be around long enough and with sufficient resources to deliver on mobile, social, global, analytics, gamification and so much more? This is an easy one because facts are facts. Just look at the track record of M&A in our industry, and you can see how many once independent players are now owned by aggregators, including private equity-funded aggregators. And while many of these products are still around, with some getting decent levels of maintenance investment, I believe it’s now clear that the weak are not going to inherit the software kingdom as we move aggressively to true SaaS.
- Lots of our vendors are describing their latest products as SaaS. How would we know if that’s true? Why should we care? Please, please read my posts on these points (just search for “true SaaS” to get them all) before concluding that if it’s hosted and subscribed you’ll be just fine. Those of us who’ve been around for a while remember very well what happened when then PeopleSoft put “client server” on the tips of every prospect’s tongue. Suddenly, every mainframe era HRMS vendor was declaring their product client server by coming up with definitions than even some of those vendors couldn’t say with a straight face. Anyone remember screen scraping? The whole debate about two-tiered vs three-tiered vs n-tiered? The bottom line was that you needed to start over, with a clean sheet of paper, in order to design truly client server software, and the same is true with SaaS.
- If our current vendors aren’t true SaaS as Naomi has defined it, are they likely to be viable long-term? Are there other workable definitions that make sense for some vendors? Sure. For example, one major vendor, Oracle, has a very different view of true SaaS than I do, and they have the long tail of their installed base plus almost unlimited resources to ensure that their point of view has legs. However, you should still educate yourself, if you’re a PeopleSoft or even EBS HCM customer, about the real compare and contrast between Fusion HCM and your other options. And that said, do read my posts on the business benefits of true SaaS as I define it to be sure that you’re going to get those benefits via someone else’s definition of same, no matter the size of their marketing budget.
- Is it the right time to make the leap to a newer, SaaS generation of integrated HRMS/TM which are still building out talent management functionality and global capabilities? It’s clearly no longer a question of whether but of when. All the major vendors of licensed on-premise HRMS/TM are moving as fast as their legs can carry them to the cloud (regardless of whether I agree or don’t with their definitions) as well as to build out their cloud offerings, so they clearly are betting on a SaaS future (again, whatever their definitions). And there could be substantial $$ savings which would argue persuasively for a sooner rather than later leap. But our timing may be linked to an energizing event, e.g. the arrival of a new CIO who’s experienced with true SaaS and was brought in to move us there faster and/or the arrival of a giant bill from our vendor for extended support of an aged HRMS. Frankly, many of the leading organizations have already moved or are in high gear to do so very soon, so it’s well past time to get started.
- Should we stick to our older on-premise ERP/HRMS and add one or more talent management applications on top? With what approach to interfacing and/or integration? Forget integration if you go down this path as the best you can do is a great job of two-way interfaces. But if you must stay where you are for core HRMS — see above for potential reasons — then by all means figure out how to fill the gaps with interfaced talent management applications. The key to making this work is to really understand the limitations of and maintenance workload associated with these interfaces so that your expectations are in line with the reality delivered.
- What types of social technology capabilities should we consider for HRM? Across our organization? Unleashed within what processes? I’m a big believer in use case-based unleashing of a rich assortment of collaboration tools rather than just providing those collaboration tools and expecting customers to do the unleashing. One reason I feel this way is that results-oriented collaboration can degrade quite easily into time-wasting social noise. Another is that to achieve meaningful collaboration requires a full rethink of all the incentives and barriers to human collaboration, e.g. job descriptions, performance goals, and organizational designs. Seeing collaboration embedded within HRM processes, like the ability to add video “sticky notes” wherever you’d like or opportunities to rate proposals/suggestions/ideas/interactions/etc. and add relevant commentary, enrich the whole HRM experience while improving group decision-making.
