Is Open Source HR the Next Big Thing?

The model helps human resource professionals build on solutions shared by their colleagues.

By Tamara Lytle May 23, 2017
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​It started over beers.

Two years ago, consultant Lars Schmidt and Ambrosia Vertesi, then an HR leader at Hootsuite, were hanging out at the South by Southwest festival, a collection of film, interactive media and music events in Austin, Texas. They were talking about how networking with top practitioners at industry events had boosted their careers and how they could extend that advantage to people who couldn’t afford to go to big conferences. They knew that the software industry had innovated rapidly through open-source sharing—which is a techie way of saying that workers informally swapped information, ideas, resources and best practices for free online so that they could build on what others had learned. Why couldn’t the HR community do the same?

“Our goal is to accelerate education and innovation in the field of HR at scale,” says Schmidt, founder of Tysons, Va.-based Amplify Talent. Already, HR Open Source (hros.co), the group he formed with Vertesi, now vice president of people with the security authentication software company Duo Security based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has attracted 2,800 members. More than two dozen case studies have been posted on the site, many from such notable companies as Cisco, GoDaddy, Dell and Oracle. “We’re trying to build something that’s globally relevant,” he explains.

​In the tech world, taking an open-source approach may mean that programmers share computer code so they can spend their time improving on existing work rather than starting from scratch.  

In HR, it might involve sharing case studies or templates for common documents, as well as communicating through social media groups where members offer each other advice.

“The concept of open-source solutions is gaining steam,” says Alexander Alonso, SHRM-SCP, senior vice president for knowledge development and certification at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). It’s making new ideas quickly available and shaving years off the time it takes practitioners to adopt them, he says.

Best of all, the open-source movement can benefit HR professionals from companies of all sizes. For big organizations, it helps cut through red tape when HR innovators want to borrow ideas from other respected companies. For smaller ones, it reduces or even eliminates the need to hire costly consultants to identify and implement cutting-edge concepts.

Google’s open-source site, re:Work, which launched in 2015, focuses on data-driven HR practices and was born of the company’s research on its own managers. Implementing ideas based on current business data can raise the reputation of an HR department’s work within an organization. “You can go from making gut decisions to making better predictions using evidence-based approaches,” says Jennifer Lin, manager of re:Work at Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. “People aren’t as quick to dismiss decisions that are backed by research or data as ‘fluffy’ … which is often how HR is viewed today.”

Advantages of Sharing

​The benefits of going open source are many. Sharing speeds up the pace of innovation by leveraging peer learning and helps practitioners to implement proven ideas and win leadership support for new initiatives. For example, Celinda Appleby, global talent attraction digital media manager for Nike in Portland, Ore., once wrote theoretical white papers to sell new concepts to her senior team. Now she taps existing case studies to show executives what other businesses are doing. “Being able to give a name—‘So and so at Amazon is doing it’—carries its weight in gold,” she says.

Using the open-source approach also saves time and money by providing HR leaders quick answers and advice for free. Appleby benefited from case studies on hros.co in her previous job as head of global recruitment branding at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based tech company Oracle. When Appleby wanted to create an employer brand playbook, she didn’t have to start from scratch because Hootsuite leaders had posted theirs on hros.co as part of a case study. Showing her colleagues the Hootsuite plan, she says, helped her win approval for the idea and saved her a lot of work in creating an initial document.

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Open source can also help companies get a head start on complying with impending laws and workplace regulations. Craig Fisher, director of employer brand at software company CA Technologies in New York City, wanted to start a pay equity program, and a SHRM case study helped him figure out how to do it. “I was able to see best practices and how to get people on board,” says Fisher, who is based in Dallas and also serves as executive director of brand innovation at talent acquisition staffing business Allegis Global Solutions in Hanover, Md. What he learned put the tech business ahead of the curve when Massachusetts, where the company has an office, adopted a law last year requiring pay equity and other states started looking at the idea.

