Pay me now or pay me later…

16 11 2011

NOTE: This post is really a re-post of a reply to a discussion on Technical Debt in a LinkedIn Group.  The discussion referenced a post by Naomi Bloom on called: “The Scourge of HRM Software — Technical Debt

There is a difference between building a perfect product and building a GREAT business that serves customers well. The context and maturity of the product, company, and market play a big role in how a vendor needs to treat its technical debt. I say this half-jokingly, but if your vendor has “zero” technical debt, it must be because they’re STANDING STILL!
I define technical debt broadly to mean “anything in the product that the team knows will gate future development, any ‘hacks’ put in as stop-gap measures but that won’t scale, and any issues important to customers that have been ignored ‘too long.’”

Here are three things that I think drive a software developer’s technical debt:

1 – Maturity of the code base- Done correctly, over time, a next generation platforms is a fantastic luxury – both for the developer and the customer. But early on, the “new new thing” is a minefield of technical debt. Until enterprise software hits real customers (I use the word “hits” deliberately😉, it hasn’t had the kinks wrung out of it. If you want the advantages of being the early adopter, just make sure you know you’re the early adopter, and that you’re willing to work through the gremlins with the vendor.

2- Velocity of new functionality delivery – this is probably just a corollary to the driver above, but it can be something to look for. The faster a company is pushing out new stuff, the more opportunity that they are not going back to pay off the technical debt it generates. _Every_ new feature can generate comments, tweaks, and reported defects. Some are not important to customers, but many are. Frequently, the pressure of a competitive market to deliver new functionality reprioritizes paying off technical debt down the list. This might be just fine. My experience is that most customers don’t roll out new features to large populations right away anyway. They just want to “know it’s there.”

3 – M&A – “Mike’s rule” (I just made it up) – “If the vendor’s solution comes from the combination of two companies, and it’s been less than a year – there’s technical debt. After a year…your mileage may vary.” Multiple technology stacks mean either re-writing functionality or adding plumbing through the existing foundation (rewriting is rare). Different technology stacks from different companies _never_ have the same underlying object model (and Naomi is right about the value of the right object model). The good news is that it is software, “everything” can be made to work, but it takes time (lots of time) and investment.

With financial debt, there is the concept of “good” debt and “bad” debt. It sounds nice to say we have “zero” debt, but of course companies regularly use debt to leverage returns for investors. This analogy will be admittedly imperfect, but in software development, choosing to “park” a portion of technical debt frees up development resources to work on other priorities of the business. It goes without saying that “too much” financial or technical debt will crash a company, but the existence of technical debt is a reality for _all_ software vendors. Yes, ask about it, but the only software that is “100% QA-ed and perfect” runs the Space Shuttle. I would probably give extra credit to the vendor’s that show some amount of transparency on their shortcomings (good luck with that one😉.

My real point is that the stage of the company and context of the market it plays in drives business priorities, and those priorities are what drive how the vendor balances that “technical debt” line.





Is that first down line one of the four horseman of Web 3.0?

5 08 2011

Long before I was an “integrated talent management” guy, I was a plain old software /Internet product guy.  Veering from the HR focus of this blog for a post I thought I’d talk a little bit about technology.

Like every person that’s worn a product hat, I’m easily “jazzed” about technology trends and “what’s next.”  In addition, the promise of the NEW NEW thing is always tempered by the market power of the status quo, or at least those vendors that have “locked in” large segments of their markets.  Back in the year 2000 (pre bubble crash) the “four horsemen of the Internet,” were Cisco, Oracle, EMC, and Sun Microsystems.  The growth of all things web 1.0 was perceived to be on the backs of these four vendors.

The great thing about High Tech is it is the technology itself that drives the “creative destruction” inside markets and creates better and cheaper solutions for consumers.  In 2000-2001 I worked for about ten months for a great little Telecom Hardware switch company.  The basic premise of the entire company was – take the team responsible for building a super successful “warhorse” switch used by all the major RBOCs.  Wait ten years (it had already been ten years at that point).  Poach them all away from the old company.  Now, have them solve the exact same problem they did the first time, AFTER Moore’s law had worked its magic for a decade.  The result was a faster, smaller, cheaper set of hardware that attacked an already massively proven market problem.

