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It was the year of AI in HR tech.
Of course, not everyone called it artificial intelligence, per se. And among those looking at trends in HR software, many were skeptical, at best.
But AI and its variants -- notably, machine learning -- were impossible to ignore across the HR tech landscape in 2017 as major human capital management (HCM) vendors rolled out new systems, modules, capabilities and other stuff that had greater or lesser degrees of AI technology baked in. Many smaller AI-oriented companies and startups joined in as well.
Oracle's brand of AI
Some of the biggest players in the business -- vendors like database software giant Oracle, which typically legitimize trends in HR with their imprimaturs -- stepped up their involvement with AI in 2017.
Oracle, however, hedged. Its top executive for AI product development, Jack Berkowitz, has dubbed the vendor's version adaptive intelligence, perhaps as a cautionary stance given the rampant hype surrounding AI, not only in HR tech but also in most tech sectors.
Even so, adaptive intelligence jibes well with the AI acronym, and the enhancements and upgrades Oracle made to its HCM Cloud suite unveiled in early October were imbued with AI, including a talent recruitment chatbot function.
HR Technology Conference spotlights AI
Meanwhile, the major 2017 forum for AI-tinged HR tech vendor announcements and marketing campaigns was the HR Technology Conference -- held in Las Vegas in mid-October, just after Oracle made its big 2017 announcements at its own annual user conference.
"There's a lot of buzz right now about AI, a lot of attention, a lot of people talking," Gretchen Alarcon, group vice president of HCM strategy at Oracle, told SearchHRSoftware at the HR Technology show. "I think the question we need to ask is: How does this make your organization more productive?"
Armen BerjiklyUltimate Software
Alarcon's sober-minded, enterprise-oriented view contrasted nicely with the nearly evangelical fervor for AI that Armen Berjikly, senior director of strategy at Ultimate Software, an Oracle competitor, proudly displayed at the conference.
"AI has come back," Berjikly exclaimed as he unveiled Ultimate's Xander platform, a natural language processing-assisted tool that analyzes emotions behind employee responses to open-ended queries about working conditions and corporate well-being. "This time, it's back with a vengeance."
The show touched off a busy fourth quarter for HR tech. But the first eight months of 2017 were just as action-packed and filled with moves by major vendors around AI and other technologies.
IBM ignites a year of HR tech news
The year had barely begun when IBM in January extended its Watson AI engine to talent acquisition, emerging with IBM Watson Talent, which joined IBM's constellation of cloud-based HR tech tools, including IBM Watson Recruitment, Watson Career Coach, Watson Talent Development, IBM Cognitive Agent Assist for HR and Watson Talent Insights.
In April, Castlight Health, a leading health benefits administration software vendor, acquired wellness software vendor Jiff, in a deal valued at about $112 million, to form something of a mini-powerhouse in the fast-growing benefits segment of the industry.
Other big product moves came in the summer and fall. Among them:
- SAP connected its SuccessFactors workforce analytics module with its RealSpend strategic financial planning platform. The late August announcement at SAP's SuccessConnect user conference drew a positive review from analyst Lisa Rowan of IDC, who called it a significant market development toward harmonizing HR and enterprise financial data.
- In July, Google rattled the talent acquisition segment with Google Hire, a SaaS recruiting tool aimed at small and medium-sized employers. With Hire and Google for Jobs, a free job search tool unveiled in May, Google quickly gained a big foothold in HR tech and is poised to battle its nemesis, Microsoft, and its recent acquisition, LinkedIn, which has become a recruiting power in its own right.
- October saw Workday, the SaaS-only HCM vendor and perennial threat to the likes of Oracle and SAP, add new data-as-a-service benchmarking and analytics capabilities to its core HCM system.
- Also that month, HCM, workforce management and wellness software vendor Ceridian showed off at its user conference a new partner ecosystem and updates to its HCM suite.
- Longtime workforce management and time and attendance market leader Kronos in mid-November unveiled the fruits of a top-secret, two-year, $150 million development project intended to overhaul and modernize not only the vendor's technology, but also its staid corporate image. The company's new mobile-first, all-SaaS, AI-based Workforce Dimensions platform instantly got top reviews. Mark Smith of Ventana Research said: "This is a smart move. There are not many companies that can put people, resources and time to build something that's new and takes you to the next level."
As 2017 ends, tech expert names coming trends in HR
As the big names were making or trying to make news with AI or other technologies, simmering trends in HR tech were popping and gaining the notice of some of the keenest analytical minds in the industry, such as that of veteran analyst Josh Bersin.
In a podcast interview with SearchHRSoftware at the HR Technology Conference, Bersin laid out what he sees as the top 10 market disruptions and trends primed to take center stage in 2018:
- mobile and team-based tools for workforce productivity;
- ERP and HCM systems moving decidedly to the cloud, with talent management components of HCM suites morphing into team management systems;
- the arrival of continuous performance management technology;
- a flowering of the market for employee feedback, pulse survey and analytics tools oriented toward employee experience;
- dramatic growth in learning management systems;
- video as a key component of recruiting;
- big advances in benefits, wellness and wearable health technologies;
- people analytics with embedded AI becoming a must-have for employers;
- the wholesale emergence of intelligent self-service, communications and employee experience tools; and
- technology innovation coming out of HR departments themselves.
So, 2017 was a big year for AI and other trends in HR tech, and 2018 is certain to yield more progress in what is still a fast-growing and innovative business.
A skeptic speaks
But at the same time, people in the business would do well to heed the skepticism of critics such as the influential analyst John Sumser, who had this to say in 2017 about AI.
"There's no fully realized implementation of AI available here," Sumser said in an interview at the HR Technology show.