The Democratization of Talent Management

How technology and generational changes are transforming HR

By Mark Feffer Apr 7, 2015
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Spurred partly by technology and partly by the changing expectations of Millennials and the younger Generation Z, the traditional, process-driven approach to HR is morphing. Organizations are developing new ways to source jobs that meet a candidate’s individual interests and strengths. Employees are receiving performance feedback in real time. Where once workers obtained HR services through online portals, seminars or meetings, now they get what they need through their mobile phones. Today, job seekers are thought of as “customers,” and employees are seen as members of a community.

Developers of recruiting and talent management tools are breaking away from the idea that systems need to be designed around HR practices first and foremost. Instead, they’re starting with the notion that software should work the way users want to work. “We’re finally seeing a focus that’s not about technology for HR, but technology for everybody in the organization,” said Leighanne Levensaler, vice president of HCM Products at HR and financial software provider Workday.

“This is about the consumerization of IT,” adds Ed Newman, vice president of strategy at iMomentous, a recruiting systems provider. Users, he said, expect to work with apps that give them the functionality necessary to complete tasks simply, without the need for a lot of training.

Meeting those expectations helps employers foster a closer connection with users, whether they’re current employees or candidates for jobs. That can be especially important for recruiters. Today, an increasing number aim not just to fill open positions but to build relationships with candidates, even those who don’t fit their immediate needs. “We’re making better hires because we understand that it’s not about finding the right person, right now,” said Bryan Chaney, a sourcing executive at IBM. Instead, he sees recruiting becoming more about “pipelining,” developing and nurturing the right group of people so that the right person can be matched to the right opportunity, when it arises.

To do this, employers are harnessing a variety of tools, from more-sophisticated job-searching apps to online communities that showcase the company’s culture while providing direct access to its recruiters. Last year, online retailer Zappos eliminated job postings in favor of a social network called Zappos Insiders. There, candidates can network with current employees and demonstrate their passion for the company. Meanwhile, its recruiters are able to spend more time identifying and responding to those they deem the most promising.

“Typical recruiting systems are very much about the user having to know what they’re looking for,” said Adam Rogers, chief technology officer of HR solutions provider Ultimate Software. Today, more systems are using a candidate’s profile information to suggest jobs in much the way Amazon recommends books. They can look at a candidate’s skills, work experience and education, for example, then display opportunities that may not have been uncovered by a traditional keyword search.

The push toward such engagement doesn’t stop when a hire is made. Younger workers expect faster and more-direct communication, and even the regimented, highly documented performance review is being impacted by their demands. “We’re dealing with a younger crowd that’s more accustomed to instant gratification and doesn’t want to wait,” noted Anne M. Donovan, U.S. human capital transformation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). “Quarterly and annual reviews seem ancient to them.”

To respond, a number of companies—PwC among them—have embraced the idea of reviews that happen in real time and involve peers as well as managers. The idea is for feedback to take place as things happen—as projects are completed or even as meetings wrap up. In some cases, a critique can occur during a hallway conversation or a phone call. In others, users send their comments through a dedicated mobile app. “This is driven by how our people want to work and get their feedback, and technology’s involved in that,” Donovan said. “It’s driven by the need for more-instantaneous information.”

Similarly, companies are turning to more social solutions for their training, leveraging everything from massive open online courses (MOOCs) to employee-produced videos.

For example, the restaurant chain Cheesecake Factory uses a portal it calls “Video Café” to distribute lessons to workers around the country. Covering everything from food preparation to seating customers, its employee-produced videos are brief, to the point and sometimes effective enough to be included in more-traditional course materials.

In many ways, such approaches are logical descendants of the learning that’s gone on in businesses for years. While the idea of crowdsourcing is new, the notion of crowd-based knowledge isn’t, suggested Wes Wu, vice president of research and insights at technology consulting firm Appirio. “The crowd has probably been happening for decades,” he said. What he sees now is an effort by HR to track its use so that informal processes can be turned into more comprehensive learning solutions. Ultimately, Wu foresees an environment where organizations can identify internal subject matter experts and leverage their knowledge in new ways.

Such approaches to training may not fit every topic, noted Derek Beebe, a director in the HR Technology practice of consulting firm Towers Watson. Organizations have an innate aversion to risk, he said, and will probably choose formal courses to cover subjects like workplace safety or regulatory compliance. Still, he believes that over time, social learning can go “pretty far.” As a result, companies will be able to offer more training in softer areas like customer engagement and satisfaction.

All of these developments seek to address users’ preference for more-personalized information, delivered quickly and in the context of their needs at that moment. The generation that buys books through their smartphones, makes weekend plans via text message and shares experiences on YouTube has set expectations about what technology can do—and what organizations should provide.

Mark Feffer writes on careers and technology.

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