Could a consultant help HR unravel digital innovation?

There’s an explosion of start-ups offering HR tech solutions, but how on earth can organisations keep up with the pace of innovation? Alex Cresswell from pymetrics looks at the growing trend for digital innovation consultants who help HR teams to sort the wheat from the chaff.

I recently found myself sitting in the corridor of an achingly trendy shared office space in Shoreditch waiting for another tech vendor to finish their pitch to the HR team of one of the UK’s leading financial services companies. I was waiting for my turn in the “Dragon’s Den”.

It was an unusual process and one that goes against every sales training book that has ever been written: turn up, give your pitch, answer questions and, when your 15 minutes is up, then you leave.

But it turned out to be fun, engaging and useful; thanks to the excellent facilitation of The Bakery, an innovation consulting outfit that the client had engaged for that purpose.

There are a few of these “digital innovation consultants” springing up and their reason for existence is that the tech world – and, in particular, HR tech – is thriving with new start-ups arriving on the scene daily.

It’s a world of technology abundance and, as an engineer-by-training, that makes me very happy. Developments in artificial intelligence, robotics and user interface are making things possible that were not even dreamt of as recently as five years ago.

It means that there are opportunities galore to solve age-old business problems such as reducing bias in recruitment, or making onboarding of new talent rapid and engaging, or providing education to your employees on demand when and where it is needed.

Keeping up

However this explosion of new companies and new tech also creates a significant challenge for organisations and that is simply – how do you keep up?

If you are an HR professional that likes to think of themselves as a bit of a geek, this is an exhilarating time where you are constantly finding a new toy to play with.

But for most it is confusing and problematic. Over the summer, I bumped into a head of recruitment that I have known for some time who works for another financial services company.

He was looking harassed and told me that the main reason he was attending was to try and make some sense of the new vendors out there in the market.

He went on to explain that he now receives so many cold calls, emails and LinkedIn messages from start-ups that he doesn’t have time to consider or respond to any of them.

It’s a vicious circle; he knows that he’s falling behind developments out there but he doesn’t have time to work out what to look at and so he ignores all opportunities and falls further behind.

For those that have a particular need, and are therefore looking at the market, the challenge can be trying to work out how to distinguish between vendors in a particular area.

At pymetrics we work in the assessment space and at the recent HR tech event in Las Vegas there were 29 different assessment vendors represented. It is undoubtedly hard for companies to determine who they should be working with, no matter how differentiated we believe our offering is.

The final challenge that I see with clients is that there is often a genuine desire to be innovative and embrace “digital”. However, it’s incredibly difficult to shake off the ingrained conservatism and nervousness that pervades their organisations, about working with these “unproven” start-ups.

“Yes”, the client will say, “we want to innovate! But please can we speak to another three reference clients in our industry, of the same size, that have been using your technology in the same way for at least two years.”

Analysis paralysis

The end result of these issues is that significant amounts of time are being taken up on research, multiple vendor meetings or lengthy requests for information and follow-up presentations – often with very little clarity on what the strategy is or what problem the company is looking to solve.

This inevitably ends up in analysis paralysis with no decision being taken.

This is a problem for both sides – it is of little value to the company conducting the research and it is swallowing the time and resources of very lean start-up businesses who need to move quickly and sign up clients in order to survive.

There are two ways that pymetrics has recently been engaged that I think are creative solutions to this conundrum.

The first is to have a third party help to guide you through a process of defining what the core challenges are that new technology can help you address and then to help you find and assess the providers in that space.

This is what our financial services client is doing with The Bakery, which it is part of a wider approach to innovation within their HR organisation that starts with exhorting everyone on the team to look outside of the company at what is happening in the market, seeking to find what they call “outsight”.

The second way is to commit to a series of rapid, low risk pilots. This requires some budget and resources to be set aside and a willingness to break the mould of “standard processes” in order to learn.

Tipico, the fast growing European sports betting company, has done exactly that; implementing pilots in a number of key parts of its HR process with simple and well understood success metrics so that things that are working can be easily identified and scaled; and any failures can be fast and any negative impact is low.

But this approach is not only for young companies – we have also engaged in the same way with a 100-plus year-old pharmaceutical company with more than 50,000 employees and £25 billion in revenue.

Given that the company deals with health they certainly aren’t known for taking risks, but they do understand the value of experimentation and that is helping them to get competitive advantage in their HR processes.

The business value of finding and implementing new technology to improve processes can be dramatic so it is worth some effort. Exploring one of the two methodologies above can help you navigate the murky waters to find the tech that works for you.

Alex Cresswell

About Alex Cresswell

Alex Cresswell is managing director EMEA at pymetrics
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