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Unleash 2023: AI in HR takes center stage
But are HR Professionals ready?
Hey Future of Work friends,
hope your day is going well. Before we jump to my thoughts on Unleash, I want to invite you to my Equal Pay Fest next week. To celebrate the launch of my book and to create awareness for the EU Pay Transparency Directive, I am hosting conversations with eight amazing guests. Each one will discuss a different aspect of Pay Transparency. You’ll hear lessons learned from HR practitioners and we’ll explore topics like payscales and job architectures with business leaders. You don’t want to miss it! Join the first session on Monday at 4pm CET and take a look at the full agenda for the speaker overview with links. All audio events, so you don’t have to dress up!
And before I forget, Pete Tiliakos and I discuss Innovation in Global Payroll with Anke Mogannam from Workday. You can join our conversation on November 13 at 9:30am PT/12:30pm ET/6:30pm CET. Join us: https://bit.ly/3Mq78Ue.
From all the HR events that I attend, Unleash has a special place in my heart. I fondly remember the first event in Amsterdam, when it was starting out as a fraction of what it is today. Did I mention I’ve attended every one of them since then? Anyway, I always enjoy Unleash because besides being a great show with a truly international vibe, they are very smart in introducing new people and ideas. And it’s the annual reunion of HR professionals! Our industry is known for people moving back and forth between vendors, organizations and consultancies, and it’s my annual opportunity to catch up with old and new friends. It’s also a vibrant show, with so many presentations and events happening that it’s hard to decide where to go.
The first thing I noticed as I walked onto the expo floor, was that the younger companies are firmly grabbing attention. Where in the past the incumbent global HR vendors and advisory firms had the main booths at the entrance, that’s not the case anymore. Visier had an amazing booth right where you walked in, with a small stage where they gave short presentations. You may know Visier as the people analytics business, but during a meeting with their team I learned that they have established themselves as a platform as a service business as well. Which means that their engine powers the analytics of other HR solutions. Their focus on data-driven HR resonated throughout the conference, as more vendors are emphasizing the importance of data-driven strategies. And you need solid and trustworthy data before you embark on an AI journey. More on this in a next newsletter.
The Startup Competition
This year the startup booths were placed in small groups throughout the expo, and that was a much better experience than a startup pavilion. It makes for a better flow, and I heard from founders that they saw a lot of traffic. Win-win for everyone. Last year, the startup competition was on Day 2 during keynote sessions and I thought that was a pity because the audience was small. This year the event happened right after the first keynotes on Day 1, and the floor was packed. If you look closely, you find me standing in the back ;)
As last year, I was on the digital panel, watching thirty founder pitches and scoring submissions before the event. It’s always insightful to take a look at what founders are working on, and what problems they want to address. The best companies are then invited to pitch on the Unleash Startup stage in front of a panel of judges. Talk’n’Job, a German-based virtual voice-guided job application, was the winner. Just like last year’s winner, this is a solution that focuses on helping the deskless workforce move ahead. And you know that I believe this is a worker group that deserves much more of our attention, so I was glad they won first prize. The other finalists were Flowee and deskbird, both offering a platform supporting hybrid working, Revelio Labs, a workforce intelligence solution, and Confirm, a scientific approach to performance management. Confirm ended up winning the digital startup competition.
I always enjoy finding new HR Tech startups and exploring what they want to create. But after watching thirty online pitches of how startups want to improve the HR space, let me end this topic with a word of advice to founders: it’s great when you find an HR pain point to solve. But HR functions don’t want to buy individual modules for every pain point. Best of breed only goes so far and no one wants to manage dozens of applications in their HR Tech stack. So even if your solution solves one thing today and it’s okay to start small, please have a bolder, grander idea in mind, that allows a customer to benefit from your solution in more than one way. My suggestion: pay attention to Pay Transparency and especially the Compensation & Rewards space! Or if you want to aim high: what about a new multi-country payroll engine?
