In conversation with Niel Nickolaisen

Niel 2011 HeadshotOne of the talks I most excited about in the upcoming SHRM Tech Conference is that of Niel Nickolaisen, Chief Technology Officer with OC Tanner and the author of The Agile Culture and Stand Back and Deliver. I can’t think of anyone better to talk about HR & Technology than the guy who has done it all. I was especially overjoyed when Niel agreed for a quick conversation amidst his insane travel schedule. Agreeing to answer HR questions after landing in India at midnight takes a different kind of energy! A morning Q&A session has never been more fun and informative.

So without further ado, let us jump right into the answers that Niel had for my questions.

Q: Does the conversation around HR & Technology baffle you? The fact that it is an area of constant discussion? Have you come across similar ongoing conversation on Finance & technology or Marketing & technology?

Niel: *laughs* First of all, I do think those conversations have taken place. You think about things like supply chain optimization or the use of advanced technology in marketing, those have happened. However, it’s been so long since we’ve applied modern technology to HR practices that there’s a lot of catching up going on in HR & technology. Given the problems of employee engagement and employee retention, organizations are looking for solutions and technology looks like a promising way to solve the problems. There is a compelling need to do so. For a long time, HR technology has been really really bad. It’s been terrible since most of them are based on transactions that the employer needs vs what the employee needs.

Ankita: I agree that HR has had a miserable relationship with technology.

Niel: A few years ago when it came to HRIS systems, everyone hated what they had and Workday was the answer that made everything better. Now I hear Workday clients tell me how bad Workday is so maybe HRIS systems aren’t the solution, maybe it is some of the other technologies that are more intuitive.

Q: Why do you think HR is behind the curve when it comes to embracing technology? We have been talking about HR & technology since forever; do you think we’ve moved ahead at all?

Niel: I think there is some skepticism about technology in general and HR technology in particular. Often when it comes to where an organization is going to spend their dollars, HR technology is the last group that is going to get any technology support. The perception is that whatever we are doing is good enough. There are other spaces where the technology needs are greater.

Ankita: Is that HR’s fault?

Niel: I think it is probably everyone’s fault. I think we haven’t realized the benefits we expected from the HR technology we have already acquired. That is why there is skepticism about additional funding. Most organizations say that our employees matter to us but in practice they are probably not creating a culture where that reflects. They still treat people as a means to an end rather than the end. Also sometimes, the benefits are hard to quantify. Even making the business case for HR Tech may be difficult because how do you measure the impact of improved employee engagement, collaboration or communication or improved manager capability. It is hard to separate cause and effect. It is hard to make a clear business case.

Q: If I were to put a gun to your head and say that an organization had to adopt technology in just one process, which one would it be?

Niel: It really comes down to what is the biggest pain point or what is the biggest opportunity. You can use technology to exploit opportunities or to ruin opportunities. Technology is just an amplifier. We have to be careful about how to apply technology. At OC Tanner, we have really good data about our clients so one area where we are exploiting technology is machine learning and advanced analytics. We want to develop a predictive prescriptive model that helps our clients understand the impact of employee engagement to their bottom line.

Ankita: Is there one process that usually resonates across organizations as a low hanging fruit and easily solvable by technology yet no organization seems to be doing it?

Niel: The most interesting things I see are mobile technology because we carry our smartphone everywhere and that puts the technology where the decisions are being made. Mobile technologies are the most interesting, second is analytics. There is now enough compute power available that any organization can do advanced analytics. In the past, it was too cost prohibitive, now I can compute in the cloud and any company can do it inexpensively and develop advanced modelling.

Q: Can you share a success story that you have witnessed where an organization embraced technology, as it should be?

Niel: I have seen success stories where very simple technology has made a great impact in collaboration and employee recognition. A lot of these are in the service industries in particular like hospital systems where you have many people working on the front lines e.g. patient care. They are somewhat disconnected as they are making home visits and don’t feel like a part of the organization. By investing in some simple mobile technology, they are able to improve morale and productivity. The organization measured financial benefits of improved employee engagement. Also, there was lower employee absenteeism and employees understood how important their work was. The technology in itself was simple, not very costly and had tremendous impact.

One of the greatest examples I have is of when I was the CIO of an online university and we used very simple advanced analytics to identify which students were at risk so that we could focus the intention of the university towards those students. We saw a 10% rise in student retention which is very significant.

Q: What about this trip are you most excited about – apart from the SHRM Tech Conference?

Niel: The fun thing is that I am training my team tomorrow and I enjoy working with my Hyderabad team. They are taking me to a cricket match tomorrow night which for me is my first ever cricket match. I am hoping to understand how they do scoring in cricket. It is a mystery to me. I will be happy if when the trip ends I can tell people how they score in cricket. That will be fun.

*I must admit to having a wonderful conversation with Niel and look forward to meeting him at the SHRM Technology Conference on 26th & 27th of this month at Hyderabad. Needless to say, follow me on Twitter for the latest on what’s happening at the conference. If you are around, drop by and say Hello.*


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