New Tools for HR Have Roots in Consumer Technology

By Aliah D. Wright Mar 30, 2017

​TORONTO—Imagine a world where your employees access their work devices not with a password—but with a selfie.

Now imagine a bot in an app that converses with you as you make airline reservations for your business trip.

These aren't ideas headed to the workplace—they're already here.

Consumerism has already driven change in the HR technology market, said Freddye Silverman, principal for Baltimore-based consultancy Silver Bullet Solutions LLC, who spoke this week to attendees at the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) conference here at the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto.

With data breaches on the rise "banks and technology firms are using selfies to replace passwords," Silverman said. The 2016 Ponemon Cost of Data Breach Study funded by IBM reports that the average consolidated total cost of a data breach grew from $3.8 million to $4 million in 2016.

"The reason I'm telling you this is because [using a selfie instead of a password is] going to happen in your organizations because it's another step in security. They're trying to find creative ways to guard against rising identity theft and hacking," Silverman said. Companies "are moving away from what people know to providing physical evidence [of their identity]. So it's not what's in your brain [which could easily be passed on to someone else or guessed at]—you have to show that it's you."

Last fall, MasterCard rolled out "selfie pay." The financial services company USAA lets customers use selfies to log on to mobile banking apps.

Silverman explains how it works: "You choose the facial recognition option at log in, you hold the phone up to your face and you have to blink, so it's not just a passive face. It eliminates forgotten passwords, and it shows proof of your identity," she said.

Next year, the state of Georgia will launch a pilot program that gives taxpayers the option to create secure accounts that allow them to verify their identity through a photo. If the photo is matched when taxes are submitted, taxpayers will have to take another photo in "a certain way to scan for motion" so the image is moving. In this way they hope to guard against fraudulent submissions, she said.

As SHRM Online reported earlier this year, cyber thieves have targeted new HR professionals to trick them into divulging employees' W2s.

There are privacy concerns with photos, too, because photos of other people can easily be found via search engines and social media sites, she said. "If your face is out there" on social media sites, hackers may be able to use your photo. However, the mandatory selfies "are different because they require … that blink. You can't just hold a picture up."

IT departments are tasked with making certain that the images are encrypted and not stored.

However, "What happens if someone gains or loses weight, starts wearing glasses or grows a beard? Well, they figure that out as they go along." Most organizations will use other means of authentication such as fingerprints, she said.

"Again, don't be surprised if you are expected to know about this and start using it in your organizations. You're going to move away from passwords and get into something visual like this because it's another layer of security."

Artificial Intelligence Comes to Work

"On the Google frontier [engineers] are envisioning" a time when people won't type on smartphones or computers. They will speak to their devices as some do with Siri. Eventually [this speech-recognition capability is] going to be in your businesses and not just your home. This is considered 'post-mobile development'—device free—all conversation. [Google] is investing vast amounts in machine learning," she said. "Companies will rely on neural networks, which means computers will teach themselves" [what your needs are and how to answer your questions] as they sift through massive amounts of data and will learn from patterns, regularities and interconnections," she said.

Today, people use assistants like Amazon's Alexa, but soon people will have that capability via "implanted chips—in your ear, in your neck—take your choice. Then you, your car, your house—everywhere, so search is no longer bound by text. It's all going to be conversation." In this way, people will simply speak aloud to the chip embedded in their flesh instead of to their devices, and it will work much like search does today with Siri or Alexa.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is already being used in recruitment, as HR Magazine reported recently. SRI, the company that invented Siri, has developed a platform called SenSay Analytics, which uses bots to detect and respond to emotions. These bots can parse through words, tone, volume, pitch or other characteristics of a human voice. Imagine bots talking to job applicants or customers, clients or employees and then "apologizing when sensing anger, speaking more quickly when you are impatient or forwarding you to a human being when you are ready to blow up," she said. "At times it will get it wrong and not pick up on cues, but so do people."

For example, "SAP is already using a bot within the Concur app that speaks to travelers making airline reservations," she said of the software company that is based in Germany and owns Concur.

HR will use more chatbots like Talla, she said, which is designed to answer service desk questions. It explains company policies, trains new hires, surveys employees and collects their information. It operates inside messaging software like Slack, Hipchat, and Microsoft Teams, which work much like Facebook's Messenger. Bots may one day scan all employee insurance policies to answer questions at open enrollment time—which can save HR countless man hours.

Fidelity Lab developed a virtual reality platform that helps HR managers keep track of employee retirement plans and their status. It works with an HTC Vive headset.

Workplace Wellness Apps

As for wellness technologies, "it's becoming fairly ubiquitous. Macy's is now selling Fitbit bracelets in its jewelry department," Silverman said. Organizations, like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), now give employees fitness trackers as part of corporate wellness programs.

Vista Staffing, she said, uses Fitbits and Wi-Fi-enabled scales as part of a corporate weight loss program. "These newly developed wearables aren't just tracking fitness but proactively detecting health issues through sensors," she said. "Company IDs and badges are contributing to employee wellness. These badges have sensors in them so that they can measure pulse rates, sweating or breathing heavily." They could even determine if someone is about to have a heart attack, she said.

Major vendors are creating entire app stores that help software developers build apps that take advantage of their services. For example, she said, ADP has the ADP Marketplace, Cornerstone has Cornerstone Edge, SAP has HANA Marketplace and IBM has IBM Blue mix.

Whil is an app that works with within Virgin Pulse, Castlight and other corporate app stores to provide "digital wellbeing training," Joe Burton, the company's CEO and founder told SHRM Online at the conference. Audio- and video-led programs within the app help employees reduce stress, increase their resiliency, improve their performance, improve relationships on and off the job, and improve their sleep, he said.

"On average we've helped companies reduce absenteeism by two days per week, and turnover decreased by as much as 46 percent," Burton said.


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