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What Are APIs and Why Should HR Care?

A woman is working on a laptop in an office.

​Maria Hayes believes HR professionals should have at least a basic understanding of what connects the various HR technology platforms they're using every day in order to get the most out of their technology systems. Maria Hayes

She is the vice president of digital strategy at Equifax Workforce Solutions, and she spoke with SHRM Online about application programming interfaces, (more commonly known as APIs), what they are, why HR should learn about them and some tips for discussing API strategy with vendors.

SHRM Online: What are APIs?

Hayes: APIs are a way for developers or third parties to integrate or share information from one system to another, or one platform to another or throughout an entire tech stack. APIs enable integration. An API is a piece of infrastructure, and not something HR will "see." They work behind the scenes of a technology system and power the world all around us. APIs are a part of our everyday life. [T]hink about all of those connected solutions that you have in your home, your car, on your person; a lot of those are enabled as a result of APIs.

SHRM Online: What are some examples of APIs used in HR technology?

Hayes: A common example is when you have an applicant tracking system and a human capital management system on two distinct platforms. There's lots of information being shared back and forth in real time between those two systems, and APIs are likely powering how that information is getting shared.

When you use something like Calendly, APIs allow for an instant exchange of information. When you click on an action to schedule a meeting, you are instantly shown what times are available on someone else's calendar system.   

Another critical example is when you want to connect third-party "best-of-breed" solutions to your core HR system; that is powered through the ability to leverage APIs, which allow you to share that information in real time to an external vendor. Investing in APIs means that HR doesn't have to settle for an all-in-one vendor and can instead choose the best vendor for whatever solution they're interested in and still have the best connected and seamless experience for their employees and for themselves. 

SHRM Online: If HR doesn't "see" APIs in action or have to set them up, why should they learn about them?

Hayes: As a decision-maker, HR may be helping select a workplace technology vendor and should understand the vendor's strategy around APIs, how they are leveraged, whether or not they are open or closed, and how that might impact the organization's ability to integrate a specific solution into the larger HR ecosystem.

If a vendor doesn't have an API strategy or can't talk about it in a meaningful way, that is a major red flag. It means they are not investing in their product or thinking about how they will move forward in the coming years. Some vendors may have a limited number of APIs and expect to add more as their technology matures, but any vendor should at least have a roadmap and a plan around how they are connecting to the broader HR technology ecosystem.

And I know that HR is concerned about whether the tech they purchase will work for their employees not just today but in the future.

SHRM Online: What are some tips for talking to vendors about APIs?

Hayes: I think it's really important to talk to vendors about their API strategy. Do they offer off- the-shelf integrations—which are the easiest to connect to, very simple but not easily configurable—or do they have open APIs—which are more complex to set up, but give users much more flexibility in what that integration looks like? It really depends on what the organization wants. If you've got a really complex scenario that's unique to your organization, and you want to be able to fine-tune what triggers what, having access to open APIs and allowing your developers to basically go in and say, "I'm going to play around in the sandbox and figure out what works best for my company," is an excellent option for some organizations.

Having an open API does not mean that the data is not safe. Open APIs are secure and have authentication around them, but it means that only the right authenticated users can access that API.  

I would also ask vendors "What kind of support do you provide?" and "How long does it typically take for a customer to start using the product?" The duration may differ between buying something out-of-the-box versus having to be custom-made, but at least having the conversation will help HR gauge whether the vendor has done this before, how comfortable they are with it and whether they have a playbook to help you be as successful as you want to be.


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