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Shiny, Bright Objects: Notes from HR Tech 2015

By Barry Stern, Ph.D.

Barry Stern, Ph.D. Let it be known that I am intoxicated by technology and its possibilities. You will likely spend less than 15 minutes with me before I will annoy you with today’s status update on my Apple watch. I have also dedicated much of my professional passion towards creating and implementing technology-enabled leadership development solutions. So you can imagine that going to HR Tech 2015 last week was a bit like heading to Mecca for me; it was truly a fascinating and rewarding experience.

As I decompress from the dizzying glare of screens, people, badges, and booth carpet, I find myself reflecting on a topic touched on only fleetingly during a few presentations and discussions: the business impact of HR technologies. The dollars and creativity being poured into HR technology can only mean ultimately good things for our field, but they do have some unintended consequences and dangers.

Unintended dangers of technology?

The technology used to make performance management systems more efficient, for example, is often misguided, misused and can cannibalize the process it was intended to enhance. Yes, efficiency has improved the process, but there is negligible impact on the effectiveness of developing and boosting performance (which is the point, right?). Technology can’t do it alone; too many managers hide behind the software and focus on completing the performance review process instead of on ongoing coaching discussions and performance conversations with their direct reports.

TShiny, Bright Objectshe commercial positioning of “training content as commodity,” another unintended danger, was in full bloom at HR Tech, at least for this select, but obviously widespread population of vendors and attendees. This positioning disturbed me yet it kept pushing itself to the foreground: LMS providers claimed that they had over 4,000 courses; there were promises that “managers themselves can create the content” or “there’s plenty of excellent content out there on the open Web!” It felt like reality TV for content providers. It sounded as if we could bring in [insert famous personality in a field here] or [average funny Joe/Jane] or [global search button with criteria for top returns related to anything but impact here]... then package it up in the latest whiz/bang/social/gamified platform, add an index-ible or tile-ated interface… and you just might have yourself a winner!

As Craig Weiss, CEO of E-Learning 24/7, shared: “The problem I see with many courses outputted today is due to the rapid content authoring tool market. In general, the courses lack the interactive and engagement features needed in online learning. As a result, we are faced with linear-based, static, and lackluster courses, none of which inspires learners to return back to the courses nor boost their retention or comprehension of the material.”

Form over substance?

To be fair, this was a conference about technology after all, but I found myself reflecting on questions that I hope others are asking themselves too: What’s really in it for the learner? What’s in it for the organization? What’s the real impact?

If those of us providing content truly considered our competitors to be Facebook, Google, and YouTube, as one presenter said, then I say we have to do nothing less than change the game. Yesterday’s smile sheets are today’s eyeballs, likes, comments, thread lengths, and badges. Some necessary, all not sufficient for impact, and sometimes dangerously misleading.

But just as we’ve come to realize that the celebration of smile sheets was the deification of form over substance, we must realize that today, the factors of “form” are more varied, more compelling, and definitely much more “shiny and bright” than ever before. The danger of celebrating form over substance are more surreptitious and misleading as our field goes through its current dazzling tech-enabled metamorphosis.

I will continue to be intoxicated by the “shiny and bright” technologies but will also keep my focus on the real gold: learner engagement, better team performance, improved business results. Not all HR or leadership technologies are created equal, and beyond the initial dazzle of high-tech platforms, stakeholders will continue to ask for impact on the business. For those of us who stay focused and get it right, technology will only serve to intensify our impact in ways we’ve never imagined. Let’s amp it up!

Posted: 28 Oct, 2015,
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