Employers Still Buying HR Tech, but User Adoption a Challenge

By Dave Zielinski August 25, 2020
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​The economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic hasn't stopped organizations from spending on HR technology. While some companies hit pause on such investments, others have viewed the pandemic as a time to create new process efficiencies, boost productivity by updating old systems or implement new tools with an eye toward a post-COVID-19 future.

Yet despite these continuing investments, HR continues to struggle with a nagging problem: difficulty getting users to adopt newly implemented systems as part of their daily work routines.

Pandemic-related tech investments have been made in cloud-based collaboration, productivity and communication tools, learning platforms for virtual education, and workforce management tools to help manage the burgeoning number of remote workers. As a result of this spending, some HR industry vendors have experienced surprisingly strong financial results. For example, recruiting platform provider SmartRecruiters reported a historically strong first half of 2020 and attributed it in part to clients' using downtime during the COVID-19 outbreak to evaluate and update old recruiting technologies.

More than two-thirds of information technology (IT) leaders said they expect to spend more on automation over the coming year, according to a new study by Inference Solutions, a San Francisco-based technology company. IT decision-makers who were surveyed said they planned to increase the use of automation to support their own employees, as well as customers, with many intending to expand their use of intelligent self-service automation in areas such as help desks. The study surveyed 500 IT executives across eight industries.

Joel Martin, director of advisory services for Software Reviews, a division of the Info-Tech Research Group that provides user insight on HR software tools, said he's seen a rise in interest in workforce management software, learning management systems and other cloud-based HR software during the pandemic.

"Right now, HR and IT are arguably the two departments most important to a company's survival," Martin said. "Executives want to ensure remote workers have the right technology and support at home to do the job, that their sensitive HR data is kept safe in home working environments, and that they're keeping remote workers engaged and productive."

Linda Mougalian, a senior division vice president with Roseland, N.J.-based ADP, said while some organizations slowed HR tech spending during the pandemic, she's seeing signs of more planned upgrades or implementations.

"We're hearing more employers say that within the next three to six months, they're diving back in" and making HR tech investments, Mougalian said. "Organizations see these technology investments as yet another way to help advance out of the economic downturn by creating new efficiencies or improving workforce productivity."

A Lingering Problem: Lagging User Adoption

But having new technology doesn't do much good if employees won't use it. User adoption of HR technology in many categories still lags behind leaders' goals, and with the move to remote work, there is growing pressure on organizations to get employees to adopt tools critical to collaborating, messaging and learning from a distance.

Research and advisory firm PwC released a survey in 2020 that examined the effectiveness of HR technology investments. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said they struggle with adoption challenges, which the survey found can be linked in large part to planning phases that fail to get all the right people to answer the right questions for technology change at scale. The survey captured the views of 600 HR and IT leaders on six continents.

One eye-opening finding from the survey was that the two methods organizations rely on most often to help boost user adoption—training and leadership communication—also were the two least effective methods at increasing the use of new technologies. Instead, two other strategies often undervalued by companies—the use of incentives and gamification—were the two most effective at enhancing adoption, the PwC study found.

Using game theory and providing incentives like cash or time off pulls people into using new systems until it becomes a habit, said Dan Staley, global HR technology leader for PwC. For example, some organizations in the survey awarded employees with points for generating reports and creating dashboards with newly implemented software. The points can be redeemed for awards.

"With things like gamification, not everyone wins, but what it does is create some excitement and begin to get people comfortable with new behaviors and using new technologies," Staley said. Once adoption rates start to rise, the incentives or gamification can be phased out, he said. Training and leadership communication should be delivered alongside incentives or gamification that can make using new digital technologies more enjoyable, he said.

The PwC survey also found a disconnect between how the C-suite and line managers view the value of new technologies. Managers who are expected to use new systems are two times less likely than the C-suite to say that the new systems are effective on a range of business outcomes, the survey found.

The finding suggests that executives are not putting enough emphasis on outcomes of transformation—the processes and the ways of work, according to the survey authors. The survey found that, too often, leaders evaluate these implementations as they would any IT project: whether they're delivered on time and on budget. Whether the tools deliver the intended business benefits and culture change are considered only secondary benefits.

Access, Usability Remain Key

How easy new HR and other technologies are to learn, use and access also remain keys to high adoption rates. "You need people to be able to use technology right out of the box during COVID-19 because they can't come to a conference room to be trained on it," Martin said.

Martin's company, Software Reviews, conducts surveys of software users that measure the "emotional footprint" of HR vendor products. The metric gauges factors such as the product's ease of use; the service provided by vendors before, during and after a sale; whether vendors continue to introduce innovative product features; and how they ensure data security. 

" 'Emotional footprint' is about the passion people bring to using the technology they're given," Martin said. "It gauges how loyal end-users and organizations are to software products."

Jennifer Waxman, research director for McLean & Company, an HR research and advisory division of Info-Tech, said technology that's both intuitive and accessible—the latter meaning systems fit easily into the flow of daily work—is crucial to adoption. But so, too, is ensuring old technology is no longer an option for employees.

"If you're trying to change systems, keeping the old system running in the background at the same time as the newly implemented system means you'll still have people regularly returning to the old system," Waxman said.

Staley of PwC said encouraging influencers to evangelize about new technology to others and publicizing case studies of success can also boost usage rates. "After the system has been live for three to six months, make sure you have some good stories of success with it that you can communicate to the rest of the organization," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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