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Jon Stuckey October 2, 2018 8 min read

Lessons Learned from the 2018 HR Tech Conference

The 2018 Human Resource Executive HR Technology Conference and Expo (HR Tech) just wrapped up in Las Vegas, and we’re here with the top takeaways for HR and benefits teams.

For the past 20-plus years, HR Tech has been the place where HR technology leaders gather from around the world to share ideas, trends, and assess the HR technology market. If you weren’t able to make it—or want to compare notes—here are the top 5 themes that we saw and heard about.

1. HR Is Transforming from Process to People

There was a lot of talk at the conference about how automation is impacting HR, and we see parallels in our own work with our clients. By leveraging technology, HR has begun automating routine and repetitive tasks, which frees up HR staff to focus on more strategic initiatives. With HR shifting from processing transactions to delivering business results through people, HR staff are more focused than ever on creating meaningful human experiences.

A telling indicator of shifting HR leadership attitudes comes from Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer of Accenture, who said, “HR today is all about human beings—a dramatic change from where we were even 5 years ago. People were subjects of processes, and HR ran a lot of processes. The fact that we can use technology to elevate humans—we can really have a very human experience.”

What This Means for Benefits Pros

Companies trying to improve human experiences will start by examining and changing their culture, acknowledging that with incredibly diverse employee populations and locations across the globe, a single culture just won’t cut it. Look for large organizations to figure out ways to be more like small companies or shift from one culture to a culture of many cultures.

2. Everything Must Start with a Strategy

Blockchain, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence. So many shiny new things to consider! It’s (almost) too easy to get caught up in the buzz and forget the problem you’re trying to solve. We’ve been preaching for years—and it was echoed loudly throughout the conference—that technology is not a solution in and of itself; however, it can be a tool to help you achieve your goals.

What This Means for Benefits Pros

While it might be tempting to dive right in and roll out some awesome new technology, pause and make sure that you have a solid strategy in place first.

When considering any new technology, always ask yourself:

  • What is the specific problem I’m trying to solve?
  • Am I making the experience better or worse for my audiences? 

Asking yourself hard questions like these lays the foundation for a successful strategy (and implementation).

3. Pilots Can Be Helpful when They’re Done Right

With so much new technology at your fingertips, it’s tempting to rush right in. A pilot can help you make sure your idea is the right one. When a pilot is done right, it gives you the opportunity to try out a new approach, process, or technology with a small group of individuals before rolling it out to the masses. A lot can be learned and then applied to make a broader rollout even more successful.

What This Means for Benefits Pros

Pilots can be a valuable part of your strategy; they allow you to test ideas, concepts, or tools with a small audience, then make any necessary tweaks before you implement it fully. Here are some things to keep in mind for a successful pilot.

Quick Tips for a Successful Pilot

  • Pilots aren’t quick turnkey projects; they’re small-scale (not reduced-scale) implementations, and they often require a fair amount of effort, because you’re doing something new.
  • Plan for the same time and budget as you would for any project. A pilot requires just as much work as a full implementation.
  • Champions and business sponsors are needed to make pilots successful.
  • Before you start, know what you’re trying to get out of the pilot, and define how you’ll measure success. Do you want to get the go-ahead for a full rollout? Or are you merely testing new technology to see how the organization will adapt to it? Be clear with your goals.
  • It may take longer to get the results you need because of the test size.
  • Be more inclusive, and involve more people in your pilot than you think you’ll need. People are more likely to support your project if they’ve been involved from the beginning!

4. Recruiting and Talent Acquisition Is White Hot

Given the current labor market and projected labor demographics, it came as no surprise that recruiting and talent acquisition dominated the conference. This space is at the forefront of leveraging new HR technology, which makes sense in light of all the routine and repetitive tasks associated with recruiting. By automating much of the talent acquisition process, recruiters are able to spend less time processing data and more time building relationships and connections—the human element of recruiting.

John Sumser, founder and principal analyst at, has been researching the Artificial Intelligence (AI) space in HR for years. He noted that 160 of the 200 companies he’s researched have something to do with recruiting. In fact, 53 focus specifically on sourcing. We’re witnessing an absolute explosion in tools aimed at helping employers get the right candidates at the right time.

What This Means for Benefits Pros

We’re also seeing talent acquisition efforts spilling over into other HR functions, like benefits, where employers are adding taglines to their benefits websites such as “We’re hiring” in an effort to support broader talent acquisition goals.

5. Is AI the New “Portal”?

About 20 years ago, the HR world was enamored with the word “portal.” I used to say that if you asked 1,000 people to define a portal, you’d get 1,000 different answers. To be clear, artificial intelligence (AI) was referenced everywhere at the conference—the keynote sessions, breakout sessions, and throughout the expo hall, where vendors were all claiming their AI was better than someone else’s.

Depending on whom you talked to, you may have heard it referenced in any number of ways, including artificial intelligence, automation intelligence, robotics (used in Europe), or machine learning (used in Asia). The terms aren’t what’s important.

But this is: Fundamentally, AI (or whatever term you prefer) has the power to look at large data sets and process data in ways that humans just can’t do efficiently. It attempts to organize chaos, and it finds patterns that humans don’t typically find. For example, in the payroll world, AI can flag people who change direct deposits multiple times every month, trying to game the system into getting paid twice. Imagine one person trying to find that pattern among 50,000 employees.

While the usefulness and power are unlimited, AI by itself is limited, and there are several important things to keep in mind.

  • Rule number 1: AI is only as good as the data it uses.
  • AI doesn’t replace critical thinking. It is best used for frequent, mundane tasks to save time.
  • AI can only yield answers to queries that are based on measurements, pattern recognition, models that predict, and history.
  • AI opens a whole series of ethical questions, such as how do we make sure we’re guarding against programmers’ biases? And, since data models need to be updated over time, what if there’s no budget for that?
  • There is no substitution for humans’ common sense and judgment. Humans need to verify output, because AI fails more often than you’d think. In fact, liberal arts, history, and library science majors are forecasted to be in high demand, since we’ll continue to need people to question machine opinions.
  • Humans will also need to be trained how to use AI results to make decisions. To put it another way, AI is math, but it isn’t thinking.
What This Means for Benefits Pros

AI has the potential to free us up to be more strategic, but it will also change the way we all work. Experts predict AI will create more jobs than it displaces, and we’ll need more people—those with critical thinking skills—to manage the machines.  

AI will become more embedded in our daily lives. For example, within the next 18 months, every Microsoft Office product will have AI built into it. When you add a new column in a spreadsheet, Excel will ask if you want analysis with that, and it will predict what you’re looking for.

As we move forward, HR software purchases will increasingly be driven by personality versus functionality. Different products will embed their points of view on the data and the patterns that will drive business results, and each product will stake its claim on the models that are most effective at driving specific business outcomes.

There’s something else that’s important to remember: Just as we humans are constantly learning, so, too, are the machines that use AI. This means that over time, as they’re informed with new facts, their output will change.

As with all advancements in technology, change management is critical for maximum impact. Megan Buttita, who leads a team of 5 librarians at Allstate, summed it up best when she said, “It isn’t just the technology that needs to learn; it is the team that needs to learn.”

As usual, HR Tech provided us with many new insights, a chance to re-connect with clients and colleagues, and take in all the emerging trends in HR Technology. We can’t wait to dive into more topics like these throughout the year in our blog, white papers, and other thought leadership efforts.

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Jon Stuckey

Jon Stuckey, VP Creative Technology and Innovation, provides strategic vision, guidance, and solutions for our largest clients.