Ron and I spent mid-Feb to mid-March 2016 traveling in New Zealand and Australia, spending most of our time visiting with much-loved friends in both countries who we see far less often than we’d like. Although we have tons of modern ways to keep in touch, there’s just no substitute for being there, being together, hugging and laughing and strengthening bonds which distance and time zones do challenge.
But we also included in this trip some intense wine tasting in the Hunter Valley (not far outside Sydney) with a terrific specialist guide, Grahame Richards, during which I had quite a aha moment (but then you’d expect something to happen if you’d tasted 30+ wines between 10:00 AM and when you sat down for a late lunch). I found myself seeing real similarities between the wineries and wines I enjoyed/respected/loved and the software vendors and products I enjoy/respect/love. But I needed to let those thoughts settle a bit — and let me revisit them when entirely sober — to see if there’s really an aha here, and there is.
What stands out from the many wineries we visited and the wines we drank, what produced the aha moment, is that they fell into two very distinct groups, one of which reflected a grand passion and the other of which was very ho hum. Not surprising to those of you who know my work, I tend to see software vendors and their products in two equally distinct groups, but first let’s talk wine.
The ho hum group of wineries and wines were professionally and, in most cases, competently managed by folks for whom this was a business (so not a grand passion). Their wine production was focused on varietals and blends which their market research and agricultural studies suggested would be the most profitable from their particular terroir. Often they were owned by professional investors whose own market research led them to launch one of these ho hum operations as a money-making proposition. And although their young tasting room staff were pretty enough, they were also pretty much clueless. In general, these ho hum wineries produced wines which were vin ordinaire, often overpriced but usually with terrific branding, a snazzy Web site, and a lavish tasting room.
And then there were the wineries and wines we loved, which I’ll call the grand passions. At these usually quite modest tasting rooms, we found ourselves speaking with family members or winery partners who had devoted their lives — and not just their working lives — to building great wineries and wines. Very knowledgeable folks in the tasting room, often the vintner him or herself, really wanted to talk about their wines and about our enjoyment of them, about their terroir and it’s implications for the wine, and about our preferences as we tasted. They often had made special wines in a particular year or as part of an experiment which defied the market research and agricultural studies, turning out really wonderful wines which fit no established marketing category. When I checked their Web sites, they weren’t fancy but did offer the important information, and they rarely had professional investors (although some did have wine loving angel investors). But what these wineries and their wines has in common was the quality and customer-centricity that only comes when owners with a grand passion for wine are in control of their operations. And these owners most often had deep roots in the Hunter Valley, had spent their whole lifetimes around grapes and harvests and winemaking, and while profits certainly mattered, they were much more about making great wines.
But what does any of this have to do with enterprise software? Just about everything. At least in my neighborhood, at the intersection of HRM and IT, there are two distinctly different groups of vendors which, along with their products, also can be described as ho hum or grand passions. The ho hums may be founder-led, but they’re VC-funded if starting up or PE-bought if they’re a little longer in the tooth and not self-sustaining as a public company, and that founder may have gotten involved in HR tech not because of a lifelong passion for it but rather because their market research suggested that we’re “ripe for disruption.” When you visit their booths at a major HR tech show, it’s not uncommon to find that the booth attendants have no idea about our industry’s history, about the architectural underpinnings of their own products, or even about the products’ functionality beyond the script they’ve been given. Yes, many of these firms have been named by branding firms, have well-produced Web sites, and are clever at marketing (particularly at generating buzz via social media). But when you dig more deeply into their products, it’s not uncommon to see that they’re repeating mistakes of past designs and business decisions, but with the requisite commitment to mobile first and “cloud.” Nothing is harder to sit through than a briefing with one of these firms, be they startup or well-established. CEOs who know nothing except how to manage professionally, products which have learned nothing from the past 40+ years of HR tech and are not outstanding in any way, and business decisions grounded only market research, spreadsheets, and focus groups (necessary but not sufficient) with no leavening of experience or passion.
And then there are the vendors whose leaders have a grand passion for improving the business of human resource management via breakthroughs in technology enablement, vendors whose products lift my spirits because they’ve taken our collective learning and made a leap from the past to a well-positioned future. Great object models and architectures, functionality which appreciates the inherent complexity of work and workers but doesn’t foist it on users, business decisions which are customer-centric, employees who know what they’re doing and why they’re there, and business results which have staying power. Yes, some of these grand passion businesses fail, just like any other type of business, but when they succeed, they really do change our world. Interestingly, many of the most successful grand passion HR tech vendors and products were born in conjunction with a generational change in technology, but that’s by no means a requirement. And these companies need not be founder run if the culture and succession planning are strong enough to ensure continuity and competency of passionate leadership. Walk the floor at a major HR tech show, and you’ll meet some of these CEOs and senior leaders, and their conversation isn’t all sound bites and carefully rehearsed marketing messages.
All very interesting, perhaps, but where does this take us? Since I’m neither a buyer nor seller of HR tech, and I answer to no one but Ron, I’m quite free to follow my grand passions in HR tech. But if I’m going to urge others to do the same, I’ll need to update my blog posts on how I evaluate vendors and products to reflect these insights. I’ll also be testing these insights at vendor analyst days, at the major HR tech shows in Chicago and Paris later this year, and during as many briefings/demos as I have time to take. And I’ll be sure to keep up my consumption of grand passion wines. In vino, veritas.