4 takeaways from HR Tech World Congress

    Etienne Goffin
    Etienne Goffin

    The HR Tech World Congress, known as the greatest HR show on Earth, took place in London last fortnight, and gathered 3,500 delegates to discuss the ‘future of work’. Here are my four main takeaways from this thought-provoking two-day event:

    #1 Valorize corporate data

    Most of the speakers at the congress have been stating loud and clear that “data valorization” was a key part of the strategic plan of their companies. No matter the sector (energy, transportation, banking, insurance …), data valorization is the new motto for all (1). For HR as well, better valuing data has become a top priority. By neglecting it, companies take the risk to lose a competitive advantage in the new digital ecosystem. Data valorization is essentially the ability to extract from it valuable insights to guide business operations. For this reason, Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder at Bersin by Deloitte, stated that “analytics is no longer a ‘good idea’ for HR – it is now mandatory” (2).

    Several speakers gave examples on how they valorize data. Camilla Björkqvist, Chief Data Officer at ING explained how the bank has built the foundations for long-term success for people analytics with a robust approach to data management, governance and security (3). Daniel Murphy, Associate Director at EY, gave more information on the increasingly sophisticated use of engagement data to drive business and employee outcomes. One highlight being the finding that those business units that take action on the insights are the ones that then have the biggest improvements in business outcomes and employee engagement scores (4). Christa Manning, Vice President at Bersin by Deloitte explained, how evolution to the cloud offers better information to executives and employees (5). Pranav Chadha, Senior Digital & Analytics Manager at Adidas showcased a dynamic self-built reporting and visualisation tool for talent acquisition that enables leaders, hiring managers and recruiters to check progress and promote key strategic initiatives such as diversity and internal mobility (6).

    David Green Global Director, People Analytics Solutions at IBM said that “growth in people analytics is being accelerated by three developing trends: i) the desire to consumerize and personalise the employee experience, ii) emerging sources of data such as wearables, social media and collaboration platforms and email meta data, and iii) AI and cognitive technology”(7). He felt that these elements were on the wish list of many participants at the congress and were certainly advertised by many of the vendors exhibiting at the show. He stated that “personalizing services for employees such as onboarding, learning and mobility all require data and analytics at their core, as does understanding and taking action on employee sentiment as well as cultivating collaboration amongst teams and networks” (7).

    #2 Become ambidextrous

    Sir Ken Robinson, (he of the 44m views for his Ted Talk – Do schools kill creativity?) opened the congress with a stirring speech on the culture of innovation (8). With the average life span of companies shrinking, those that fail to innovate will simply not survive, he said. Indeed, 52% of the Fortune 500 companies in the year 2000 no longer exist, and this pace of change is increasing. So, why do so many companies hinder rather than cultivate creativity? One of the main perceived barriers to innovation in HR are legacy routines and systems. Lots of businesses struggle to perform their current daily task while preparing for future requirements at the same time. But organizations must use both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful, according to Reza Moussavian, speaking at the congress (9). This ability to be efficient in the management of today’s business and also adaptable for coping with tomorrow’s changing demand is called organizational ambidexterity (10).

    Ben Wharfe, Programme Director Future HR at EDF Energy, gave a practical example on how a large energy group has completely rethought its HR function (11). In line with the concept of ambidexterity, EDF energy believes that a modern, flexible and future proof HR function must be able to meet the needs of the business now and in the future. This vision is delivered through focusing on 3 cornerstones: simplicity, effectiveness and digitization. Firstly, EDF Energy implemented simple, efficient and standard HR processes to make life easy for employees and managers. Secondly, it allowed the HR department to have a stronger focus on the business and defined clearly its role and responsibilities. Thirdly, a technical solution with a fantastic user experience was developed to save time and provide accurate data and analytics (11).

    #3 Adapt to the global gig-economy

    Globalization and digitization are changing the way people work and how companies operate. The economic and financial crisis prompted businesses to long-lasting costs cutting and staff reductions (12). Automation technologies such as machine learning and robotics are starting to affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of activities (13). Contracts with independent workers for remote and short-term engagements are getting increasingly frequent. This new organization of business operations and labor markets is known as the ‘gig-economy’(14). Speakers at HR Tech World shared different views on whether job flexibility contribute to increasing frustration or fulfilment (15).

    These deep structural changes are creating disillusionment and frustration among global populations, according to Daniel Thorniley, president of DT-Global Business Consulting, speaking at the congress. He cited Brexit as one notable result of this: “in 2011 Mervin King said he was shocked there had not been a revolution in England, then we had a social revolution in 2016 called Brexit”. He said that these threats of social unrests or political turmoil are bringing “tremendous uncertainty” for companies. To back his claim, he noted that wage growth in the UK from 2008 to 2013 was the worst since 1348 when the bubonic plague hit and that 62% of people aged 16 to 24 in the EU were not “[having] proper jobs” (16).

    In contrast, the co-founder and CEO of Catalant, Patrick Petitti, also speaking at the conference, stressed the importance of companies staying abreast of the desire of freedom and flexibility among the young millennials. Companies need to find new career paths for people who are not typically interested to progress up the corporate ladder. “Now it might be more about horizontal opportunities,” he said. “Or people working in a different division of a company. Or maybe it’s even letting your full-time employees do projects for other companies when they have the capacity.” Businesses that embrace this evolution successfully “will have the competitive edge”, said Petitti (17).

    Everybody agreed that businesses should rapidly adapt to cross-border employment which is becoming more and more common. Salary administration might not be the first thing that comes to mind in this context, yet this was one of the hot topic of the event. Monika Garg, Global Head of Mobility at Maersk Oil explained that introducing a cross-border payment process was challenging (18). Luckily, Mike Worthington, Global Head of Solutions at SD Worx, showed during a demo that modern global payroll systems with local capabilities, such as Dayforce HCM, can easily empower payroll department in a global business context (19 & 20). Then, Mairéad Honan, Process Improvement Project Manager at Boston Scientific, explained how they implemented such system to optimize their payroll process across the globe (21).

