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HR's cautious embrace of technology on display

The annual HR Technology Conference confronts a schism as technology vendors chase after business departments slowly returning to technology.

There have been hundreds, maybe thousands of IT conferences over the years, but hardly any of them have focused on human resources. The purported biggest one—the HR Technology Conference & Expo – is finishing its 15th annual installment in Chicago this week.

The main broad-brush impression this gathering of around 6,000 leaves is that of an industry being held back by the very asset that it’s designed to nurture: people, and their resistance to new ways of doing things. HR people, especially. 

Several users of the technology – a roughly equal number of HR practitioners and IT professionals  – were quick to nod emphatically, or offer a knowing smirk, when asked if HR departments are technology laggards, like doctors and lawyers once were.

One IT worker from a federal research laboratory expressed mild frustration over waiting for senior managers to decide whether to upgrade a legacy PeopleSoft system or replace it with Software as a Service. Another, an IT business analyst from a medical lab company, acknowledged fighting a constant uphill battle to sell the benefits of technology. A consultant saw her challenge and opportunity in convincing HR of the efficiency potential and for bringing out people’s inherent talent through the use of social collaboration technology.   

Some were also quick to point out that HR has for decades used IT for payroll and benefits administration. It was a pioneer in that sense, but hasn’t come very far since then. The term “legacy system” could have been invented for HR departments.

And that’s precisely where the schism lies. The vendors and their large customers both have huge legacy systems that won’t go away easily, nor is it even clear they should anytime soon. So everyone seems to be trying to integrate their old payroll and benefits system with shiny new objects like workforce analytics and social media-driven recruitment that can only work well on a solid foundation of the employee data that has always been managed in those same legacy systems.

This is the culture that Oracle, SuccessFactors, Cornerstone and Workday are trying to sell their fancy analytics, social media and mobile dashboards to. You get a sense of fast-talking auctioneers trying to sell show horses to people who just need a good mule.    

Naomi Bloom, the consultant seemingly held in reverence by many in this global HR village, somewhat touchingly expressed her pleasure at finally seeing HR get its time in the limelight, in the waning years of her long career. HR is now at the center of what the leading technology vendors are doing, Bloom says. The question may be whether HR feels the same.   

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