What We Learned From a Week at #HRTechConf 2019

by Connie Costigan | Posted | Industry Buzz

What We Learned From a Week at #HRTechConf 2019

Shaping the HR tech agenda – Key takeaways

From the management philosophies around growth, development, job mobility, diverse and inclusive talent practices, transparency, dynamic teams, gigs and well-being – to the emerging and proven technologies that support them – the seminal annual HR Technology Conference was a wealth of learning for new and seasoned attendees. The Saba crew had the privilege of attending many of the conference sessions. So after a weekend of recovery, we're sharing some of the biggest conference highlights from some of the boldest thinkers in our industry.

When the experience is everything

Employee experience was one of the most talked-about themes at the conference. With engagement being the elusive Holy Grail that remains markedly unchanged globally, employee experience as a driver of improved outcomes has taken center stage.

There's no one quite like global industry analyst, Josh Bersin, to walk you through why the "experience" has become so important. This was a big focus in his keynote "Making Sense of It All: How Technology Is Shaping the New HR Agenda." Whereas the HR mandates of the early 2000s focused on talent management processes and integrated HR transactions, it has evolved to a focus on improving the employee work experience using an ecosystem of apps that support team and work management.

josh bersin hr technology conference

Josh Bersin: How Technology Is Shaping the New HR Agenda

During his session, Josh also noted that across the vendor landscape there was a significant amount of transformation happening. We were pretty excited to hear him say "Saba is reinventing itself – they are a whole new company!"

Saba's focus on the personalization of the experience was not only unveiled in our announcements at HR Tech, but was the thread throughout our Future of Work session at the conference: Talent 2025 – This time it's personal. Theresa Damato our CMO, and Andrea Miles, VP of Digital Learning Experiences discussed the personal journeys that define our work, and the importance of tools that will augment our experience at work, by uniting the collective, allowing us to self-develop and reimagine skills, and the smarter systems that give people and our companies better insight on strategic impact.

theresa damato andrea miles hr technology conference

Saba's Theresa Damato and Andrea Miles talk Talent 2025

In his session on the Gartner HCM Hype Cycle, Ron Hanscome shared further insight into employee experience technology. Gartner doesn't see the emergence of an "EX platform" but more of a collection of applications that address specific needs. He cautions that these applications need to be quick and easy otherwise they won't get used – and that the employees will make the ultimate determination of what gets adopted.

From a practitioner perspective, Tim Mulligan, CHRO at Vulcan Inc. shared the story of a company that's aligned their talent practices to the employee experience. They focus on the connection to their company mission. "Vulcan business outcomes are all about making and leaving the world a better place - we tie our employee experiences to that mission." Vulcan builds connections through 1:1 performance conversations and creates learning experiences that feed performance outcomes, giving "every employee the voice that they need and deserve."

tim mulligan hr technology conference

The #OnlyatVulcanExperience from Tim Mulligan

The smart folks at IA HR - Mark Stelzner, Founder & Managing Principal and Mary Faulkner, Senior Advisor - had some very clear guidance in their session "Every Experience is an Employee Experience." They assert that the employee experience is not an initiative. It is an outcome of everything you're doing in your business: "We make a lot of assumptions of how our people consume the information we need them to learn. Sometimes, the technology gets in the way," they said. Faulkner called out one of the more obvious issues with the term employee experience with this gem: "The first problem with the employee experience is the word employee. Our workforce isn't just employees. It includes contingent workers and contractors."

Employees? Gigs? Teams?

To Faulkner's credit, the WAY we work and types of work we do, were also key themes at HR Tech.

Bersin pointed out that 57 million people worked in the "gig economy" in 2018, making the alternative workforce not so "alternative" anymore. Added to that, virtually every company is dealing with the gig economy, yet 88% of companies don't know who those gig workers are. We need tech that can keep up with this new world of management.

In his own keynote presentation, What Truly Drives Engagement Around the World, renowned expert Marcus Buckingham touched on gigs and teams further, with the startling research that shows gig workers score higher in engagement than full-time employees. But he also noted, "Gig workers are more engaged when they are on a team – it doesn't have to be lonely." According to his research, teamwork was the biggest driver of engagement, with 17% of workers who are on teams fully engaged. Engagement fell to only 8% for those who work solo.

In Saba's Talent 2025 session, Andrea Miles spoke about how technology could be the great enabler of teams across all types of workers, as she discussed the importance of bringing people together in fluid, agile ways, regardless of whether they are co-located or full time. "It's about supporting the collective alongside the individual."

talent 2025 hr tech conference

Supporting all kinds of teams and uniting the collective. Saba's Talent 2025 Session

In another interesting practitioner-led panel session on Reimagining HR, Andrew Saidy, VP of Talent Digitization at Schneider Electric shared their approach to creating internal gigs. With more than 150,000 employees, their turnover metrics showed that 47% of those who left, did so because they couldn't find their next job at Schneider. To address this, they implemented an open talent market place and created an internal gig economy for employees to work within other groups and explore new opportunities on projects for a few hours a week.

