Special Report on HR TechnologyTalent Management Software-Style Over Substance

By Ed Frauenheim

May. 21, 2008

Talent management software programs have never looked nicer. But it’s not clear that they work better.

    In the past year or two, a number of HR software vendors have crafted applications with sleek user interfaces that resemble organizational charts.

    Within the org chart structure, products from Authoria, Taleo and others represent managers and teams in boxes akin to baseball cards that include employee photos and talent-related information such as performance rating.

    These vendors say the org chart approach boosts manager adoption of the software through an intuitive interface that borrows from the consumer Internet realm. Advocates portray the new look as an improvement over traditional HR software user interfaces, which have been dominated by tables and text.

    But skeptics, including some vendors, see org charts and employee baseball cards as little more than a fad that gets in the way of actual talent management tasks.

    Josh Bersin, chief executive of research firm Bersin & Associates, says the new user interfaces are less about greater effectiveness than they are a response to increased competition in the burgeoning talent management software field.

    “The vendors as a whole are right now selling a lot of sizzle,” Bersin says. An org chart interface “makes the system easier to learn. But it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to use.”

    Yet David Ludlow, vice president of product management for SAP’s human capital management applications, believes the integration of organizational charts into HR software is all but inevitable.

    “Just from a navigation or user-expectation perspective, the org chart is becoming more and more an expected standard,” Ludlow says.

Adoption problems
    Talent management systems are applications for key HR tasks, including employee performance management, compensation management and recruiting. They are among the fastest-growing products in HR software, which is itself the fastest-growing category of business software.

    Thanks to factors including fear of talent shortages, revenue from human capital management applications is slated to rise from $6.3 billion in 2006 to $10.6 billion in 2011, according to AMR Research.

“The vendors as a whole are right now selling a lot of sizzle. [An org chart interface] makes the system easier to learn. But it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to use.”
—Josh Bersin, chief executive,
Bersin & Associates

    Talent management tools today are being designed not just for “power users” in HR departments, but for managers and the entire workforce. The goals include helping managers turn once-a-year performance reviews into an ongoing, more effective feedback process.

    But as the applications move beyond back-office users, greater demands are put on their ease of use. According to a survey published last year by consulting firm Knowledge Infusion, usability ranked as the most important factor for considering a suite of talent management products.

    So far, the tools have run into adoption problems. Research published in November by Bersin & Associates found that 41 percent of organizations using performance management systems have trouble getting employees and managers to use them.

    That’s partly because the software products are trying to make the boss automate one of the most touchy-feely parts of his or her job, Bersin says. “Managers don’t like to use computers to manage people,” he says.

    The adoption dilemma also stems from poor user interfaces in the “first generation” of products, says Dave Michaud, vice president of product marketing for Taleo. Those products, he argues, tended to be built for HR officials rather than managers and employees. “Companies are trying to get talent management out into the field,” he says. “Largely, these tools were not designed with their needs in mind.”

Varied approaches
    Taleo last year debuted a new performance management application with a user interface centered on an org chart and baseball-card-like representations of employees. Clicking on the cards flips them over to show statistics such as performance review data, career information and succession data. By selecting various options on a wheel sitting in the upper left portion of the screen, users can take action in areas such as creating goals and launching a performance review.

    Taleo Performance made a splash when it hit the market in September. Jason Corsello, a vice president with Knowledge Infusion, was impressed with the product and its user interface. “Not only are they looking at the entire performance management process differently,” Corsello wrote on his blog, “but Taleo has incorporated some design concepts unseen in the market today.”

With the goal of getting managers more engaged in developing
their people, “An org chart is a
logical approach. It’s a strong
visual metaphor.”
—Nina McIntyre, senior VP
of marketing, Authoria

    Taleo rival Authoria also has adopted an org chart user interface, designed to give managers a high-level view of their teams. Nina McIntyre, Authoria’s senior vice president of marketing, says the use of an organizational chart makes particular sense given Authoria’s focus on getting managers more engaged in the processes of acquiring, assessing and developing their people. Managers tend to think in terms of their teams, she says.

    “An org chart is a logical approach,” McIntyre says. “It’s a strong visual metaphor.”

    Authoria’s org chart interface allows managers to view open, approved positions and take such steps as creating a candidate pool for the job or view the approvals needed to make the hire. Managers also can click on a card and view the talent profile of an existing employee, which can include a résumé, performance review data and employee self-generated information such as relocation preferences.

    Authoria plans to upgrade the software so more actions can be taken from the org chart dashboard, including performance appraisals and goal setting.

    Authoria says it began demonstrating an org chart interface in early 2006, and claims to be the first talent management vendor to seize on the concept. In fact, McIntyre says, the company is seeking a patent for the idea of an “actionable” org chart.

    A patent could give Authoria the ability to block the use of org chart interfaces by other vendors, or at least extract royalties from them. “We’re not looking to stifle anyone’s innovation,” McIntyre says. “We’re looking for recognition of our own innovation.”

    Authoria already has found some recognition for its user interface in the form of customer Alcon Laboratories. The maker of contact lens solution and other eye-care products decided to sign up for Authoria’s talent management software last year in large part because of the org chart look and feel, says Kay Teague, director of HR technology at the company. “That was one of the biggest selling factors,” Teague says.

    Alcon Labs hasn’t begun using Authoria’s software yet. Teague is looking forward to rolling out the technology later this year. But she wishes Authoria’s product could automatically snag photos of employees from Alcon’s computer system, instead of requiring Alcon to manually upload pictures.

