Many organizations deem implementation of a new HR technology platform a success if the project comes in near budget and follows the projected timeline with few technical or integration headaches along the way.
Yet those two common measures of success—cost and time—overlook a major factor that increasingly determines the fate of any new HR platform: whether employees actually use it once it has been installed.
A study by HR advisory and research firm Josh Bersin Co. found that a whopping 42 percent of respondents rated their HR technology implementations as having failed or not been fully successful two years after installation. For the purposes of the study, which took into account survey responses from 700 global HR professionals and qualitative interviews with more than 20 company leaders, failure was defined as most employees refusing to use the new HR platform or seeing little benefit in its features or functions.
HR technology experts say adoption is an often-overlooked but critical measure of a new technology’s return on investment. “If the new system isn’t being used at a high level by employees, it’s very hard to describe it as a successful technology launch,” says Joe Atkinson, vice chair and chief product and technology officer for PwC.
Stacey Harris, chief strategy officer and managing partner for research and advisory firm Sapient Insights Group in Atlanta, says many organizations don’t focus enough on driving adoption once new HR platforms are implemented. “What we’ve found in our research is that most companies are more likely to manage the project budget than they are to manage adoption of new technology implementations,” she says.
Sapient’s 2022-2023 HR Systems Survey found that only 25 percent of organizations even track adoption rates for new HR technologies. “When you’re not even tracking adoption, it’s difficult to know if a system implementation has been successful or not,” Harris says.
One reason why adoption of new HR technologies lags, Atkinson maintains, is because many organizations think the heavy lifting is over once they reach the go-live stage of system implementations.
“Too many companies just assume adoption is going to happen,” he says. “But any successful implementation requires thinking carefully about the change management communication and preparation of the organization to accept and adopt a new technology. While that may be a well-understood problem, it’s not a problem that’s typically well-executed upon.”
Stay the Course
Kathi Enderes, senior vice president of research with the Josh Bersin Co., which is based in Oakland, Calif., says HR technology implementations shouldn’t be thought of as one-time “projects” but rather as continuous technology transformations. While the initial implementation is a step in the right direction, Enderes says, it’s only a beginning because the technology needs of workers usually change over time.
“Those who get high adoption don’t simply implement a new HR technology platform and think they’ve crossed the finish line,” she explains. “They constantly work at listening to their end users, seeing how they’re using a new system and collecting feedback on the user experience. They’re on a constant journey to ensure the technology works well not just for HR staff but for employees and managers who use systems for things like self-service, as well.”
Atkinson says organizations have two choices when it comes to boosting adoption: They can blame employees for not embracing new platforms or apps they’ve just spent large sums to purchase and install, or they can take more responsibility for ensuring workers have a great user experience with the technologies.
“Blaming employees has been the playbook for many companies for years,” Atkinson says. “But rather than simply mandating [that workers] use new systems, companies should be evaluating whether the new platforms they select and install are making employees’ work lives easier or their tasks more efficient. Workers now look at corporate technology the same way they do consumer technology. They simply won’t use tools that aren’t intuitive or don’t have a great user experience.”
Which Strategies Work Best?
Organizations typically rely on time-honored strategies to get employees to begin using newly implemented technologies. Having top leaders and line managers stress the importance of using new systems, delivering team trainings that help employees master the nuts and bolts of new tools, and creating “ambassadors” in the ranks who can spread the word about the value of apps or platforms are all common approaches.
But some experts say achieving the kind of adoption that justifies large investments in new technology platforms often requires embracing more-creative strategies.
A 2022 survey by PwC on HR technology practices, for example, found that two nontraditional tactics proved effective but underutilized in boosting adoption of new HR systems: use of incentives and use of gamification techniques. The idea is that if workers can be convinced through these tactics to engage with new technologies in the short term, they’ll have enough positive experiences to stick with the systems for the long haul.
Eighty-five percent of the survey respondents said they believe offering incentives—such as spot bonuses, extra time off or professional development opportunities—is an effective way to encourage employees to start using new systems, but only 44 percent reported actually using this strategy.
Similarly, 82 percent said they believe gamification is a good way to boost adoption, yet only 25 percent reported using the method.
The survey included responses from 688 HR leaders in the U.S.
“Leadership communication, change management and user training are all table stakes for adoption of any new technology,” Atkinson says. “But if you want to get a higher level of adoption—in the 80 percent to 85 percent range within six months to a year of implementation—you may need to consider more-creative adoption techniques.”
PwC itself has used gamification strategies to successfully encourage employee use of new technology platforms. When the company introduced a new customer relationship management system, for example, it created a game called Client IQ to help boost usage. Salespeople playing the game enter client information, summaries of conversations with prospects, or other sales-related data into the platform and receive a Client IQ score based on their performance.