Bringing Our Whole Selves to Work: Well-being and Diversity Matter

It was clear throughout many sessions that the ability for people to bring their whole selves to work is fundamental to organizational success. The conference addressed challenge areas for creating a culture that supports "your whole and best self at work." Two notable issues being the need to improve diversity and gender equality, and the growing importance of well-being to our people.

"Well-being is no longer just a health and wellness thing. It's a performance thing. It's an engagement thing." This was the clear call from Josh Bersin, noting that we're getting a little less work done per hour than the economy is growing. The gap is born by employee stress and lack of work-life balance. In fact, employee burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a syndrome costing $190 Billion per year. 40% of workers suffer from moderate to severe burnout; 52% say their employer is not investing in improving the employee experience, and 54% believe the company sacrifices the employee experience to improve customer experience. Short-sighted to say the least.

Employment lawyers and HR Consultants Heather Bussing and Kate Bischoff shared some very telling observations on an insidious problem impacting workplace health and wellness in their Women in Technology session, "Gender Equity: Practical Strategies." When Bussing discussed the cultural imperatives of rooting out harassment and workplace discrimination she drove the point home: "Providing a harassment- and discrimination-free workplace is a health and safety issue, not compliance. This is OSHA, not EEOC."

heather bussing kate bischoff hr tech 2019

Heather Bussing and Kate Bischoff Talk Gender Equity. Photo credit: Mary Kaylor

Bussing and Bischoff also did a fabulous job of nailing what equity strategies truly mean for organizations as a whole, not just for women. "Equity is for everyone - not just women. Everyone needs to feel they belong at work. Everyone should be paid fairly. Everyone should have the opportunity to be their best selves. The traditional 'fight the enemy' of workplace culture is no longer valid - we can build a successful system that works for everyone."

From humans to "data about humans": Talent intelligence, analytics and AI

Using advanced technology like AI in HR is not about supplanting the people we're trying to improve the experience for. If the conference sessions on AI taught us anything, Ron Hanscome of Gartner summarized it well: "AI is ideally suited to augment human capabilities not replace them." Hanscome also noted that currently, AI is being introduced through single specialized use cases, and high expectations of AI in HR Tech outpace the existing capabilities.

John Sumser, principal analyst at HR Examiner, led the AI-specific track with his always-astute observations. Some of his more provocative ideas: "The state of the evolution of intelligent tools, in particular, AI, is akin to the early days of flight," reinforcing the nascent stage of this type of tech in HR. He also cautioned that "Understanding data and making decisions without bias is key. AI is everywhere and machines have opinions." Sumser's writing on this area is prolific. If you want to learn more, check out HR Examiner's detailed coverage of the growth and development of Artificial Intelligence in HR Tech.

In his session, HR Tech Market Landscape: AI for HR, Ben Eubanks, Principal Analyst, Lighthouse Research & Advisory focused on how AI technology can help create a more human workplace. A lot of work tasks people want to automate aren't all that inherently human - expenses, scheduling, managing email, and that's a way to use AI to help us become more efficient. So we can focus on developing and using other skills. Eubanks also notes there are tasks and competencies we absolutely must keep human (think creativity, empathy, critical thinking) and HR is best suited to make sure those elements of workforce communication and collaboration continue to happen. You can learn more about Eubanks' perspectives on AI in HR here and get a copy of his book on the subject.

ben eubanks lighthouse research artificial intelligence hr tech

Ben Eubanks shares how AI technology can help create a more human workplace

Stacia Garr of RedThread Research covered The HR Tech Landscape of People Analytics. While she estimates the People Analytics Technology Market to be 1.7B USD and growing, she also cautions that as with AI, the importance of ethics, privacy, and responsible use of data is paramount – especially data about your employees who you want to trust you and who you need to trust.

The recruiting remit

Madeline Laurano, Co-founder, Aptitude Research Partners led a session on the "HR Tech Landscape for Talent Acquisition." Just when we thought the recruiting landscape couldn't get any bigger, it has. Laurano notes that 51% of the companies she's surveyed use more than 3 Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSs), 66% use over 3 sourcing solutions and 70% use more than 3 job boards – which would be a pretty simple tech stack for most large companies. Laurano notes that while TA tech is way too complex, there are four trends to watch in this space. Candidate relationship management tools (CRMs) are the new ATSs. Recruitment process outsourcers (RPOs) are more strategic. The SMB Market for TA is changing. And investment in TA technology has skyrocketed.

Tim Sackett, talent acquisition author and President of HRU Technical Resources, hosted a panel on The Evolving TA Tech Stack, with recruiting leaders from Quicken Loans, Prosus Group and LinkedIn. The panel shared lessons learned in tech implementations, provocative ideas for creating recruiter performance metrics, and their role vs. IT or Finance's role in selecting their solutions. It was positive to hear "Talent acquisition makes the decisions on our own tech stack." If you want to learn more about one of the most interesting must-have tech tools for talent acquisition pros, read Sackett's post on the panel here. Hint: it has nothing to do with recruiting tech.


