OKR Software Value Rises in HR Programs

By Nicole Lewis March 25, 2022
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​When Brian Manougian and his team implemented objectives and key results (OKR) software across the people and places function at Zendesk, one of the company's goals was to enable the team to focus on critical work in a more advanced digital framework that would drive the right outcomes.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Zendesk is a software-as-a-service provider with approximately 6,000 employees. The company's people and places team of approximately 300 employees manages Zendesk's HR functions, such as global people partnering; talent acquisition; talent and organization development; and the company's global diversity, equity and inclusion operations.

According to HR strategy and planning director Manougian, the HR team was looking for better tools to help them focus on critical tasks. 

The problem, Manougian said, was that the people and places team gathered information on the status of their OKRs from a variety of document management platforms such as Google Workspace and SmartSheet.

"WorkBoard's OKR software helped us shift where we invest our time," he said. "We focus more on OKR setting and what's moving the key-result needle and less on gathering information from a variety of different sources."

He added that now there is a single point of entry, constant real-time updates and a system that provides easy access for working teams. A data provider, a workstream owner or an initiative sponsor can look at not only the objective, but also the key result status and supporting details such as notes and attachment details on one platform.

Manougian also said because the people and places team members have much more accurate real-time information, they can have insightful discussions on what is driving the achievement of key results. They can also identify roadblocks that impede the achievement of those results, and they can recognize successes they need to celebrate.

"That's different from discussing: What is the status of an output? What did you do today? And, where did the information come from and is it correct?" Manougian said. "Of course, we still have some of that, but it's part of the journey of shifting the conversation to outcomes and away from outputs."

In addition to improving efficiency, increasing productivity and creating greater visibility into the OKR process across Zendesk's HR operations, Manougian said that as employees utilize OKRs over time, they become more focused on figuring out the best way to determine whether or not they are tracking the right metrics to achieve the exact outcome they want.

"The focus is on outcomes versus outputs," he said. "That becomes the journey. At the starting point you might not have all the data to measure outcome achievement and be able to say we won or lost, we achieved the key result or we didn't. … When you know the outcome you need to achieve, you then determine how to set up better systems of measurement and the required data needed to tell you if you are achieving the result, or not."

Vendors offering OKR software are having a moment, said Margo Visitacion, vice president and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. 

Of note, OKR vendors are attracting more capital investments than they've ever enjoyed. In December, Denver-based software startup Gtmhub announced it raised $120 million in a Series C round. OKR company Ally.io was acquired by Microsoft in 2021, while WorkBoard raised a $75 million Series D investment last year.  

Visitacion said OKR software has been around for some time but was mainly used in the technology industry among software development teams. Today, OKR adoption is occurring at companies in other sectors because the pandemic forced every organization to accelerate their digital transformation.

"If you can't digitally transform your company's operations, you literally can't survive," she said.

She added that the value of OKRs was realized in insurance, financial services and the health care sector, where companies are looking more toward software delivery as a model for remaining competitive.

"Companies in these sectors are thinking more like software companies and, because they are moving toward much more nimble practices that allow them to digitize business processes, they recognized that they needed to measure output and get that feedback quickly," Visitacion said. 

According to Deidre Paknad, chief executive officer at WorkBoard, an OKR digital strategy is about two things: the cost to deliver and manage data in the cloud, which brings down the expense of managing information, and putting data in front of people at the point when they need to make a decision.

By using technologies such as cloud computing, data analytics, instant messaging, visual charts and artificial intelligence, OKR software monitors employees and teams, increases employee engagement and collaboration, and tracks workers' progress in a centralized place. The technology also helps HR managers generate reports that they might otherwise have to produce manually.

"Managers have to do a whole lot of upward reporting, such as indicating where they are on the road to accomplishing a strategy," Paknad said. "Additionally, there are operations reviews, business reviews, status reporting and reports on meetings. WorkBoard packages that up for the CEO, the chief customer officer or the chief people officer. That saves them time to do valuable tasks besides reporting."

For employees, Visitacion said an HR program that is tied to OKR software gives organizations the ability to create greater transparency into the workflow. Essentially, it can highlight the contribution that employees make to the organization.

"Transparency allows managers to make better decisions, and this is why OKRs are taking off because companies that are seeing the greatest benefit are recognizing that it's a very effective way to achieve strategic objectives," Visitacion said. "When people have visibility into what they are doing and why they are doing it, there is much greater buy-in." 

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami.

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