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A look at how Big Tech is breaking into HR technology

Big tech is quickly moving into the HR tech space — but who’s winning?

Nicholas Fearn

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash with modification.

Unleash Your Workplace Big tech is quickly moving into the HR tech space — but who’s winning?

  • Technology giants such as Microsoft and Google entered the HR tech space long ago — but what other tech behemoths are bringing HR tech capabilities?
  • The opportunity for innovation is clear, but COVID-19 has supercharged the adoption of workplace technologies.
  • What are the challenges for tech giants in the HR space?

Over the past few years, many of the world’s biggest technology companies have launched HR products in a bid to transform the way people work, collaborate, and communicate across the entire organization. 

But how exactly are technology giants breaking into the HR tech space, and which products are having the most significant impact in the workplace today? From online collaboration platforms to virtual reality applications, we explore some of them.

Transforming HR

Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce have become the operating system of the whole organization and form the foundation of how work gets done today, whether it’s email, instant messaging, file creation and sharing, case management, knowledge sharing, or storage, according to Forrester principal analyst Betsy Summers. 

She tells UNLEASH: “So it makes total sense that they’d eventually collide with the HR technology that manages the people doing the work. With work tech taking the front-end experience, HR tech has to split focus between maintaining their consumer-grade UI/UX as a destination product while also building an integration and partner ecosystem that enables their capabilities to show up in the flow of work.”

Her view is that embedding HR processes into the flow of work will allow organizations to better understand how people work together, review their performance, as well as facilitate learning, development, and career growth. 

“Feeding that real-time work tech data into HR’s analytics could help the HR team immensely, from improving employee experience to more accurate assessments of employee performance and collaboration,” she adds.

“It could also reduce the burden on HR tech to update their UI/UX, and rather, focus on building great plumbing and connective tissue on the backend. With employees’ demand that HR tech has the same ease of use and intuitiveness as the apps on their phone, work tech giants are (generally) way ahead of HR tech.”

Summers adds that the human capital management (HCM) industry isn’t standing still, though. She says: “It [HCM] has been on the move as well, on a trajectory or expansion towards employee experience technology with SAP’s purchase of Qualtrics, Workday’s Peakon, Microsoft’s Glint, the whole advent of learning experience platforms and HR tech’s flirtation with the ‘talent experience’ category and messaging in 2019. The battle for who ‘runs the world of work’ is not yet won.”

Connecting the workplace

Facebook is just one example of a major technology company that has developed a popular HR solution in the past few years. Its professional online collaboration platform, Workplace, is used by millions of organizations globally to connect their employees.

Nazir Ul-Ghani, head of Workplace from Facebook, EMEA, explains that its mission is to bring the community to the world of work. He says:

“We believe every single employee should have a voice in their organization – whether they sit next to their CEO, are based in a different office or timezone, or work in a manufacturing plant without access to a computer or company email address. Because it’s the companies that are able to break down these barriers to access, information and recognition that will thrive in the future.”

While HR teams have always played a vital role in organizations, Ul-Ghani argues their importance has grown exponentially during the pandemic. “What we’ve seen in many customer organizations is that HR leaders are now working more closely with leadership and IT than ever before – to communicate mission-critical information and keep employees safe, all while working in a more distributed and isolated way,” he says.

“In many cases tools like Workplace have helped to bridge these distances, keeping workplace communities alive in spite of physical isolation and ensuring safety messages and company updates reach every employee. And in the last year we’ve shipped features like Knowledge Library, Draft For, and Live Video improvements to help make sure every employee feels informed and supported.”

[Read more: Why every tech-savvy HR department should leverage live video]

He believes the coronavirus pandemic has forced organizations to rethink their employee experience. “At the same time, it’s clear that COVID-19 has prompted organizations to think hard about their employee experience. Gone are the days when this was the concern of visionary leaders only. Today, every company is thinking about how they can improve the employee experience to counteract the impact of lockdowns, increase engagement, and retain talent for the long-term,” explains Ul-Ghani.

