HR Tech 2020 Finds A New Stage


When the annual HR Technology Conference shifted to a virtual format for 2020, it created the unique opportunity for BTR to fully leverage our internal resources and deliver a more comprehensive review of the latest themes and trends from this marketspace. Of the 110 sessions offered, BTR team members attended 76 thought-provoking virtual presentations and “visited” all 154 vendor exhibitor booths. Given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with protests for racial injustice across the country, it was no surprise that there was extensive discussion about how HR technology resources can be used to make sure employees feel safe and healthy. We also heard a lot about tools to help eliminate hiring bias and ensure DEI (diversity, equity & inclusion) within the workplace. We’ve organized our collective takeaways around the following five big themes and provided links for those who would like to take a deeper dive.

  1. Agility  2020 has truly tested HR technology vendors’ ability to adjust their tools (or develop new ones) in response to the workplace impact of big global and cultural events. Work automation platform Workato listed “agile HR” as their #1 HR best practice going forward. Here’s why: beginning with COVID-19, employers were forced to scramble to find a way to communicate effectively with employees who were no longer coming into a communal workplace.  The subsequent economic ripple effect of the pandemic put pressure on payroll vendors to ensure data was accessible to clients applying for PPP loans. Our observation is that some providers answered with more agility than others! Next came the call from employers looking for tools to respond to the demand for DE&I resources—stemming from turmoil in the social landscape. Now, as the country inches back to full operations and employment, there is a greater need for good talent management technologies to support decision making under new circumstances.
  2. Talent Management – Relatively few employers use a comprehensive talent management suite but, for many, this HR functionality is fast becoming a “must-have” and we expect to see more companies invest in talent management tools. As the Sapient Insights Group (formerly Sierra-Cedar) noted in the debut of their 2020-2021 Annual HR Systems Survey, “This was the year that talent management paid its dues.” The survey found that organizations with high talent outcomes redistributed critical workforces, increased tech infrastructure, and increased salaries of essential roles. Alternatively, those with low talent outcomes reduced management salaries, furloughed/laid-off employees, and eliminated contract workers. For the last several years, market thought leaders have talked about “HR in the Flow of Work” and “employee journeys.” As both concepts remain highly relevant, we recommend employers consider their response. To get a better understanding of the overall talent management functionality, watch our employer webinar. So much of talent management is about gauging and supporting employee engagement and resilience. Or, as Marcus Buckingham said, “Engagement is a proactive frame of mind, enabling you to deliver your best. Resilience is our reactive capacity to withstand and bounce back.” Combined, these attributes will enable a more productive workforce as employees face new challenges in a changing environment.
  3. Talent Marketplaces – Along with the dramatic rise of the gig economy, we have seen an increase in the use of ”talent marketplaces,” which help employers identify internal resources to fill talent gaps for specific projects, typically on a short-term basis. Thus far, these marketplaces are mostly geared toward large employers that have numerous opportunities—many increasingly so due to recent layoffs or furloughs. A talent marketplace allows employers to list the skills required along with the skills to be gained and to provide other pertinent information. These platforms deliver a real win-win: for employers by filling skill gaps with existing resources, and for employees looking to advance their career and learn new skills. Employers also benefit by gaining insights into which employees seek additional opportunities, their skill sets, and how to best leverage those skills within the organization. With this knowledge, employers are well-positioned to identify and retain top talent. The success of these internal marketplaces could lead to the creation of talent and project marketplaces unrelated to a specific employer. In other words, a project-based recruiting portal. This would simplify the gig management process and further expand the gig economy.
  4. Employee Experience – One takeaway from the conference that especially stood out to us is the importance of the “employee experience.” Everyone from keynote speakers to vendors emphasized the importance of putting the employee first and improving engagement. In one roundtable discussion, Jason Averbook gave the example of a mobile app that you download and then find it difficult to use. How often do you go back to it? For most of us, the answer is never. The same is true for employee-facing technology. Counteracting this challenge is technology that “wraps around” different systems to make the employee experience easy, modern, and intuitive.
  5. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), & Blockchain – AI took off in the HR technology ecosystem in recent years, much of it designed to automate repeatable tasks. We’re now seeing the significant expansion of machine learning (ML) technology, which allows systems to learn from data inputs and grow their own knowledge base. These inputs can even include the emotion and sentiment conveyed in the tone of someone’s voice, or the words used when typing to a chatbot (raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten snarky with a chatbot!). These smart technologies are coming to the forefront of HR and making a splash in the marketplace. Both AI and ML have been used in call centers for several years, but we now see them incorporated into talent acquisition tools. The result is improved search results in candidate pools and access to analytics on employee performance and learning opportunities. For example, a department head who needs help deciding who should replace a departing manager can use an AI-based succession planning solution to guide decision making. Lastly, we’re beginning to see the integration of blockchain technology into HR tools. Blockchain is most known as the backend technology of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. No matter the industry, blockchain is a market disrupter, often eliminating the middleman in business processes. In the HR tech sector, blockchain can validate informational transactions such as education or employment verification, background checks, and more. But the most disruptive potential lies in its ability to streamline the payroll process, although this is likely a few years off.  Keep your eye on all of these technologies as they represent some of the fastest areas of growth in the HR technology space.

The 2020 virtual HR Technology Conference was one of the most successful online events we attended throughout this usual, but interesting, year. The industry’s response to the event was so positive that the organizers have already announced another virtual conference for this spring while holding out hopes for an in-person event in the fall of 2021. With so much uncertainty facing the HR sector, we are working hard to prepare for what’s to come and our “new normal.” Of course, technology is a big part of that effort. However, as Kimberly Cassady from Cornerstone said, the “new normal is old news.” Whatever is ahead for the HR technology industry, BTR will be on top of it to help guide our broker partners and their employer clients.