“There’s a leaderboard that tracks who has the highest Client IQ scores based on the quality of information employees enter into the new platform,” Atkinson says. “It gives our people a way to measure their engagement personally as well as creates some competition between peer groups. Everything driving scores are activities and actions we want employees to perform using the new technology. It had a very positive impact on platform adoption.”
Make It Easy
Atkinson says the PwC survey also found that providing mobile access to HR apps was key to adoption—especially in light of many organizations moving to remote and hybrid work arrangements in recent years—but that achieving higher rates of mobile usage requires more than mere access.
“Providing access and creating a great mobile experience are two very different things,” Atkinson says. “It’s not unusual for employees to connect to an enterprise app through their mobile device and have a lousy experience. The formats aren’t right, the visuals are off, and the workflow isn’t intuitive. Too often, organizations focus only on creating access to apps but development teams don’t focus on optimizing the mobile experience, as well.”
A 2022 study by research and advisory firm Gartner found that the three most effective strategies for improving adoption of new HR technologies were ensuring that systems are easy to use, that new platforms or apps help employees get their work done more quickly and more accurately, and that new tools are well-integrated with technology and equipment that employees already use on the job.
Two factors that had lower impacts on adoption rates, the study found, were access to assistance from peers and access to a network of individuals who were using the same HR technology. It appears that employees are more likely to base their usage patterns on their own experiences with new systems rather than on the experiences of peers or influencers such as power users.
The Impact of Proximity
The Gartner study found that the proximity of new platforms—the ability to easily access HR apps or systems within the flow of daily work without having to repeatedly log off and on to systems—has a significant impact on adoption rates.
“As hybrid and remote work becomes more prevalent, the importance of how HR platforms and tools integrate with employees’ daily workflows increases, too,” the authors of the study wrote.
Zachary Chertok, research manager of employee experience for IDC, a research and advisory firm in Boston, says that when new technologies are integrated into an organization’s broader operational framework, rather than siloed within given departments, the odds of adoption increase significantly.
“If you deploy a new system that solves a problem for one corner of the organization without evaluating how it fits into the broader tech stack, you can limit adoption,” Chertok says. “There is research showing that some employees engage with as many as 20 different organizational technologies in a single day. But without single sign-on to those various platforms or delivering new applications within the flow of employees’ daily work, the technology experience will be far from optimal and adoption will be impacted.”
Rania Stewart, senior director analyst in Gartner’s HR practice, agrees that proximity is important. “Our research shows a greater willingness by employees to try applications or tools that are close to where they perform their work every day,” she says.
Stewart adds that companies seeking to encourage greater adoption of new HR technologies will need to have an answer for employees who ask, “What’s in it for me?”
“People want to know why they should start using a new platform or application, or how it will improve their daily work lives,” she says. “You also need to look at whether adoption motivators are more organization-centric or employee-centric. Will the new tool make employees’ jobs easier or more efficient, or will it simply benefit the company from a cost savings or another perspective?”
Dave Zielinski is a -freelance business -journalist in Minneapolis.
Illustration by Michael Korfhage for HR Magazine.
How Design Thinking Can Boost Technology Adoption
Experts say a key factor in improving how the workforce receives newly introduced HR technology is incorporating the voice of those who will actually be using the new systems into the selection and configuration of those platforms. That practice, known as design thinking, involves choosing or building technology solutions with employees’ needs and preferences top of mind.
“Companies that get high adoption start with involving employees and line managers in the selection and design of these systems upfront,” says Kathi Enderes, senior vice president of research for the Josh Bersin Co., an Oakland, Calif.-based HR advisory and research firm. “They don’t just try to sell new technologies to employees after they’ve chosen and implemented them. You’ve already missed the boat if you do that.”
Enderes cites McDonald’s as an example of an organization that builds the voice of employees into HR technology decisions. For example, by surveying workers and developing different user personas, McDonald’s realized in the process of replacing an aging legacy platform that the recruiting, payroll and self-service needs of corporate employees and managers were far different from those of front-line retail managers and workers, Enderes notes.
“McDonald’s included input from focus groups of franchise owners and front-line managers in their system selection, design and rollout,” she says. “Because those groups felt their voices were heard and incorporated, it improved their desire to begin using new HR technologies once implemented.”
A study by research and advisory firm Gartner also highlights the importance of engaging in design thinking to boost technology adoption. Experts say that process should include creating personas of different end-user segments to better understand their unique technology needs, challenges and preferences.
“It’s important to integrate end users’ preferences, fears and expectations into HR technology decisions to align with how a tool fits into their critical or daily workflow design,” the authors of the Gartner study wrote. —D.Z.