Unfortunately, the telecom crash ensued and that didn’t work out so great for me or the startup, but I did take away the lesson of using the new to “re-solve” the same problem in a better way.  You see it everywhere today.  Most notable in our own Human Capital Management technology space is the very successful founder of a SaaS company re-doing the same thing his team was very successful for in on premise enterprise software (I don’t like to use names in this blog, but you know the white haired gentleman I mean).

Of course, the second time around your talent is “smarter” and more informed by all the learning that happened along the way the first time.  Harder to quantify, but likely equally, if not more important than the technology trend (uh…everyone’s heard of Moore’s law by now, so speed is still important!) However, talent and experience aside, the most fun as a “product guy” is to prognosticate on what are today’s “horseman” as well as tomorrow’s potentials.

So below is my list of candidates.  They are roughly in the order of having most current impact to most future potential, but it’s my subjective judgment so don’t hold me to it….

  • Virtualization & “Cloud” – Amazon Cloud services and the like is probably the single biggest driver of new innovation today.  Silly buzzword marketing aside, by making the required infrastructure to innovate new services available to any creator and then allowing it to scale with success…. it’s the Henry Ford Model T of our day, “any tech stack you want, as long as it’s cheap (and scales)”
  • Social media – oy, I’m so bored with “social.”  Totally jumped the shark for me.  It’s here. We’re doing it.  Not cutting edge anymore, but it’s like oxygen now –you just need it.
  • Worldwide Mobile Adoption– I think this is the most interesting one of all to watch.  This isn’t your usual “everything is mobile” these days claim.  This is about emerging countries around the world and what becomes possible when more and more of the world’s population can be connected.   Can’t site the source off the top of my head, but more people have cell phones in the world than access to clean water (a shame, but the phones can help that too).
  • Location based services–  This has been a favorite of mine for over a decade.  The emergence of mobile devices that _know where you are_, and where other people and things creates enormous potential for new applications.  Foursquare and Gowalla only scratch the surface of what’s cool and possible.
  • Ubiquitous Broadband – This is an almost boring development.  Why?  Because at least in the States we are all spoiled by great connections all the time.  We almost take it for granted.  Tough to remember that five years ago none of us even had smartphones – I remember being blown away just three years ago because I could walk down the street in Boston and watch Red Sox games ON MY PHONE as they happened.
  • Non browser Internet traffic , a.k.a. “Apps”  – This one amuses me to no end.  At a time when read articles saying our government is contemplating anti-trust action against Google for being a monopoly – Google and the web browser is already losing a step to different ways to access the Internet.  I’m old enough to have started in technology  pre-web browser (Gopher+ anyone?), it’s nice to see specialized clients come out that serve customer segments with a tailored user experience.
  • Big Data – hard one for the human mind to…er….get its head around, but this is a big deal.  The price of computing power is coming down so fast that new techniques are emerging to handle massive data sets.  The ability to manipulate massive data sets will change computing…er…massively in the next few years.
  • HTML 5 –In the weeds again, but the web just keeps getting better.  I remember when I marked up html by hand for a couple months before someone released an HTML editor.  HTML5 brings rich user experience to browsers and keeps bumping up what’s possible for web based applications.
  • Semantic Web – The web, and much of computing today is “syntax” based, meaning the computer reads directions and does them exactly the way they’re put in front of it (I’m dumb-ing it down for myself here), but the computer doesn’t know what it means.  The rise of the semantic web is a way of tagging data sets so that one computer can understand data from another.  It’s not quite the ability to think, but it will change the way computers improve our lives.
  • Augmented Reality – and the best for last.  This is my absolute favorite.  Augmented reality can be thought of as a computer created “layer” that you look at while you are looking at something in real life.  The easiest example is the first down line on TV in American football.   That bright yellow line you see marking the distance to the first down line is an example of augmented reality.  It used to take a full Sun Microsystems system to make that yellow line show up and still let the players walk “through” it – today it is probably an “app.”   Ubiquitous broadband, Smartphones everywhere, Location technology, PLUS Augmented reality — thar’s gold in them thar hills!