    As Petitti stated, companies are increasingly hiring freelancers (often beyond the office walls) to supplement the employees already on their payroll. Yet, a fully integrated HR and payment process for these two types of contracts is still missing. Although freelancer management solutions and payment methods are being developed, they are not yet included in the traditional HRM and payroll systems. This is just one small example showing that there are still a lot of things to invent to answer all the new needs of the global gig economy.

    #4 Keep users at the center

    In the old days, users had to use what they were given by the IT department and that was the end of the story, whether they liked it or not. Well, it turns out many people didn’t like it, according to David Wilson, CEO of Fosway Group, speaking at the congress (22). With a growing array of consumer applications on the Web and their mobile phones, people now expect IT to deliver the same kind of experiences at work that they enjoy at home. This is all falling under the umbrella of what has been coined ‘the consumerization of IT’. Speakers at the congress presented on three methodologies giving priority to the users.

    Klara Jappelova, Head of Performance and Talent Management at Raiffeisen Bank explained how user-centered design (a framework of processes in which usability goals, user characteristics, environment and workflow are given extensive attention) can be used to rethink the HR function (23). The main particularity is that designers also validate their assumptions with regard to the user behavior in real world tests, at each stage of the design process. It enabled Raiffeisen Bank to discover that some of their beliefs were not shared with their employees (e.g. regarding ratings).

    Jason Averbook, author, presented the design thinking methodology which provides a 5-step approach (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test) to solve problems. It uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and financially viable (24). Jason Averbook extolled a new mantra for HR: be brave, be bold and be smart. He then urged HR officials to “embrace technology, don’t leave it to the IT department, and use it to help shape consumer-like experiences for your employees”.

    Nick Hutchinson, solutions consultant at Lumesse, showed how an intuitive user interface (UI) and a great user experience (UX) can transform the way HR departments operate (25). UX design is a methodology centered around a person’s emotions and attitudes about using a particular product, system, user interface (UI) or service. UX design is a critical driver of user adoption. Mark Williams, Research Director at MHR presented what he considers the HR interface of the future: chatbots (26). These computer programs using artificial intelligence (AI) to simulate human behavior and conduct conversations, have strong potential for HR automation.

    User-centered design, design thinking and UX design are all ways of reimagining and improving HR tools and processes, by considering them from the perspective of the people (e.g. candidates, recruiters, workers, managers) experiencing them.

    In conclusion, the HR Tech World congress really lived up to its reputation of being the biggest event on how technology (e.g. automation, AI, bots, VR) and society (e.g. Brexit, gig-economy, mobile first) are bringing significant change in the way people and organizations work. For two days, we learned from the world’s most exciting leaders and disrupters on all aspects of HR technology. The next HR Tech World congresses will take place in June in San Francisco and October in Amsterdam.


    1. Badetz, S. (2016). Data valorization: shifting to an alternative business model. Wavestone.
    2. Bersin, J. (2016). Predictions for 2017: Everything Is Becoming Digital. Bersin by Deloitte.
    3. Camilla Björkqvist, Chief Data Officer at ING
    4. Daniel Murphy, Associate Director at EY
    5. Christa Manning, C. (2017). Headed for the Cloud: Selecting and Sustaining Software as a Service. HR Tech World London Congress.
    6. Pranav Chadha, Senior Digital & Analytics Manager at Adidas
    7. Green, D. (2017). 10 takeaways from HR Tech World London 2017. HR Tech World Blog.
    8. Robinson, K. (2017). Leading a culture of Innovation. HR Tech World London Congress.
    9. Moussavian, R. (2017). Chicken salad again, really?!. HR Tech World London Congress.
    10. Wharfe, B. (2017). Digital Disruption – Opportunity or threat for businesses and HR?. HR Tech World London Congress.
    11. Biagio, J. (2015). Ambidextrous organization. Concept.org.
    12. Gallie, D. (2013). Economic crisis, quality of work, and social integration: The European experience. Oxford Edition.
    13. Chui, , Manyila, J., Miremadi, M. (2016). Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet). McKinsey Quarterly Review.
    14. Rouse, M. (2016). The gig-economy. Tech Target Dictionary.
    15. Roper, J. (2017). Lack of opportunities and austerity caused Brexit.
    16. Thorniley, D. (2017). Why did Brexit happen? HR Tech World London Congress.
    17. Patrick Petitti, P. (2017). One career: Infinite Jobs – Welcome to the On-Demand Economy. HR Tech World London Congress.
    18. Garg, M. (2017). Unifying payroll for cross-border employees. HR Tech World London Congress.
    19. Mike Worthington, M. (2017). SD Worx: Making payroll work for your global business. HR Tech World London Congress.
    20. Berichon, C. (2017). HR Tech World: Demos, discussion and…HARRI. SD Worx.
    21. Honan, M. (2017). Rolling out a multi-country payroll transition. HR Tech World London Congress.
    22. Wilson, D. (2017). Transforming the customer experience of HR technology. HR Tech World London Congress.
    23. Jappelova, K. (2017). Performance management upgrade through user centred design. HR Tech World London Congress.
    24. Averbook, J. (2017). Be brave – the time for action is now!. HR Tech World London Congress.
    25. Hutchinson, N. (2017). Lumesse: consumerisation – the future of recruiting technology. HR Tech World London Congress.
    26. Williams, M. (2017). MHR: Futur of work? AI and Bots. HR Tech World London Congress.

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