The digitization of HR has started but is not as sexy as expected

I attended HR Tech World Congress in Paris a couple of weeks ago and this post is the first of small series on what I saw and learned at the event.

The digitization of HR is underway

More than 5000 attendees from many nationalities in the amphitheatre of the Palais des Congrès in Paris, an exhibition hall packed with people, breakout sessions full of practitionners listening to cases on learning, social, data, analytics and a very active startup scene : the world of HR has taken the digitization path without any doubt. But the way raised lots of discussions.

Prior to the conference I wrote a post on my french blog, lauding the keynote sessions of previous editions that delivered energy and vision far beyond technology, the technology in question making sense only when one knows what to achieve with. That was the beauty of the previous editions. This year’s was a reality-check.

The good news is that the train has left the bank. The less pleasing one is that the train is running underground, in long tunnels and its lights do not seem to have an impressive range.

Like in 2014 I was thrilled by Yves Morieux’s keynote (I’ll publish a review of his book soon). Simplicity and complexity are a real matter for the future of organization and HR must care about it as stakeholders of the organizational design of the enterprise. Then many large businesses came on stage, evidences that transformation was underway. It’s easy to sum-up what’s been said session after session since the message was exactly the same : “we moved HRIS to the cloud”. Too much technology, too many vendors, too little vision, HR practionners talking more about infrastructure than how their role is changing.

HR “sovereign” functions beat the future of work

Hence the legitimate question I often heard in discussions : “Yes…but why” and, more often “Yes…and what’s next ?”. That must remind us that HR have constraints we often forget when we expect if to be more innovating, leading and proactive?

1°) The first missions of any HR department are payroll and recruiting. They can do whatever they want after but have no margin of erreur regarding to these two fields (and especially the first). In HR’s Maslow Pyramid, the first level is payroll, the second recruitment.

2°) Having a bold vision of the future of HR is nice but won’t work without the IS to deliver it.

Logically, the first step of the digitization of HR starts with the foundations, namely vital functions (Payroll, recruiting…) and infrastructure. The rest will come after but nothing is possible until this work is achieved And it’s obvious that the migration of an highly customized heterogeneous HRIS to the could is a healthy and necessary work but it’s everything but easy.

Towards the recentralization of HR

A not that appealing situation but a necessary evil. Hoping this step will soon be behind us.

Meanwhile, and that was my second surprise, this rationalization comes with a recentralization while the latest trends were rather to give more and more freedom to local operations. Counter-current to what we used to see but logical : moving to the could makes no sense if it’s not scalable. Let me also add that centralizing tool is not an issue leading to less agility and autonomy. With a “good” solutions, centralizing technologies does not mean uniformizing the practices. That may happen today’s technologies are operated with and old-minded governance but it’s not the primary purpose.

This recentralization is also the consequence of a very special moment when a brand new infrastructure is set, so be the best moment to make things in a rational and clean way, knowing that opportunism will take over over time, as usual. As a speaker admitted after his presentation “everything is square and recentralized but the decentralization trend will start over once the new architecture implemented. That’s how it’s always been and will be”.

Emerging HR matters are missing in action

So everything I’ve seen and heard was logical but I’m still disappointed that vision have left HR Tech’s main stage. Of course the many breakout sessions were full of great use cases but the vision / business case / technology triptic was only working on two legs this year and something was missing. Something helping attendees to shape their future, share a vision, set the industry in motion.

While the previous editions gave a lot of room to the transformation and society and businesses, to the digital imperative as a strategic, managerial, societal and organization concern, nothing such this year. Programming issue or lack of vision ? Maybe both. But please remind of what I wrote above : blaming the programming is easy but most of the attendees were happy because their current concerns were mainly about the “low layers” of the HR function…even if some more vision would have been nice.

Matters that are more than emerging were not mentioned : future of work, candidate and employee experience just to name a few.

Is it because there’s no need to evangelize and convince people anymore ? I don’t think so. Thinking that the future of work is something everyone is ok with would be a big mistake.

In brief, many speakers told us they started something but without letting us know if they knew where they were headed and what they will use technology for. The big picture was not on the main stage.

Is the future of HR a vendor’s vision ?

HR vendor bashing has been so popular for years because of their “old-school-ness” and lack of vision that we must recognize today that they eventually took the right path. Pressured by fast moving startups, I found they were moving fast and in the right direction. The truth is that if you wanted meaningful and disruptive ideas about what HR will be in 3 or 5 years, vendors were the one to talk with.

A few years ago, HR technology did not look capable of supporting the vision of the most digitally advanced HR. Today I think that most businesses are not ready to make the most of the existing technology.

So the main insights I got this year were from IBM, ADP, TalentSoft, which helped me to assess my some parts of my own convictions. I appreciated their vision and some bold stands.

So, I’ll be discussing the consumerization of HR, marketing, future of work, candidate and employee experience in a series of upcoming posts. Hoping these topics will replace “plumbing matters” in next year’s conference (october 25th and 26th 2016)

Technologies are moving fast but HR culture and practices must move even faster. Some more insights about that would have been welcome.

To be continued….


PS : I already have a great new to share with you. Following a conversation I just had with the organization team, I can tell you that, starting from the London Edition in March, topics such as the future of work or the transformation of HR will be back on the main stage with more thoughleaders and less technology. Happy to have the “old” format back with valuable insights, vision and food for thoughts. Let’s meet in London so…


HR Tech world London



Image credit : Plumbing by MarcelClemens via shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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