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Workday VP champions mobile, data-driven decisions for 2014

In this Q&A, Leighanne Levensaler talks 2014 trends, the difference between integrated and unified systems and action items for the new year.

The new year represents a clean slate for many business leaders. Financial and human capital management (HCM) software vendor Workday Inc. is no stranger to fresh starts. After all, a clean slate is exactly what founders Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri were after when they designed their platform from the ground up.

Leighanne LevensalerLeighanne Levensaler

In the final days of 2013, we caught up with Leighanne Levensaler, Workday vice president of HCM products, to ask what she thinks lies ahead for the new year. She also shared some action items for business leaders to start their year off right and provided her take on other industry experts' 2014 predictions.

What are some technology trends you think are going to be important next year?

Leighanne Levensaler: At a high level, we see the opportunity to add more science into management. And that's more intelligent, data-driven decision making for everyone -- not just for HR [or] finance, but for your managers, employees [and] business leaders. So at every turn, the system is recommending, guiding, informing, influencing [and] predicting what you should do. We are sitting on a massive amount of data [and] historically, HR systems have just skimmed the surface of what's possible by doing some basic reporting. Now, with advancements in technology [and] in thinking about the use of data, we have the opportunity to really mine the data, learn from [it], and then use that information to inform behavior -- not as an afterthought, but as a proactive thought.

Another cool thing [is] the confluence of more sophisticated data management and analysis, and mobility. Workday made a big bet on mobility four and a half years ago, and now everything our managers and employees do is available on mobile devices, which is huge. We're in front of them all the time, [so] how can we help them at every turn make better decisions and do better planning by harnessing all the ... data that we know about them -- using more than just reports? We see an incredible opportunity to harness the information [they] already know and put it in the flow of what they're doing in the place they're doing [it], which is ... on a mobile device. That's my big passion.

A prediction I reported on is that so-called integrated HR systems are out, and, instead, unified will be the new buzzword in 2014. Obviously, Workday HCM software falls into this latter category. But do you think buyers will truly become more discerning when it comes to the differentiation between these two labels?

Levensaler: The masses kind of take integration as 'It's together, and so therefore, it's good.' [But] when you design [a system] to be one -- when it is truly unified -- it's not two things being brought together, which is what integrated means. When you design it as one experience, one point of engagement [that's] completely consistent from a data, flow and security perspective, it's fundamentally different than bringing two disparate things together and integrating them. And that is highly nuanced, make no mistake -- until you see it, right? Seeing is believing.

[Business leaders] don't think 'Here's my people stuff and here's my finance stuff and here [are] my business metrics.' They think about the team, the objective they need to achieve and the cost implication, the revenue and profitability -- whatever's meaningful to them and their function. They think of it as one thing, and so it's artificial to have to go to multiple places to run your business. Your people and your money are your business, and to have those two things disconnected doesn't make sense. It's just a legacy of the way our software grew up. We design from the perspective of the business user, not the HR department [and] not the finance department.

It's hard to put a moniker on that solution that everybody understands. I don't love the word unified because it's kind of a synonym to 'integrated' in most people's minds. All of a sudden [the term unified] came on like wildfire and other vendors started copying it and so it lost a bit of its [meaning] because everybody uses it at their own discretion.

I know Workday is planning to push Financials in 2014. Are you starting to see more potential customers coming from the finance side?

Levensaler: We are seeing the CFO coming to us directly, [or] the CIO bringing the CFO and leading with financial management. For our financial management to be successful, you [should] have the bedrock of HR [as well] because people are such a huge portion of your business. But we are getting leads and customers coming from the finance angle versus the HR angle, and then building the complement of the other in turn. That is a relatively new phenomenon in the last year. It's [happened] as our financial management solution has reached a market sophistication -- not just highly differentiated, which it's always been.

Mark Nittler, Workday's vice president, wrote in a 2014 predictions blog, 'Going forward, I expect to see far more collaboration between HR and finance; I have had discussions this year with people who suggest that in the future, the two organizations may even merge into a single organization under a chief resource officer.' What are your thoughts on this?

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Levensaler: I've long been a proponent of separating out the operational activities that we have as HR and finance function[s] from the strategic, because otherwise the strategic gets mired in the details of the tactical and service delivery. They're also very different skill sets, and different experiences are needed to be successful in those roles. So whether you call it a chief resource officer [or] head of resources in the organizations of people and finance, regardless of the title, I do believe we're going to start to see an abstraction of the strategic from the operations, just as we have in other aspects of our business -- [for example], marketing and sales being separated out.

What are some action items you think business leaders should undertake in 2014?

Levensaler: First of all, don't be scared of mobile. Embrace it full stop. I think trying to control mobile access and get it perfect from an end user perspective is a fruitless effort, and there's an amazing amount of value just getting it out there. Your end users are begging for it, and your business will be better because of it.

The second is -- and I used to build these myself -- maturity models of step one: do this; step two: this; step three: this; [and] grow into maturity -- I have a different perspective [on them] now. I think those models of where you are and where you need to be are instructive from an educational point of view, but sometimes you just have to go out and say, 'I've got this gnarly business problem, and I might not have passed all the thresholds to attack it at a level four, but I'm going to solve [it]. And it might be hard with current skill sets or technology, but I'm going to do it because I believe that problem will be a beacon for others to be solved in the same way.'

If we keep going through the logical progression, we'll never get to the hard stuff. So I would say debunk the maturity models and solve the hairy business problems no matter what it takes. Go after those sophisticated solutions.

About the author:
Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter
@emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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