    Authoria says an update planned for this month will enable automated photo feeds.

“Companies are trying to get talent management out [to managers and employees]. Largely, these tools were not designed with their needs in mind.” —Dave Michaud, VP of
product marketing, Taleo

    Other vendors have built org charts into their software. SuccessFactors’ new release, Ultra, has a “succession org chart” designed to let managers “zoom out to see multiple reporting layers or zoom in to focus on a specific employee.” It also features boxes with employees’ photos and information such as performance and potential ratings.

    Cornerstone OnDemand has taken a hybrid position with its latest user interface. On the left-hand side of the screen, Cornerstone displays a manager’s team in the form of small boxes containing employee photos, names and positions. On the right side are more conventional tables showing such things as progress toward goals for a particular employee. Charles Coy, director of product marketing at Cornerstone OnDemand, says the “MyTeam” interface stops short of a full-screen org chart in order to show comprehensive views of talent information.

    It’s not just talent management specialists that are embracing org charts for talent-related applications. Business software giant SAP last year announced a partnership with—and an investment in—Nakisa, one of several vendors that focus on software for creating organizational charts. By tapping Nakisa’s technology in a joint product, SAP is aiming to help customers better see and act on data already present in SAP HR applications.

    Succession planning is one intended use for the product, dubbed “SAP Talent Visualization by Nakisa.” It lets customers view an org chart with boxes displaying employees’ photos, their titles and their “bench strength.” The visualization tool also allows users to pull up snapshots of employees with talent information such as ratings of performance, potential and “risk of loss.”

Despite the new Nakisa offering, SAP’s Ludlow concedes that an org chart user interface may not always be best. He says performance management software might be better served by a different look and feel than an organization chart, which highlights reporting relationships. “It’s all very document-driven,” Ludlow says of performance management. “It’s not very relationship-driven.”

    Donna Ronayne, vice president of marketing and business development at Halogen Software, takes this point further. She says org charts do not lend themselves well to companies in fields such as health care and professional services, where one person might report to multiple managers. “Sometimes these things just don’t make sense,” she says.

    Halogen’s user interface relies on traditional tables and text. That’s partly because the vendor’s more than 1,000 customers have not clamored for an org chart approach, Ronayne says. And some prospective customers who have seen demonstrations of talent management software with the newer interfaces have given Halogen high marks, says Karen Knox, Halogen senior sales manager. “They actually will come out and say, ‘Oh, this is so simple. This is so intuitive,’ ” Knox says.

    Taleo’s planned acquisition of Vurv Technology, announced in early May, raises some interesting user-interface questions. A description of the deal on Vurv’s Web site indicated Taleo’s software will eventually be the foundation for the combined company’s products. “The goal of the combined company is to incorporate the best of Vurv’s intellectual property and product line into the Taleo Platform, delivering a unified recruiting, performance and compensation solution,” Vurv stated.

    But prior to the acquisition announcement, Vurv CEO Derek Mercer pooh-poohed the sort of baseball-card view that Taleo has embraced. Mercer told Workforce Management that Vurv experimented with such an interface for its software around 1999. “Nobody—nobody—looked at it in card view,” Mercer said. “I think it’s a fad.” A lot of baseball card interfaces, Mercer said, are about “little screens” and “a little bit of data.”

    Softscape is another skeptic of baseball cards. The vendor has retooled its user interface to resemble the look and feel of Microsoft Office 2007, with its focus on a “ribbon” that replaces menus and toolbars. This approach is designed to make Softscape’s applications familiar to the many employees who will be spending lots of time working with Office 2007 tools, says Christopher Faust, executive vice president of global strategy at Softscape. “We went down a Microsoft path,” Faust says. “Why on earth would we want to create a new paradigm?”

    Softscape has an org chart feature, but the “cards” on the screen representing employees do not include photos; they are more like business cards. Clicking on one pulls up a talent profile with information ranging from career goals to languages spoken to relocation preferences. “A baseball card just touches the surface,” Faust says.

    Vendors adopting the baseball card approach emphasize that it is not the only way to experience their applications. Taleo’s Michaud, for example, says users can select a “grid” view instead of a card view. Authoria’s McIntyre says an alternative to the org chart dashboard for managers is one featuring text-based alerts. Companies can also include “widgets” displaying data such as the status of performance appraisals, she says.

    “For those who do think visually, they’re drawn to the org chart view,” McIntyre says.

Building on potential
    The quality of information contained in the new baseball card/org chart interfaces is key, says Nov Omana, president of consulting firm Collective HR Solutions. “What meaningful statistics are you presenting with that picture?” Omana asks. “Is it actionable stuff?”

    Omana sees the latest wave of user interfaces as promising. But, he adds, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

    Bersin also can imagine the org chart trend in talent management tools resulting in better products. He says talent management vendors, as much as any other business software makers, are trying to learn from the latest incarnation of the Web, which has become more interactive and in some cases streamlined.

    Bersin likens the org chart trend in talent management tools to a phenomenon he noticed among vendors of learning management software systems some time ago when that market heated up. Those vendors started concentrating on creating a flashy user interface.

    But there may be a natural limit to how much glitz will go into talent management applications. Bersin says that as software vendors gain customers, those users get accustomed to a particular interface and resist changes to it.

    “The bigger you get as a company,” he says, “the duller your user interface gets.”

Workforce Management, May 19, 2008, p. 29-36Subscribe Now!


Ed Frauenheim is a former Associate Editorial Director at Human Capital Media and currently works as Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.

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