Talent acquisition analyst Mervyn Dinnen discussed what's needed to move from Employee Experience to Talent Experience. His recent research of UK recruiting leaders showed that while 92% say candidate experience is important, 56% feel they have much more work to do to improve it. Another 87% say consistency between candidate and employee experience is important, yet only 17% feel it's a reality. Dinnen notes that in the eyes of the candidate, the recruiter's role doesn't end at the offer, and shows another disconnect that needs bridging. He recommends letting employees co-create their own journey because they see the experience as continuous – not separate. And more importantly in TA, "stop focusing on ironing out bad experiences and start focusing on creating good ones by joining the experience journeys together."

mervyn dinnen hr technology conference 2019

Mervyn Dinnen on why the candidate and employee experience should be seamless

In other talent acquisition news at HR Tech, Fosway Group released its inaugural 9-Grid for Talent Acquisition. You can read all about Saba's placement here.

The learning & skills landscape: Growth and mobility matter

In his keynote, Josh Bersin discussed a new generation of learning solutions focused on supporting the need for people to learn about and develop skills to equip them for the future of work. He described "curiosity as a new competency" that organizations needed to develop in their people noting that the skills gap was no longer just digital or technical, but behavioral. Skills like complex problem solving, communications, interpersonal and soft skills are critical. He called for L&D to build structured capability academies focused on building skills most important to future success. Saba made some learning headlines with the launch of our own just-for-me learning experiences at the conference.

In her session on the Learning Tech Landscape, Dani Johnson, principal and co-founder of RedThread Research also explored the skills imperative within the learning ecosystem, asserting "no one really understands the skills in their organizations." Johnson sees the learning tech ecosystem as very difficult to be controlled centrally, but needing an intentional design, none-the-less. Their research also identified an increased focus on coaching and mentoring solutions to create better manager and leader capabilities.

When considering career development, Bersin attested that the old model of progression was over and that generalists will be favored over specialists because of their big-picture point of view. To support generalist development he suggests facilitating an internal talent marketplace, allowing employees to move around and build different skills.

Ron Hanscome picked up this theme of talent mobility in the Gartner led-session as well. He shared how an internal talent marketplace must look at a holistic pool of talent including employees, alumni and contingent workers. This extends beyond what core HR can do because it looks at the work instead of jobs, and outcomes instead of positions, the network instead of the hierarchy and uses AI instead of manual data entry.

gartner hcm hr technology conference 2019 ron hanscome

Ron Hanscome on Gartner's HCM Hype Cycle Innovation Areas: Internal Talent Marketplace

The Evolving Talent Tech Ecosystem

The tech landscape for talent practitioners who need to attract, hire, develop, grow and retain our people has never been more exciting. As we wrap up our conference takeaways, we'll leave you with the top findings and recommendations on technology selection, from the industry experts.

John Sumser, in his opening session offering a guide to the HR Technology conference made a point that should resonate for anyone investing in HR technology. " Don't let solutions define your problems. But if you are clear on what you want to do, there is probably a solution available at the #HRTechConf."

john sumser hr technology conference 2019

John Sumser: Don't let solutions define your problems. Photo Credit Heather Bussing

In the public debut of the Sierra-Cedar 2019-2020 HR Systems Survey Findings, Stacey Harris, VP of Research, shared key trends in spending and focus. 52% of large organizations expect to spend more on HR tech this year, with talent management forming the largest category of increased spend at 59%. The average annual spend on HR technology had increased to around $224 per employee, spanning an average of 8 different HR applications. Harris also noted a shift from HR transformation initiatives to a focus more on driving adoption, continuous improvement and measuring outcomes.

As Ron Hanscome highlighted six of the 30 emerging technologies in Gartner's 2019 HCM Hype Cycle, one thing became clear. The HCM suite will never be able to do everything for the depth you need in employee experience, and it must be augmented by best of breed capabilities. Hanscome noted this will make an HR innovation practice critical.

Josh Bersin concurred when he noted the problem for many HCM vendors is that they can't keep up with everything. Whatever your core tech is, you're going to be layering things on top of it, and that this world of incredibly rapid creativity and innovation, we will need to protect the "employee experience layer" because we're not just building software for HR anymore, we're building software for the employee.

Experiences, gigs, teams, diversity, well-being, AI, TA, learning and skills. WOW.

Thank you again to Steve Boese, Jeanne Achille and the entire team at LRP for putting together a fantastic conference agenda and giving us so much more to think about and practice at our own organizations. As we covered this awesome session background, it was clear that each theme is a key underpinning in our peoples' journeys at work. Journeys that always have been, and always will be personal.


The Definitive Handbook for Creating Exceptional Experiences at Work

Arm yourself with 101 effective talent experience strategies from industry experts.


Download Now
Cover of the book
Cover of the book

The Definitive Handbook for Creating Exceptional Experiences at Work

Arm yourself with 101 effective talent experience strategies from industry experts.


Download Now


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