- Should we be looking for social tech within the foundations of our HRMS/TM unleashed where we want them or looking at specific social apps? Not to sound like a weasel consultant, but the correct answer is both. Fundamental collaboration tools — embedded, user-created video content; discussion forums and threads; LinkedIn deeply connected to all worker/applicant KSAOC profiles and so much more — don’t all need to be built because many either open source or commercial capabilities can be made a part of the HRMS/TM foundations. But whether built or bought and deeply embedded, there are considerable use cases for embedding a wide range of collaboration tools into the foundations of all HRMS/TM software.
- Is it better to provide social technology capabilities that are specific to an HRM process or to provide broad access to those capabilities across HRM with a build it and they will come approach? See comments on 14-15 above.
- What policies are needed to balance the value of social and mobile technology, including “Bring Your Own Device” (so BYOD), with protecting our intellectual property, personal data privacy, and organizational productivity?
- Is it better to provide mobile technology capabilities that are specific to an HRM process or to provide broad access to those capabilities across HRM? What’s this I hear about “mobile first” design, and why is that better?
- Even as we’re automating the hell out of HRM, are there still obvious HRMDS targets for outsourcing? Of course there are, so are we doing as much of this as makes sense for us? Subscribing true SaaS is a form of outsourcing but here we’re referring to outsourcing an entire HRM process where the provider delivers the results to an agreed service level. I’ve long thought that background checking and US tax filing were obvious candidates for outsourcing to specialist providers. Global payroll processing and distributions also requires very specialized in-country capabilities in which many to most organizations shouldn’t indulge. Other great candidates include KSAOC assessment development and administration, US benefits administration, and those other regulatory processes, like garnishment management, which aren’t deeply interconnected with core HRMS/TM and which do benefit mightily from economies of scale.
- What impact would outsourcing specific HRMDS components have on our ability to present an integrated view of organizational HRM data?
- What impact would outsourcing specific HRMDS components have on our ability to provide embedded, actionable analytics?
- Are there areas within the HRMDS that just don’t make sense to do any way other than via tightly integrated components? Here core HRMS comes immediately to mind, and increasingly I believe that core TM requires tight integration with core HRMS.
- What impact would using best-of-breed solutions for specific HRMDS components have on our ability to present an integrated view of organizational HRM data? You also have to consider how analytics, particularly the quest for embedded, predictive analytics with advisory content, will work if various components are on different object models, with different approaches to effective-dating, etc.
- Our ERP/HRMS is described as licensed/on-premise, and we’re paying 22% of retail in annual maintenance. Are we getting enough value to justify those annual payments? You might want to follow the legal proceedings of Oracle vs Rimini Street to gain real insight into the reasons why so many customers are looking at other, lower cost options for the maintenance of their aging core HRMS. In many to most cases, I don’t believe late adopters of SaaS are getting enough innovation in their on-premise core HRMS to justify such high annual maintenance fees.
- Will our vendor’s next generation be free to us because of those annual maintenance payments? Are they essentially giving away their cloud software, at least for a time, or providing major discounts in order to keep us in the family? There’s definitely some deep discounting going on by long-established vendors to retain their customer base as they transition to cloud, but there’s no shame in taking advantage of such discounts (always presuming there’s nothing ugly hidden in the fine print) if that vendors cloud products are the very best for your organization. But don’t be lulled into thinking that you won’t have a new implementation if you stay with the same vendor or that you can avoid a full-scale product and vendor evaluation to ensure that your incumbent vendor’s offering is the best fit for you. No pain, no gain.
- Are there alternatives to making those on-premise maintenance payments? Are their other sources for basic maintenance, especially if we’re on an older release? The answer is yes, and the options are many, but please do read the Oracle vs Rimini Street court documents.
- Will our talent management software vendor(s) survive and prosper? What’s at risk if we’ve bet on a vendor that gets acquired?
- With all the consolidation going on in talent management, how can we determine if our vendors will be acquirers or be acquired? Does it matter? It does matter, and you have some important homework to do.
- Is it more important for us to get talent management right than to invest further in our administrative HRM foundations or will poor administrative foundations cripple our talent management efforts? This is one of the central questions addressed in any competent strategic HRM and HRMDS planning effort. Please see above for some useful links.