“Communication platforms can help HR democratize the employee experience – ensuring it is equitable and inclusive for employees whether they work at HQ, on the frontline or on a different continent by connecting everyone on the same platform and making information accessible to all.”

The adoption of technologies such as Facebook Workplace is enabling organizations to modernize their HR functions. Dub Lee, learning architect at Honest Burgers, says: “What’s been really exciting though is that Workplace has allowed us to experiment with different methods of engagement, particularly with Bots. The Bot Platform tool on Workplace is integrated into Workplace through its chat feature, and it meant we were able to create bots that automated some HR functions. 

[Read more: How HR can use tech to build more inclusive workplaces]

“For example, our ‘Collaborator’ communications and collaboration Bot allowed the HR team to send letters about furlough virtually and instantly, and for people to log related concerns and questions in the same chat. We then gathered all of that feedback together and held a video call to chat through the questions. Using technology in this way meant that the “simple” stuff was covered, and our people could do the important stuff that really fuels the human connection we all need in our place of work.”

Leveraging new tech 

When governments introduced lockdown and social distancing rules following the outbreak of coronavirus in early 2020, businesses had no choice but to move their teams online and embrace remote working. And throughout this crisis, HR technologies have offered a lifeline for businesses and organizations across all industries. 

Graham Wheeler, general manager at HTC EMEA, says: “There probably hasn’t been a more challenging period for HR professionals than during the past 12 months, with the sudden shift to remote working. Tech companies have the opportunity to channel vast resources to support this new approach. This allows them to create accessible and multifaceted platforms with a collection of applications.”

But Wheeler believes HR technology currently lacks specialization, pointing out that generic video calling applications have existed for a decade. This is, however, something HTC is looking to change by leveraging new technologies such as virtual reality

He explains that HTC is trying to build upon the value of business-to-business VR technology by enabling meaningful collaboration and connection between people in the workplace. “One such example is Bodyswaps, which uses virtual reality and AI to create engaging soft skill role-play scenarios where learners can act with their own voice and swap perspectives to watch themselves,” explains Wheeler.

“This allows users to train in listening, communication and inclusive management skills from any location. Similarly, at a hackathon, we saw an amazing idea based around using VR Face Tracker technology to support empathy training. Generic platforms can only go so far, but there’s a whole world of opportunity opening up for HR tech.”

Andre Robberts, vice president at HCM Cloud, Northern Europe at Oracle, agrees the pandemic has introduced new challenges in the workplace and that technology has allowed organizations to solve these.

“The Covid-19 pandemic created the most stressful work year in people’s lives. It also created an immediate need for digital solutions, for example, collaboration and video conferencing tools, and now that people have become comfortable with [them], they’re seeking what else is possible,” says Robberts.

In particular, he believes technology can help organizations deal with workplace stress and mental health issues. Robberts says: “A recent study found that a mammoth 82% of employees believe robots can support their mental health better than humans and 68% would actually prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress at work. 

“With employees embracing digital solutions like never before, companies have the opportunity to find out just how much technology can impact the workplace. For instance, organisations are turning to AI to help monitor employee well-being or provide on-demand chatbots to answer health-related questions. This last year alone has seen a huge leap in innovation within the HR tech space and with momentum not looking to be slowing down, I’m excited for what’s next.”

[Read more: How HR can use AI to drive employee trust]

Rob Massa, chief revenue officer of Forecast, says the biggest challenge faced by technology companies that want to disrupt the HR tech space is continually investing in their platforms and building on the strong brand affiliation they’ve earned throughout the pandemic. 

“The likes of Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams have been by far the winners in 2020 as working became remote, compared with the likes of Skype and Google Hangouts that went all but silent. An additional barrier for Facebook Workplace to overcome will also be building trust in its platform, as potential users might be turned off by the negative sentiment surrounding its parent company, particularly around privacy and data issues,” he says.

With the modern workplace heavily reliant on connected technology and online platforms, tech giants have seen a massive opportunity in the HR tech space and launched many different innovations in this area.

But what’s clear is that the rise of remote working during the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the adoption of their HR technologies and that even more exciting innovations will enter this space in the next few years. Stay tuned.

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