​Fisher is a longtime proponent of open source. When he ran his own tech recruiting firm, he developed a method to contribute to the movement: a “5-1 give-to-ask ratio, which is really what open source is about,” he says. One of the case studies Fisher submitted to hros.co was on updating candidates about the status of their applications.

The social nature of the open source community appeals to many. Chris Brown, head of people analytics and technology at music streaming company SoundCloud in Berlin, took a grassroots approach to sharing by starting a Meetup group in Germany to talk about people analytics. He’s now working on a case study for hros.co about a dashboard SoundCloud created to give a snapshot of hiring trends and data. He also enjoys answering questions for others on the site. “It helps you realize just how much you know,” he says.

The global reach of open-source initiatives helps HR evolve because practitioners have access to good ideas from far afield. “Wherever best practices are happening, we want to shine a light on that,” Schmidt says of his venture with Vertesi.

In addition, data show that diverse groups are more innovative than homogeneous groups. “Collective intelligence is greater than individual intelligence,” Lin says. “Open-source efforts bring many perspectives together to focus on one problem.” 

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Here's what open source can offer HR:

  • Case studies that are posted online so that others can see how a company implemented new programs and strategies.
  • ​Free templates for surveys, forms and other documents.
  • ​Gatherings, which are often connected to industry conferences held around the globe, where people can network.
  • Online forums where practitioners can post questions and plumb the collective wisdom of other members.

Community Support

​Open-source solutions can be especially helpful for organizations that don’t have the resources to hire consultants or send HR staff to many conferences.

“Being a practitioner is hard. A lot of environments don’t have a big support network. Practitioners are on an island,” Schmidt says. “Having a global community with real answers to questions you are dealing with is hugely valuable—and, frankly, hard to find.”

Conferences are helpful, but most of the lessons presented at those gatherings are offered by consultants, not actual HR professionals, says Brenda Rigney, vice president of Pink Ops, a department that works to eliminate inefficiencies at the Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based home health aid company Nurse Next Door. Open-source case studies, on the other hand, come straight from practitioners on the front lines.

Open source comes with sticky issues regarding privacy, competition and relevance.


​Sharing can also bolster companies’ and HR professionals’ reputations through positive feedback. Appleby says Oracle’s leaders were pleased to see the company’s work recognized. The two staffers who worked on the projects and wrote the reports were even happier. “They were able to see the community embrace them,” Appleby says.

Fisher says his case study on how to get back to all job applicants with a personal e-mail within 24 hours garnered worldwide attention for CA Technologies. “We’re seen as leaders, rather than followers,” he notes. And writing the case study, he says, was a useful exercise because it forced him to think about what the company was doing right and what it was getting wrong.


Shared Resources

  • HR Open Source (hros.co) offers case studies, document templates, discussion boards and more. Templates cover topics such as a talent acquisition scorecard and a new-employee onboarding checklist. Case study offerings include Dell’s employer branding strategy and IT consulting company Appirio’s changes to its candidate interview process.
  • Google’s re:Work (rework.withgoogle.com) shares data-driven HR practices from various companies. Case studies cover issues like people analytics, hiring and teams, with input from large companies like JetBlue and Wegmans.
  • The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) (community.shrm.org/home) and other groups offer discussion boards where practitioners can share their experiences, as well as networking and learning opportunities at conferences and local chapter meetings where sharing happens in person.
  • CHREATE (chreate.net), a consortium of chief human resource officers and other leaders supported by groups like SHRM and the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations, has white papers and other summaries of the group’s research, as well as information on the changing role of HR and how to adapt to changes in society and the workplace.

  • Facebook groups include the HR Open Source page 
    (www.facebook.com/groups/hropensource), where members can share tips and insights about HR, and the Employer Branding Forum (www.facebook.com/ForumEmployerBranding), which features online sharing about establishing an organizational brand. Additionally, videos and other resources on managing unconscious bias can be found at https://managingbias.fb.com.


