How to Choose a Talent Management System

By Dave Zielinski May 16, 2014

Choosing a talent management system is as daunting as it’s ever been. Not only are there more systems to choose from, there is also more commonality than ever among features and functions in these next-generation systems. But there are ways to reliably separate pretenders from contenders, according to experts.

Here are some criteria and questions to consider in evaluating today’s talent management technology, which includes systems in recruiting, performance management, learning, compensation and more under its umbrella.

Is Change Really Necessary?

Companies often jump into the search for new talent systems without taking inventory of what they already possess, said Sarah White, founder and principal advisor of Accelir, a human resources advisory firm in Milwaukee, Wis.

Before searching for a new vendor, White suggests giving your incumbent provider a second look.

“Ask yourself whether you need marriage counseling or a divorce,” she said. “It may save you the cost of another implementation, which can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, because you’re simply on an older version of a system, the first system wasn’t implemented correctly, or some of its best-practice modules haven’t been turned on yet.”

If you’re buying a new system because you think it will improve an underlying talent process, you’ll be disappointed, White cautions. “The technology will only magnify any existing process flaws,” she said.

Bypass RFPs for Scripted Demos

Experts believe the request for proposal (RFP) process is antiquated; instead, first-round, informational demonstrations are a more efficient way to gauge a system’s capabilities. These demos are often 30 to 60 minutes in length and deliver high-level system overviews. White said it’s common for HR leaders to schedule four to six of these demos, then move to more detailed, scripted demos once the list is narrowed to finalists.

Lisa Rowan, research vice president of HR and talent management services at research firm International Data Corporation, said scripted demos should test how a system performs against your biggest challenges.

“If the intersection between performance management and learning systems is a hot button for you, you’ll want the vendor to show how strong its system linkage is there,” Rowan said. “Also make sure whatever you’re seeing in the demo is not customized and would be available to you today.”

Pricing for similar features or functions in systems can vary significantly among vendors, often based on factors like brand name awareness. But White said lower system price doesn’t always equate to lower quality. “I have seen some good individual talent systems come in at $30,000 to $60,000 less than others with similar features, and they’re often chosen because the user interface was deemed a better fit for the organization,” she said.

Trust but Verify

Test system integration claims. Suite providers often claim their various talent systems are well-integrated, but experts said it’s important to test that claim. That’s because definitions of integration vary and many vendors have acquired their systems from other companies rather than growing them organically.

Jason Averbook, chief business innovation officer at Appirio, where he heads the human capital management business, said there are three types of integration. Each can be tested in demos by employing use cases. When using real-world scenarios to test data integration, make sure you see data moving from place to place, he said, which means you won’t have to rely on batch processing.

“If someone applies for a job online and gets hired, you should then be able to pull up in real time all of their application-related data in an employee talent profile,” Averbrook said. “If you can’t do that, you have proof the data isn’t integrated.”

To test process integration, consider as an example a desired linkage of a performance management and a learning system. If an employee accesses a performance review and sees a noted deficiency in a certain skill area, the process should automatically trigger available courses on that subject in the learning system. “If there’s no such trigger, your data might be integrated but your processes aren’t,” he said.

Regarding user-experience integration, Averbook said the online experience should be seamless across different talent systems. “If the process to do a performance review looks different from the process to enroll in a training class or the process to apply for a job internally, it defeats the purpose of buying all of your systems from the same vendor,” he said.

Look Beyond the Hype

Assess mobile, social and analytics tools. These “big three” functions are all the rage, but it’s essential to ensure they’re a good fit for your organization’s existing technology platforms and end-user needs.

“Make sure the vendor’s mobile applications are more than read-only,” White said. “I’ve seen some beautiful-looking mobile apps that didn’t actually allow you to do any work on them, for things like providing scores and rank on a performance management system. These apps should allow you to do your job the same way you would on the desktop, or they’re not yet mobile-ready.”

Regarding evaluating analytics tools, understand how much is offered “out of the box” by the vendor. What reporting tools will you have to build yourself? “When you see the demo of a lovely dashboard or a set of metrics, you need to ask if those are delivered with the system, and if not, what it would take to get them or to create reports yourself,” Rowan said.

Determine External or ‘Add-on’ Fees

This requires knowing how much of what you see in demos is owned by the vendor and what might be external. For example, Rowan said many recruiting systems don’t include background check services on candidates, which requires a third-party provider, and some learning system vendors don’t offer their own training content but instead partner with providers of off-the-shelf materials.

“It’s important to ask during demos how much is under the vendor’s umbrella, and what are considered add-ons that you might have to pay extra for,” Rowan said.

Pay Attention to Vendor’s Financials

One of the biggest reasons that talent suites or individual systems fail is a vendor doesn’t have the resources to continue servicing accounts or enhancing products.

“Most organizations put the focus on the features and functions of talent systems, but I would put just as much effort into conducting due diligence on the financial wherewithal of the provider,” said Kevin Oakes, CEO of the Institute for Corporate Productivity, an organization that studies how people practices drive high performance.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.


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