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Why a stellar HR technology strategy is a must for success

You want people management success and a competitive edge, not HR technology disasters. Here's advice on how to avoid the latter and win the talent war.

Today's HR software landscape is exciting, with new products coming out all the time. It's easy to get lost in the innovative features of technology and believe, without proof, that it will work wonders for your business and will help determine if a product truly does meet your needs. Crafting a well-thought-out HR technology strategy will help guide you.

"You have to define your own priorities first. Every company culture is different. Companies are at different levels of maturity," said Bill Medina, director of payroll, benefits and cash control at Los Angeles-based Mercury Insurance. "Once you've answered what your priorities are, the decision comes very easy."

Culture key to HR technology strategy

For Medina, who was charged with finding a technology that would improve employee interaction with his company's well-being program, prospective vendors had to relate with Mercury Insurance's "mom-and-pop feel." Despite having 4,300 employees in four offices, the company still maintains the intimacy of a small workforce, he said, largely because, in taking care of workers, "it does a lot of hand-holding."

Limeade, an employee engagement software platform, won over Medina. It didn't hurt that, with Limeade, employees have quick access to the company's incentive-based well-being program and can receive as much as $700 in annual health plan savings. What also impressed Medina was that the vendor demonstrated its staff could mesh with Mercury Insurance's culture. That also happened recently when Medina helped a company committee choose UltiPro to streamline payroll, benefits and other disparate functions into one HR information system.

"That's what we look at first," Medina said. "We look to see if we feel comfortable with a potential partner and how they take the time to understand our culture and gear their services towards our culture. That takes precedence."

Gregory Gyarmati wants a vendor to prove its technology can match, as closely as possible, what his company needs to improve its HR functions, but cost also weighs heavily in any decision. Gyarmati is the HR director of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino and Dover International Speedway in Delaware, where, after state taxes and racing purse allotments, casinos keep 66 percent of table games revenue and 42 percent of slot revenue. "We have to make the best of what we have," he said.

Hamstrung by a tight budget, Gyarmati's HR technology strategy includes taking specific small steps when upgrading software. One of those steps is collaborating with other company departments. That's how Gyarmati learned his colleagues in marketing had success wooing customers with gamification features on OfferCraft software. Because the casino and racetrack company already had a contract with OfferCraft, Gyarmati jumped in to use its content management component to share his department's weekly newsletter, "The Stall Street Journal." The publication got its name because it is hung in company bathrooms, but now, it will also be available on mobile devices. The casino and racetrack's 1,450 employees will soon earn gamification points by interacting with the app.

"You need to do research because there's just so much technology out there," Gyarmati said. "Just because something costs more, it might not be the best fit for your organization."

Know your priorities

While not all HR departments can get a free piggyback ride on a service contract, they can reduce their chances of making costly errors by first researching internal processes before even looking at the many technology products on the market, said Gartner analyst Ron Hanscome.

"Having a plan is the key to getting where you want to go," Hanscome said. "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you somewhere, but you'll learn it's not where you wanted to be." Hanscome recommends organizations spend time understanding their technological pain points and aligning them with business strategies -- but not to the point where they will suffer from "paralysis by analysis."

Settle for nothing but clear and concise examples.
Ron HanscomeGartner analyst

For example, if your organization is aiming to create new product lines or open new locations, those efforts will rely on finding and keeping employees with suitable skill sets, Hanscome said. After defining what is needed to propel business growth, study your existing technology, he said. If it is already performing capably, keep it and look for other areas to improve -- or just sit tight altogether.

If analysis and company consensus point to a need for new technology, Hanscome advises pressing vendors to prove their offerings fit your needs. For instance, if analytics is a vendor's specialty, ask for a nuanced view of how an analytical tool, such as machine learning, makes its way through the technology and into your HR program. Settle for nothing but clear and concise examples.

"Very rarely would I out and out recommend a certain vendor," Hanscome said. "What is more common is helping [organizations] understand … current pros and cons and the implications of implementing any number of vendors. I will not know enough of [companies'] detailed situation; that's what they have to do. I can, though, make sure their eyes are wide open."

A UX approach to HR technology strategy

When HR exec Mai Ton hunts for new technology, one desire fuels her search: ease of use. "The world is already complicated. I want to simplify things," she said. Mai, who recently became VP of people operations and culture at HelloSign, was VP of HR for San Francisco-based identity and access management company OneLogin when she was interviewed for this article.

Certainly, any HR offering had to support OneLogin's direct needs and demonstrate compatibility, Mai said. But, above all, it had to be simple. Mai's focus on simplicity led her to Namely, an HR platform that integrates multiple HR functions and focuses on being user-friendly. Mai said that payroll, taxes and other functions are easy to perform. Just as importantly, OneLogin's 150 employees have quick access to information about their benefits and company news, she said.

Mai was pleased to find that the Namely platform came in handy when she visited New York to meet remote OneLogin employees. On her phone, she double-checked the employees' profile photographs in the system to ensure she would correctly connect names with faces.

Prior to choosing Namely, Mai said she "looked at several narratives: Is it intuitive? Does it have an easy design? Does it function the way your brain functions? Any technology should be easy for employees to navigate."

"HR people can lose a lot of credibility when the system sucks," she said.

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