Complicating Issues

​Open source doesn’t come without nettles, including sticky issues regarding privacy, competition and relevance.

HR traditionally has closely guarded private, sensitive information for legal and ethical reasons. HR professionals obviously can’t use open source to share confidential information or anything the company can get audited for. Putting employee information in the hands of a third party that could be hacked is also dangerous.

And sharing information with competitors may leave some HR professionals, especially talent acquisition specialists, feeling uncomfortable.

​“This level of openness and sharing isn’t for everyone,” Schmidt concedes. “There are people who have a siloed ‘war for talent’ mentality. [Open source] is for people who say, ‘We can compete and collaborate and still come out ahead.’ ”

Many HR practitioners are willing to take their chances. “It’s very risky for HR. I get that,” Appleby says. But she believes thinking in a different way “will make us more nimble. It will make HR more educated.”

It’s also important to remember that open source doesn’t mean sharing everything. Participants pick and choose what they want to publicize.

The practice of sharing case studies is more suited to industry leaders who worry less about competitors than it is to those who work for companies still trying to find their way, Alonso says, adding that many people place a higher value on information from top companies anyway.

The open-source solutions that are out there, though, may not be relevant to every organization, so having access to case studies isn’t a silver bullet. Material on employee engagement by a tech firm that focuses on social media, for instance, might not be applicable to a multinational agriculture company. 

Moreover, most people don’t usually copy others’ ideas verbatim. They adapt them to fit their own budgets, cultures, industries and environments.

“It’s very rare you find something completely relevant,” Brown says. “You cherry-pick.” 

It’s like the childhood game of telephone, where a message is passed through many people and comes out completely different on the other end, Rigney says. In her previous HR job in the restaurant industry, she designed training programs based on Ritz-Carlton’s winning application for a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which was established by Congress and is awarded by the president. But she adapted the ideas to fit her organization.

With any open-source case study, look carefully at the rigor with which it was vetted. 

With any open-source case study, look carefully at the rigor with which it was vetted. Google’s leaders check for “clear behavior change and a practice or tool” that could be used by others, Lin says. At hros.co, Schmidt thoroughly vets submitted material and keeps an eye out for anything that is too self-promotional. Submissions must lay out mistakes made and lessons learned. They must be relevant and must demonstrate an impact on the business and a return on investment. They also must detail what was done, how it was done and with what technology. Contributors write hros.co case studies using a template, then Schmidt edits the content from a practitioner’s point of view.

“We want to be a resource for practitioners who are looking for what’s next, who are preparing their companies for the future and where the world of work is going,” Schmidt says. “That’s an underserved need for practitioners.”

The HR profession’s core responsibilities and what’s expected of it changes roughly every three to five years, Alonso says. The open-source movement doesn’t change that, but it does help people adapt to the evolution.

A Bright Future

​Open-source advocates expect sharing to become the wave of the future for HR.

That’s because there is a large appetite among HR leaders to give back to the profession, says John W. Boudreau, a leader of the open-source CHREATE consortium and a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. HR does not have as many structural frameworks as the computer world that started open source through projects like Red Hat’s Linux operating system, so the HR version may look more like a Wikipedia of contributions, Boudreau predicts.

hros.co initially was funded by Schmidt and Vertesi, and they plan to make a profit eventually. Their future may very well be bright. “In two to three years, they are going to be the Google of HR,” Appleby predicts. This year, the site began accepting corporate sponsorships. The revenue means the initiative will host more in-person gatherings to give HR leaders chances to network and brainstorm.


​Appleby is among those who think the open-source movement is gaining traction, especially among Millennials raised on YouTube and social media.

“I think it’s going to blow up,” she says. “People entering our profession are green and hungry for information. They are natural sharers. … I definitely see the younger generation taking this and running with it.”

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong for HR Magazine. 


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