Beyond the jargon: is HR tech lost in translation?

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Reliance on technology and understanding its language can create communication barriers. To offset this, HR professionals need to develop non-technical tactics.

We are all too aware of the vitality of the HR technology upon which we rely, with that tech not only vital, but very much alive and changing all the time.

As HR leaders we are often just as aware of our own struggles to understand the technical territory upon which these projects tread. Jargon and the smoke and mirrors of systems expertise can confound and confuse, creating a barrier to the effective governance of such projects owned in HR.

About time that we acknowledged the lack of translation out there. Different careers exist for a reason and there is no sense in aiming to meet, match and mirror the techies.

So here are five non-technical tactics, all familiar to HR professionals, which just might help get to grips with the gap. Use your own skills to turn tech talk into traction.

Focus on impact

Good decision-making and leadership concentrate on outcomes against objective. This focus may need to be in the context of project meetings, but bear in mind that in writing there is an even greater temptation to type, send and hope you’ve been wise. With your aims in mind, the way to make decisions is to assess those aims against the impact of choices. Here are some easy ways to do so:

Develop your “stuck record” questions. “What does that mean?” isn’t a bad one. Keep questions open and probing (remember recruitment interviews!). Acronyms are not clever of the speaker unless and until they save time because everyone understands them, so ask for explanations.

The key point is that the effective manager acknowledges anything that is stopping shared communication and the ineffective systems partner is the one unwilling to resolve such simple barriers to common goals.

In my first project meeting I heard the word “patch” and lost the plot. Had I pretended an interview candidate had obfuscated and asked “can you explain the impact of that?” I might have understood where we were trying to get to (in that case understanding the timeframe before which my team would see resolution to a problem).

Build a team

This is something else you know well how to do. Appreciating complementary skills at the project team level is a great way to cover all bases in assessing choice, value or risk.

For example, the much-maligned payroll professional can suffer for an insistence on process and control, with perceived lack of flexibility. Balance with someone strong on people-focus and the technician who can offer system choices as to how tools can be designed and you have the makings of a holistic right answer. Cross-functional project work, such as in HR tech development, is ripe for “them and us”, in turn ripe for HR to apply what we are really good at to broker.

Spot the black hat on your team - the one who spots the problems

A tip is to spot the black hat on your team - the one who spots the problems. Please bear with this exasperatingly negative view. A black hat thinker might just give you an important clue as to something worth being aware of sooner rather than later.

A second tip here - the detail person might not be able to get beyond a particular scenario. Try to find out how often it happens. When it does, how many people does it impact? How much does it cost in time and money?

Get involved

There is much confidence to be derived from taking out the fear factor and here are a couple of ways to do just that.

Sit behind the wheel, just once. If you’re leading on technology that you haven’t looked at, tried to use or sought to promote, then do so. It is a psychological subtlety but a visual impression of how things look on screen helps. Better still play the end user and have a go.

Fill in a timesheet, enter your holiday or try applying for a job. Best of all, once seen and once tried, sell it on. Can you explain to your colleagues why this thing is a good thing?

A second strategy for getting involved is of course to find friends. HR professionals in the same boat will be more than willing to share project experiences as a benchmark. User groups are great for this. Benefit the most from groups where the agenda is driven by group members as typically these veer more comfortably away from any limits of the technology as a pure product and service.

There are also online forums and networking opportunities. Go for it.  However, do be a little canny about the nature of the question appropriate for online answers. I counsel against looking for advice that is deeply contextual, such as system selection, within any brief to-and-fro of this kind. Even a straw poll here could significantly mislead.

Take ownership

This includes assigning it. Implementing people technology is not an IT project! Make the mental shift towards owning the project, with the same assurance that you’d own organisational change agenda or the like.

Taking ownership doesn’t mean trying to learn it all. Your skill will be in understanding when understanding doesn't matter - but remembering that control and risk do. One way to test this is to ask yourself whether something is a how question or a why one. Assign the how and keep the why. Here’s an example of how that works:

Implementing people technology is not an IT project!

One of the up-front decisions in the purchase of a new system these days is whether to hold on premise or in the all-too-truly nebulous cloud. Why move to cloud-based solutions matters to you. This is a question of owning your appetite for risk versus control. How the cloud works I’d suggest really needn’t bother you.

Build great relationships

Finally in your armoury is the natural HR strength in relationships. Success in technical projects, as in any other, rests or falls in the ability to get the best out of your people. These projects can epitomise that challenge, because of the diversity of the stakeholder interest. This is the HR comfort zone and do take comfort in it.

Internal stakeholder management is familiar ground and what may be new for HR in tech projects are the styles of the external organisations you’ll need to work with. Expect strength from your partner organisations delivering on both product and service. This is a two-way street and be prepared to invest some effort to appreciate each other.

Start as you mean to go on and I suggest with a simple emphasis on conveying how your organisation sees life. ("What matters to us is…") A good service partner will welcome questions, keeping in touch, explanations - and should help you with the missions suggested above too.

HR technology provides vital tools but with instruction manuals all too often written in the wrong languages. But to navigate artfully in systems terrain and make your project a success there is no need to learn a whole new dictionary.

About Kate Wadia

Kate Wadia

Kate’s passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential. She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator.

Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role.

With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work. Currently she leads as Managing Director for Phase 3 Consulting, offering an independent take on the HR systems market in the UK.

Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust, best delivered with incorrigible enthusiasm.

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