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At the start of her "master panel" on cloud HR at the 2012 HR Technology Conference in Chicago on Tuesday morning, Naomi Bloom said that she didn't want the discussion to take a "Kumbaya" tone.
While the conversation was more harmonious than belied by the competition among the six panelists -- representing Oracle, SAP, Workday, ADP, Salesforce.com and Ultimate Software -- the executives were united by the possibilities of a new era in HCM technology and the struggle to gain a footing on ground that is constantly shifting beneath them.
The panel, titled "Bringing HR into the Cloud," focused on core trends affecting the HCM market: the effect of Software as a Service (SaaS) on HCM systems, the proliferation of mobile devices, the emergence of social tools and a new focus on workforce analytics.
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CIO Mike Capone said moving to the cloud is not a new initiative for ADP; the company has used cloud delivery for more than 10 years. "To us it was obvious, we're glad you guys finally came around," he joked. Capone sought to differentiate ADP from the other companies' cloud strategies in its commitment to "service alongside the software."
Steve Miranda, senior vice president of application development at Oracle, said delivering software in the cloud helps vendors shape their products to customer needs more efficiently. "As vendors, we're able to improve the software faster," he said. "We can see in real time what customers are using and not using."
Asked about the more frequent upgrades that are characteristic of SaaS, John Wookey, executive vice president of social applications for Salesforce.com, said the steady stream of upgrades helps to drive business innovation. "It's a subtle side effect but the idea that your software is going to continually evolve helps you think differently about your business," he said. "People are empowered by that rapid change. Rather than fight it, embrace it."
Capone took a more negative view, asserting that if customers use multiple cloud vendors for different HR functions, the number of upgrades can become overwhelming. "It's going to force a conversation about more unified solutions rather than a best-of-breed approach," he said.
Social HR challenges and opportunities
When the discussion shifted to social tools, the only panelist who expressed hesitation was Adam Rogers, CTO of Ultimate Software. "The jury's still out on social, and the best thing that we can do is be open," he said.
Stan Swete, CTO of Workday, pointed out that social and mobile capabilities for HR are still in their early days, and he advised the other vendors to keep in mind that the current releases of these tools are only the first in a long line of evolving functions.
Miranda underscored Oracle's commitment to socializing its HCM platform, and named recruiting as an area where social has had a significant impact. "We want to make social a part of the fabric, not a separate piece," he said. "Already, if you're doing recruiting without social, it probably doesn't make any sense."
Several panelists mentioned the entrance of Millennials into the workforce as one of the causes driving the development of social tools in HCM software. Miranda said Millennials expect software to be more social and collaborative, so vendors will have to adjust their platforms accordingly. "The Millennial effect to me captures the whole thing," he said. "Technology is kind of a second language to me, but it's a native language to my son. The norms of how the next generation will work are fundamentally changing."
Sanjay Poonen, president of global solutions at SAP, cited an interaction with one of his Stanford University students to illustrate the impact of social tools. "One of the 22-year-olds said at the end of the class, 'Why does enterprise software have to be so inhumane?' And I thought to myself, here's somebody who spends his days on Facebook, and so that's his expectation of enterprise software."
While mobile is one of the most hyped areas of HCM software, none of the panelists went into specifics about how their companies were adding mobile functionality, but all reaffirmed the importance of mobile. "I think mobile changes everything," Poonen said.
In his closing remarks, Wookey stressed that the role of HR professionals is shifting from a siloed to a collaborative function. "Too many people in companies are technicians," he said.
So what should they strive to become? "Business partners."
What focus on cloud HR means
After the panel, Bloom, managing partner of the consulting firm Bloom & Wallace, said the presence of most of the leading cloud HR vendors on a single panel suggests that human resources technology, long relegated to payroll and benefits administration, has finally arrived at the leading edge of IT.
"They're here because HR is now at the center of what they do," she said. "You can't do mobile if you don't know who the people are. You can't do social if you don't know how they're connected."
Bloom said the panel's cloud HR heavyweights each face one of two main challenges. "The ones that have a sizable installed base have [essentially] an anchor, and it's going to be difficult for them to connect the new thing to the old thing. For folks like Workday, to pick one example, everyone that they go after has to unplug something. That something has a constituency around it."