The money spigot is wide open on the human resources technology front, with U.S. companies investing $2 billion into HR technologies in 2016. In fact, those investments have churned upward at an annual rate of 15 percent, according to CB Insights.
Where is all that HR investment cash going? The CB Insights report states the bulk of it is going to integrated human resource management system (HRMS) platforms, but with growing investments in emerging technologies such as cloud computing, mobile technologies, social media and artificial intelligence also in the mix.
There's more data on the HR technology investment front. According to a recent study by SelectHub, the cloud is the biggest investment target (meaning an investment likely hasn't actually been made yet) for HR technology spending, followed by payroll and benefits administration software.
The good outweighs the bad in any discussion on technology tools and the HR sector. "While automation takes over certain roles and processes, it actually frees up human talent to focus on higher-level tasks, like analysis, innovation and strategy," said Martin Fiore, tax talent leader at EY America.
Systems-wise, while a growing number of companies are beginning to shift from the cloud to mobile HR-based technology platforms, there's still a good reason for the predominance of cloud computing for most HR departments.
"Prior to 2016, there was no way for companies to manage their teams' performance," said Lindsey Havens, senior marketing manager with PhishLabs, an Agari Partner. "Now many businesses are using cloud-based, team-centric performance management applications that help HR management to manage performance by team, rather than by hierarchy. This system allows for a streamline in team management, plus the ability to create and change teams quickly."
An investment in wellness
With HR technology investments growing, especially with cloud computing, payroll and benefits, what's the overall impact on the human resources sector?
"We have used a number of traditional health and wellness programs to encourage our 10,000-plus employees to live healthier," said Laurie Mitchell, assistant vice president of global well-being and health at Unum U.S. and Colonial Life. "But over the past 18 months, we've really looked at updating our company's wellness programs with the latest tools and technologies.
"We're adding new member-management systems for our fitness centers," Mitchell added. "Plus, we're adding more sit-stand workstations to encourage employees to sit less. We've created opportunities for virtual visits with providers for non-emergent care. Employees can access a provider from their PC or mobile device and use the Health Resource Center space for privacy."
Mitchell says her company is about to "go live" with an enterprise-wide portal that will serve as the hub for everything related to health and well-being. "This will include health assessments, health coaching and wearable device tracking paired with fitness challenges."
Many employees spend more than 60 percent of their waking hours in the workplace, Mitchell says, so an employer who cares and supports healthy lifestyles is more attractive to potential candidates.
"Technology gives us greater reach with our wellness programs and allows employees to customize what works for them," she noted. "It also enables us to use data to track progress or further improve our offerings."
Catering to millennials
Investments in HR technology not only improve departmental functions, they can also promote the health and happiness of employees, primarily by helping them develop new skills – especially younger career professionals who grew up in a technology-driven culture.
"Due to an increasingly distributed workforce, widespread adoption of mobile technologies and a changing employee demographic, which includes millennial workers, corporate training is getting reshaped and is becoming more data and artificial intelligence driven," said George Elfond, CEO at Rallyware, a workforce training and engagement technology company based in San Francisco. "Currently, we see a shift in the way companies develop their talent – instead of herding everybody to a classroom, training is provided just in time and usually through a mobile device.”
Current technologies identify gaps in an employee's knowledge and automatically deliver customized training to a right person at the right time, Elfond says. "Such personalization could not be possible without big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning."
Many firms also appear satisfied in farming out their HR technology needs to third-party providers, and experts say that trend will accelerate.
"We have seen firms with as many as 300 employees use technology companies like Namely and Zenefits to help manage their human resources needs," said Timothy Hillert, chief executive officer at BenXchange, an insurance, employee benefits and retirement services firm. "Also, we're currently seeing a greater number of firms outsource their HR needs."
That's only natural, Hillert says, as the cost savings in doing so can be substantial. "With a technology team on board, firms only need one designated human resources professional to manage and run the department effectively," he explained. "There will always be a need for HR managers, but we will continue to see the use of technology to offset the cost of large human resources departments in traditional companies."
Others agree that automation will never completely replace the human aspect of human resources, but technology will certainly grow in prominence in HR circles.
"Tech-based solutions will not displace or replace human HR managers and staffers," said Kris Duggan, a technologist and human relations specialist at BetterWorks, a performance management software developer. "The technologies being designed today are meant to complement HR managers and staff, and give them greater insight and capabilities in their jobs."
Duggan says there would be a "backlash" if staffers didn't have a real human HR figure, as so many of the HR processes are pertinent to employees' personal lives, such as compensation, benefits and feedback processes. "The best human resources are empathetic and truly dedicated to solving their employees' top problems. A tech-based solution can't completely replace this process. That being said, adopting technology can make HR managers more informed and empathetic, and ease the human resources management process."