At blush, the concept of mobile access to human resources systems makes so much sense. The image of bustling employees taking care of important administrative tasks during down moments in the flow of their business lives wherever they might be leads to visions of improved productivity and efficiency.
But the reality of mobile HR has yet to deliver on that vision. Instead, corporations have cited security and compliance as obstacles or experimented in fits and starts, rolling out isolated pieces of functionality and supporting them with half-baked mobile policies, if any.
"If you mobilize HR, but you're not allowing people to use their own devices, and you don't give out company-supplied devices, you're nowhere," said Lisa Rowan, research vice president for HR and talent management services at IDC.
Given that a recent Gartner survey found that only 23% of employees have been given company-issued smartphones, it seems that a lot of companies find themselves nowhere.
But this hasn't deterred HR software providers from sticking to a mobile HR message. Every one of them is working the marketplace to build momentum behind the notion that a strong mobile HR strategy is critical to long-term employee satisfaction.
Kai Petzelthead of solution management, SAP SuccessFactors
"From our perspective, it's actually quite obvious," said Kai Petzelt, head of solution management at SAP SuccessFactors, citing research showing that more than a billion workers used mobile devices at work in 2015. "Employees just expect to interact with HR the same way they interact with their friends and families."
Petzelt said the idea behind mobile HR is, essentially, to move HR closer to the workforce, whereas workers historically have had to come to HR. But it's not enough for HR to simply move closer via mobile technology. It also has to make the technology easy to use and expose the right features and functions.
"I'm not interacting with HR constantly -- only when I have to," Petzelt said. "If I have to enter a leave request, or if I have to take a learning course, or if I have to review my goals for the year, logging on to an HR system may or may not be the most intuitive or self-explanatory way to do it."
Broader mobile strategy impacts HR
Rowan estimated that about a third of companies have a formal BYOD policy in place that gives them a leg up in making mobile HR a reality. The most successful of those, she said, have focused on enabling certain tasks that are well-suited for mobile devices. Things like looking up schedules, tracking time, asking for time off or making benefits selections all can be done quickly and easily on a smartphone.
In fact, Petzelt said SuccessFactors has focused its product strategy on such so-called 15-second tasks, which he believes are logical initial candidates for mobile enablement.
One additional the vendor considers promising is continuous performance management. In contrast with traditional annual performance reviews, it enables a constant digital dialog between employee and manager.
"Capturing accomplishments over time and continuously throughout the year allows for a more accurate and meaningful assessment of an employee's performance," Petzelt said.
Another software vendor, Cornerstone OnDemand, has taken the approach of giving HR administrators and the employees they support two distinct tools: For HR, there's a mobile-friendly version of the desktop app, while a consumer-style app serves up easy-to-complete tasks to employees.
But that flexibility hasn't helped to overcome many buyers' concerns about device security -- concerns that often keep them from rolling out mobile HR tools, according to Jason Corsello, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at Cornerstone OnDemand.
As a result, "We haven't seen that mass adoption yet in the enterprise," Corsello said.
Gretchen Alarcon, group vice president of human capital management product strategy at Oracle, said companies that choose to let perceived obstacles stop them from extending HR functions to mobile devices risk alienating younger employees and job seekers.
"If I have grown up with all of this -- my life is on social, and I do everything on mobile -- and now I'm going to go to a company that doesn't do anything via mobile, what does that say?" Alarcon asked.
It's an important question that's at the root of future success of mobile HR, and it doesn't always point toward real fears such as security. Sometimes, it simply calls attention to a company's lack of mobile vision.
Along those lines, IDC's Rowan said the one-third of companies that have formal BYOD policies is counteracted by the two-thirds that either have no policy or specifically prohibit BYOD, usually out of legal concerns.
Those companies, she said, would be well advised to take a more balanced approach.
"They need to be able to put policies in place in such a way that the company is in good shape but is embracing these new technologies," Rowan said.
HR needs customer-centric mindset
BYOD policies aside, sometimes the HR department's arrogance dooms a company's mobile HR strategy. Brian Sommer, founder of tech consultancy TechVentive Inc., said a lot of companies' mobile HR apps appear to have been designed to simplify the lives of HR staff rather than rank-and-file employees.
A mobile HR app "has to be designed for workers, not HR professionals," Sommer said. "It has to be part of a comprehensive service operation from HR that correctly coexists with the reality of the workforce."
The good news, he said, is that many vendors have figured this out and have tweaked their products to revolve more around end users. The bad news is, even if a company has a strategic vision for mobile HR and great products at its fingertips, HR executives still face an uphill battle securing the budget dollars to bring that vision to life.
"HR generally gets the leftovers of the IT budget," Sommer said. "What they need is a considerable, well-thought-out HR strategic that they can show to the executive committee."
That means establishing mobile HR as a higher priority by illustrating what the competition is doing to engage employees, retain workers and find talent. In other words, HR execs have to paint a sky-is-falling picture of what might befall the company if it continues to short-change mobile HR.
"If the pain becomes apparent and great," said Sommer, "then the money will flow."
Read a Workday mobile case study
Learn about mobile finance applications
Understand trends in ERP mobility