- Do we really have to build/maintain the whole data warehouse apparatus just to get obvious analytics? To support actionable analytics at the “point of sale” (i.e. embedded in employee and manager self service)? The simple answer is no with the big IF you’re running on an integrated HRMS/TM platform that does the heavy lifting for you. And that’s pretty much where you need to be because the whole data warehouse thing is so yesterday.
- Why can’t our payroll provider (yes, we outsourced that years ago) support the variety of workers, work roles, work schedules, total compensation plans, and other practices that we’re now using or need to use? What are our options here? The good news is that there are payroll providers which can address modern requirements. The bad news is that there aren’t many depending always on the geographies you need to cover. And no matter what they say, those providers cannot overcome the limitations of their software platforms without a ton of manual workarounds (which can of course be automated separately, but that’s by no means ideal), so perhaps it’s time to do a completely new assessment of both your needs and the capabilities of the best of today’s payroll outsourcers — especially of what their software actually can do and with what architectural and object model robustness that software operates. Yes, you’ve got it, I’m an object model and architectural bigot.
- What about our global payroll requirements? We’ve got large populations in a few countries and very small populations scattered everywhere else? Should we handle this ourselves? Do NOT try to handle all of this yourself. If you’re really concentrated in just a few countries with sizeable populations there and just a scattering of folks elsewhere, you might be a great candidate for using the true SaaS (but be sure that it really is true SaaS) payroll from your core HRMS vendor if they cover those key countries and then one of their global outsourcing partners to do the rest. Or, you could outsource the whole thing to one of a very small number of providers which is set up to do this well and at a reasonable cost. But for those organizations with significant populations in many different countries, perhaps with growth where you already are and more countries coming, you’re going to have to do a very careful assessment of capabilities needed versus costs because even the most capable providers differ in what they do best, where they do it best, and how they will price what you need. As of this writing, there is no global payroll provide using a single true SaaS payroll engine to service every country on the planet and with feet on the street in every country, so ALL of them are piecing together some combination of their own robust capabilities with those of owned in-country providers running on different (usually lesser) technology and 3rd party in-country providers over which they have VERY different levels of control. My own bias, assuming they have the capabilities that you need, is towards global vendors with the greatest control over their supply chain because that’s your best insurance policy.
- And what impact will the coming changes in health care, talent management, social learning, robotic workers, globalization, HR technology, workforce diversity, executive compensation caps, government-inspired and/or -led growth programs, [you name the issue] have on our aging, too many moving parts, never implemented well and/or too expensive to maintain HRM delivery system — and on our ability to deliver the HRM outcomes our organization expects?
- We seem to have a disconnect between our administration and strategic HRM data — could that be the result of disconnected systems, data definitions, organizational responsibilities, HRM business rules, etc.?
- What changes should we be making in our HRM policies and practices to support a more social, mobile and global workforce? Won’t our software vendors provide these?
- I keep hearing about social/mobile/global/embedded analytics/the importance of integrated talent management/[you name the hot topic here], but these capabilities seem to be add-ons at added cost etc. from our primary vendors. Is that right?
- How do I push more and more responsibility for HRM to managers and to the workforce without having a whole range of compliance/productivity/decision-making problems? How do I provide these users with enough embedded intelligence to enable effective decision-making? To enable correct and timely HRM transactions?
- Every time I ask for a briefing on the current state of our HRMDS, my eyes glaze over from the complexity and detail. How do I know if we have more moving pieces than we need? If we have the right pieces? If we’re spending the right amount to achieve our needed outcomes?
- How can we keep all the pieces well playing together? How much bailing wire and chewing gum does it take to keep everything running?
- Our CEO asked me if we have the HRM capabilities we need to help the organization deliver improved business outcomes. Frankly, I haven’t got a clue.
