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Applying Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” to advances in HR technology

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22nd Jan 2014
HR Technology & Transformation Advisor HR Tech Truth
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In Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 bestseller Outliers, the popular author known for his provocative assertions supported by memorable anecdotes and scientific research (some might say cherry-picked research) introduced the "10,000 hour rule.” The rule posits that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert and likely very successful at anything. He gives examples such as Bill Gates and The Beatles.

Let’s take a look at how something like the 10,000 hour rule might apply to the HR Technology domain and how it continues to evolve, but using the threshold of five years’ worth of “collective industry efforts” instead. But first we need an appropriate starting point for the five-year cycle; and for the purposes of this article, we’re going to use a starting point of when most of the elements were in place within these solutions to drive the broad range of business benefits customers hoped for.

Yes, HR Technology solution providers were purveying their offerings in the 70s and 80s, but clearly these were not platforms for managing the strategic aspects of human capital management to achieve competitive advantage. Then came the 90s and early 2000s, and a flurry of HR software companies were launched to tackle specific HR processes like recruiting, performance management and learning management, but in more robust and innovative ways not evident in the HRMS/HR-ERP platforms dominating the market.

By the early 2000s, scores of customer organisations were supplementing their HR transactional system or system of record with best-of-breed software from companies such as StepStone Solutions (for recruiting, founded 1996, now called Lumesse), Saba (for learning management, founded 1997), Taleo (for recruiting, founded 1998 as Recruitsoft), Cornerstone OnDemand (also essentially for learning management at that time, founded 1999), iCIMS (for recruiting, founded 1999), SuccessFactors (principally for performance management then, founded 2001), and SumTotal Systems (also for learning and content management, branded as SumTotal in 2004 but actually formed over several preceding years by combining assets from Docent, Click2learn, etc.)

Certainly these weren’t the only successful vendors offering specialized, best-of-breed HR software during this period, and forcing the HRMS / HR-ERP “500 pound gorillas” to either partner or build-out deeper functionality – but these were among the most successful players.

So, should we consider 2004/2005 the starting point for when offerings in the HR Technology space really started delivering ROI consistently, and creating business value aligned with customer expectations and budget allocations … and therefore start the five-year “Gladwell-inspired clock” around then? Probably not.

Three main reasons for starting the five-year clock several years later; e.g., let’s say 2011:

  • It wasn’t until around 2010/2011 when most of the aforementioned (specialised) HR solution vendors truly started evolving into Talent Management Suite providers, linking the various strategic aspects of managing human capital using integrated modules or solution components, and often a common data model.
  • Citing just two of the many key research findings on customer satisfaction with these platforms and their ability to drive transformational change in managing human capital:  Bersin & Associates reported in 2011 that average customer satisfaction with HR / Talent Management systems overall was the equivalent of a “C+”; and the Hackett Group in 2012 reported that 79% of executives were dissatisfied with talent management support … a telling stat given that by 2012, likely over 80% of larger enterprises were heavily invested in talent management technology. Of course, both of these findings were likely based on product implementations occurring in 2009, 2010 and earlier.
  • It was in 2011 that several like-minded and long-term HR Technology enthusiasts -- myself included -- starting writing and speaking about the elephant in the room: what it really takes to drive high levels of user adoption … and the fact that key elements of this picture had little to do with the 20-30% variability in functionality offered by different systems. Moreover, perhaps even the now-ubiquitous emphasis on SaaS (Software as a Service) … although SaaS still encompasses variations, each with associated implications, consumer-like user experiences / systems of engagement, and the “big three HR Technology themes of the day” -- social, mobile and HR analytics / big data -- have to some extent kept the buying public from having the right perspective on user adoption. 

An appropriate lens or perspective to have on driving HR Technology user adoption (to achieve an ambitious talent management agenda) should probably include the following critical consideration: “is the HR / Talent Management platform unified in all respects; e.g., data model, user experience, cross-process linkages, employee talent profile, embedded analytics and content, configurability and reporting tools, etc.?  Of course those solution vendors that built-out talent management suites through acquisition have invested heavily in recent years in integrating acquired assets and in user experience modernisation / harmonisation efforts to try to match the unified (usually organically developed) platform’s obvious advantages. These efforts are completed or near-completed for some, still a work-in-progress for others. 

Of course, an engaging, modern user experience and consistent, unified system architecture removes some of the bumps in the road toward broad-based user adoption of HR Technology – but not all.

So, what other progress has been made toward achieving much higher levels of customer satisfaction, expected business results and user adoption in HR Technology since 2011 (or two years into this posited five-year cycle toward more consistent successes in this domain)? Six words capture it:  Much more attention on change management.