The shrinking labor market
With labor and skills shortages everywhere, European companies are starting to feel the pressure of an aging population. Candidate and Employee Experience, Engagement and DEI solutions all address the same underlying issue: people are not happy at work, or worse, don’t feel safe. In order to attract enough workers, companies must step up. It’s unclear to me if we are making progress by implementing more tools, as the research on the benefits isn’t clear and vendor claims are not very solid. Some presenters mentioned that employees feel overwhelmed by all the tools they must use. However, many vendors still see an opportunity to improve this area. I also picked up that organizations are using social media influencers in a new way: not to sell their products, but to attract candidates. Someone who doesn’t work there, gets paid to say that a company is a great place to work? I’m really curious if that resonates with candidates?
The second focus was skills, or rather the skills gap. Not only do we not have enough people to do the work, the people that we have need to acquire the skills for future jobs. . What would help is companies that offer a global skills database: defining that is a lot of work, but think about the efficiency. Instead of every company creating their own, and having to acquire the knowledge to do so, a global model would make a big difference.
I saw a number of solutions like that focus on documenting the skills that you have, and contrasting them against the skills that you need - today and in the future. The problem is that you’ll have to first hash out your business strategy, and then support that with a skills strategy which lets you identify the future gap. Companies clearly want more help in laying out exactly how to bridge the gap: upskill, reskill, hire, outsource etc. When choosing to upskill or reskill, training contributes to talent development. Companies like Cornerstone, Degreed and Phenom focus on this area, and especially how AI can contribute to create better learning experiences.
Yes, AI was everywhere
I had jokingly said that I was going to present an award to the vendor that did not talk about AI. Well, that award would have traveled back home with me. AI was everywhere. And that’s no surprise, because algorithms have been part of HR solutions for about a decade. Especially when it comes to hiring solutions like ATS’s. But since the arrival of ChatGPT in November of last year, generative AI has taken over. I’ve written before about the explosion of vendor announcements to incorporate GenAI in their solutions. And that meant that most of the vendor presentations discussed how they are using AI (or Copilots) to provide a better experience.
Many of the HR professionals and buyers I met are not so keen on activating these generative AI services yet. Organizations have educated themselves relatively quickly, driven by internal privacy and security policies. Most of them have restricted or forbidden employees to use external GenAI tools for privacy reasons. And while HR clients see benefits in using AI, they don’t close their eyes for its risks. And here is where it became interesting: Some visitors mentioned that vendor reps weren’t particularly well prepared to answer in-depth questions. Yes, people want to see a demo of how GenAI is included in an HR solution. But they also want to have a conversation about governance, transparency, compliance and bias. Some even indicated concerns about sustainability. They found that most vendor’s staff was unable to answer questions that went a little deeper.
This is a missed opportunity, and one that’s also easy to correct. It might be that European clients are much more aware of risks due to works councils, unions and the upcoming EU AI legislation. Nevertheless, we have moved from the hype to serious considerations about AI’s potential and that’s a good development. Let’s see how we can move this forward in an ethical and responsible way by making sure everyone involved can participate in thoughtful conversations.
The metaverse was not
If we need more proof that the metaverse is dead, we’ve got it. I did not see the term metaverse being used once. Didn’t hear it in presentations (although I could not attend all of them ;). And even though I always recommend to look at the underlying technology, I saw only one vendor pitching virtual reality learning solutions while demoing headsets. Augmented reality was completely absent. Unleash is not an L&D event, but a bit more innovation on this topic would be welcome. Maybe we’ll switch to spatial computing and the officeverse next year?
And whatever happened to Equal Pay?
Yes, I just published a book about this topic, so it’s on my radar. But I couldn’t believe that I did not see more about the EU Pay transparency directive. Hardly any vendor mentioning it, with the exception of one Hibob keynote. Very few solutions, like Figures, Benify and Beqom, to support it. For the majority of European companies establishing Equal Pay will be a major undertaking in the next two years, if not the most time and money consuming HR initiative. Hopefully next year we’ll see more vendors raise awareness and showcase compensation solutions for the midmarket, even though that will be a bit late. Missed opportunity.
If I did not see you this year, let’s meet at Unleash next year!
Have a great day, Anita