- How can I find enough resources to invest in strategic HRMDS components when everything’s being starved because of the black holes of administrative HRM, including compliance, which really don’t drive business outcomes no matter how well-done they are?
- Cloud/smoud — my CIO is deadset against it but all the hot new software is built for it. What do I do? I could be flippant and say just wait for your CIO to be replaced, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps you could provide your CIO with selected readings? Show him/her what true SaaS applications which are already in use — and yes, you’ve already got some, perhaps a lot, of SaaS in your organization — are delivering for the business.
- I know we need analytics, but which ones? My team has proposed 217, all of which sound interesting and potentially relevant, but what I really need are the half dozen that would tell me how we’re really doing? One of my favorite metrics for linking what HRM does to organizational outcomes is to calculate the average contributions to revenues and profits of each FTE worker (so both employees and contingent workers). In a for profit organization, increasing revenues and profitability are central to both survival and success, so why not start there? Going deeper, you want to highlight those aspects of HRM which drive revenue and profitability per FTE.
- Social sourcing sounds wonderful, and everyone’s doing it, but is it really applicable to our need for [place your scarce KSAOC list here]? I’m a big believer in social sourcing, using public services like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to broadcast opportunities and research potential candidates. But, and it’s a big BUT, the power of such broadly-based communities works best for those who have built up considerable street cred within these communities. If I tweet a link about job opportunities in the HR technology industry, there’s a huge probability that likely candidates are among my followers. But if I tweet the need for a nuclear physicist for a faculty position at MIT, there’s a much lower probability that my followers will include likely candidates. Building a positive and useful presence online, for yourself and for your organization, takes time and a ton of effort. If you intend to use such presence as a sourcing mechanism, there’s no time to lose because it will take considerable elapsed time before you’re ready to source effectively in this way.
And now for a few of my personal favorites, those calls for help for which I can no longer provide anything more than an hour of conversation and referrals, just for laughs.
- We subscribed the software, signed up for a three year lease, and we’ve been given our own tenant. We’re expecting to load our own data, but it seems to sit there waiting for us to tell it what to do. Is that right? Doesn’t it come loaded with “best practices?” We budgeted for a “vanilla” implementation on that expectation.
- My global head of talent is telling me that we must get all of our talent applications from the same vendor in order to get the deep process and data integration that he tells me integrated TM requires. If we do that, buy everything from a single vendor, will it really truly scouts’ honor be fully integrated?
- The last guy who’s able to maintain the extensive COBOL code we used to create our highly customized Cyborg/Genesys/Tesseract/Integral/MSA/[put your favorite truly over-the-hill essentially payroll but now doing everything imaginable application brand here, and with full knowledge on my part that all of these brands are getting some level of quite sincere regulatory support and other updates from their current owners] has gone out on emergency long term disability, and we never did get him to document that code. Help!
- My predecessor insisted that we needed an enterprise-level ERP/HRMS. Four years and millions of $$ later, we’re not implemented, the SI (systems integration) leader (the new one, his predecessor was promoted) tells me that we don’t have either our organizational structure nor our jobs defined right to meet the analytical requests I’ve made of the system, the release we’ve been implementing seems to have been overtaken by the vendor’s newest release (and that’s the one that has the improved user experience that we really need), and now my new golfing buddy (who’s a partner at another SI) suggests that what we’ve selected is gross overkill for our 500 person, entirely US-based call center business for which our financials are moving “into the cloud,” whatever that means. When I told a trusted HR exec colleague about all of this, she said don’t make another move until you talk to Naomi.
All laughs aside, these are really tough questions, all of them. And you know that I’ve addressed a lot more, along with my thoughts on how to answer them, across my blog. When you put these questions into the context of a specific organization, of your organization, answering them is worthy of your best efforts. So “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” then delve into the details to develope their own answers. If you are facing any of these questions, please do your homework and don’t be flimflammed. And please do take full advantage of the upcoming #HRTechConf and #HRTechWorld (where I’ll be doing two sessions which may be of interest) conferences to help answer your questions.