I’m not sure why it’s taken this long for research and analyst firms, industry influencers and many solution providers to shine a very bright light on the importance of change management in driving far more success and satisfaction in HR Technology; but frankly, after operating in this arena for 30 years, I’m thrilled it’s happening now … and we still have 2+ years left in the five-year Gladwell-like cycle! 

Why do I say it’s happening now? Some evidence:

A prominent CIO Survey from 2012 concluded that … “of the top 10 barriers to a successful ERP journey, five can be addressed by developing and implementing a structured change management program.”  This finding from one of the world’s largest consulting firms also highlights one reason why various boutique consultancies around the globe have achieved considerable success over the last 20+ years, even without employing thousands of consultants: these firms have an end-to-end focus (from readiness assessment to sustainability planning) on systematically managing change, clearly a major component in all enterprise technology initiatives. Of course, appropriate communications strategies, tactics and tools, including sound expectation management, is a critical element.

The annual Cedar Crestone HR Technology Survey is probably the most highly regarded out there.

After presenting tons of findings related to technology and vendor capabilities and trends, the presentation of survey results at the 2013 HR Technology Conference netted out customer success on HR Technology rollouts not to system / vendor attributes -- but to change management!  

By way of concluding this piece, let’s return to those white hot themes mentioned earlier and link each one to key “change management dependencies” that must be accounted for in order to leverage recent product advances across these themes:

  • White hot theme #1:  Social collaboration tools in HR Technology; e.g., to allow employees to move around and up internally, pursue informal learning, identify and take advantage of mentors, provide and receive feedback on interactions and impact, etc. Change management component: Career gatekeepers; i.e., managers, must be receptive to hiring internals, not be concerned about having to replace people that move out, fully encourage mentoring and informal learning, and make the retention and engagement of top quality employees “job one.”
  • White hot theme #2:  Mobile computing in HR Technology – or “taps trumps clicks.” Change management component:  Bear in mind that while users of HR systems and information now clearly prefer mobile devices over traditional laptops or desktop computers, we’re still in the very early stages of highly strategic “people management capabilities” (e.g., planning capabilities) being rolled out on mobile devices. The point here is that managing expectations around what capabilities will be available via mobile / when is a must – for both vendors and customers. Additionally, keep in mind that while the mobile device provides much easier access to HR / Talent Management business processes, decision-support frameworks (e.g., analytics dashboards) and key people information in general -- all of these pieces being accessed via mobile devices should have first been properly optimised, well understood, and perceived / received as rational and reliable.
  • White hot theme #3:  HR or Talent Management Analytics / Big Data.  Change management component:  Perhaps start with the premise that anyone that has been a user of HR systems (or even its data) for several years might actually have a negative bias against these tools. Expectations have simply not been managed well by internal and external HR Technology protagonists, data ownership and integrity has often been neglected in rollouts, and purveyors of on-premise installed solutions historically had minimal skin in the game in terms of ensuring customer success and satisfaction once the up-front license fee was collected (of course, this has changed considerably for the better with the SaaS model). 

Beyond these factors, leveraging HR analytics starts with having data and metrics standards (e.g., how are terms like turnover defined and measured); and must also include an understanding of how different metrics and dials should be looked at together before potentially premature or misguided actions are taken. Five examples:

  1. A year-over-year 20% decrease in headcount in a certain business unit might not signal an employee turnover problem, but that a re-organisation had occurred. 
  2. Losing more employees to direct competitors than they are losing to your organisation might not be an issue if it is mostly bottom quartile performers who are leaving.
  3. The reason why “time-to-fill” certain positions is taking longer might be because of much less supply in the market (signaling a change needed in sourcing or compensation strategy) -- or the result of a policy decision to only hire “first choice candidates”.
  4. The reason why “time-to-productivity” for new employees in a business area has increased is likely due to offering an incentive to later-career employees in that group to take early retirement packages, thereby reducing the pool of mentors to help new employees traverse their learning curve. 
  5. Finally, concluding that a metric indicating “organisational bench strength” for key roles is in good shape might require a second look to confirm that the same high potential or senior employees aren’t being mapped to multiple roles at the same time – or that all successor candidates aren’t flagged as “ready now” (much better to have readiness levels staggered of course).

About the author:

Steve spent most of the 80s and 90s heading-up HR Systems and Talent Management processes for investment banks in the U.S. and Europe, and directing multiple highly successful initiatives in those organisations. He also designed and built an HR-M&A function and high-tech HR Shared Services center for a well-known industry consolidator. In 2000, Steve’s initial foray within the HR solution provider industry was serving as Global Head, Product Strategy and principal spokesperson for PeopleSoft's HCM Product Line. That was followed in recent years by co-founding a Hiring Management Solution company and then founding his own boutique HR / HR Technology advisory practice. Steve has been engaged as a Global HR Technology and Transformation Advisor by premier organisations across multiple industry sectors; and as a Board Advisor by emerging HR solutions and services providers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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