And all of that is leaving out biotech, nanotech, and robotics, but I don’t know much about those.   We’ll see what shows up!





Aiming for your first Talent Management Win

16 05 2011

Make no doubt about it, integrating existing functions in a large organization with set methodologies and processes is at best a significant challenge.  Asking multiple groups whose processes may work well (or at least, “good enough”) to change their processes to conform to an overall system often (ok…always) brings on resistance.  

Part of the obstacle to the adoption of more integrated practices may be organizational and part of it may be cultural.  It’s very often the case that HR’s functional groups have senior leaders responsible for each group who in turn report to a Senior V.P. of Human Resources or other equivalent title.  That person has responsibility for each of the functional units under him or her, but also in their role is just as much (or often much more) involved in serving the needs of the senior management team.  That can be a “distraction” from building proactive synergies across HR domains to say the least.

In addition, the people that make up a functional unit as well as the mind-set that goes with their core charter can build culture that works against an integrated approach to talent management.  It is quite common for many of the domains lumped under the moniker of “HR” to not consider themselves to be part of the human resources department at all.  Recruiting and staffing professionals have the goals, rewards, and mindset much more akin to a salesperson than to your average benefits administrator.  Organizational Development groups are very often influenced and chartered based on subscription to certain organizational behavior philosophies.  In addition, they’re often targeted toward specific goals or set groups (e.g. Leadership Development).  The apple that is likely furthest from the “HR Tree” is probably the Learning and Development groups.  These groups are often there to meet very specific certification or skills development needs specific to the organizations business.  Because of this the Learning function has very traditionally been budgeted and staffed by line management and not HR.  Only in the past few years have more and more learning groups begun to centralize.

For HR professionals looking to further integrate the domain they work in with those of their peers, it goes without saying that the path of least resistance is through the full support of an able senior leader in charge of the organization’s HR function.  What’s more, an active and supportive Senior Management team as a whole raises the chances of success by several orders of magnitude.

Whether you are fortunate enough to have senior management support or whether you’re just looking to make inroads in the direction of a more integrated talent management process, it is a good idea to focus on a single initiative to start.  Success in a single area of cross-domain integration can then serve as a proof-of-concept for a broader integration of talent management processes.  Characteristics of a good candidate for setting an initial goal in your organization might include:

  • An existing and accepted pain inside the business (e.g. high turnover rates in a key role, talent drain out of the company to a key competitor, a lack of adequate candidates for certain geographies or roles, etc.)
  • A key metric – something that already has an associated metric that is seen as important to the business.  This could be average tenure of employees in key positions.  Or it might be internal promotion rates.  It could be turnover in college hires.  It will vary from business to business and between job functions.
  • Cross-functional data – It may go without saying, but the best opportunities will look to take information generated from one functional process and apply that to another to create an insight.  “Quality of Hire,” is a great example.  An organization may have a very low cost of hire along with a speedy time to fill open requisitions, but of those who were hired, how many stayed?  How well did the ones hired from certain sources perform?

When searching for that first win that demonstrates the need for an integrated approach, it can be useful to adopt a specific theme.  “Integration” for integration’s sake is a difficult sell, but it is a good idea to work toward helping a single function do its job better through the use of an integrated data set.

(Mike Ditson)





“What’s in it for me?” –What an integrated talent management solution brings your corner of HR

14 05 2011

  The idea that different HR domains can gain leverage or advantage by using information produced by peers in other HR functions is intriguing; however, it is often quickly dismissed as an impossible undertaking.  The reason for this is of course the sheer amount of data involved, and that is where an integrated talent management system comes in.  A system acts as the “oil in the machine,” by acting as an efficient means to collect vast amounts of talent data and then aggregating that data into useful talent information.  A system allows a HR team with a set level of resources to delve much deeper into an organization than they could with any paper based system alone.

At its most basic level, an integrated talent management system enables the generation of more data than a single-domain approach.   Workflow based forms or even other data input processes (e.g. social networking activities integrated with talent management) ease the process for getting people to “tell” the organization pieces of information.  The information may be the results of a candidate interview, the request for a requisition, an employee’s self-identified interest, or the assessment of a manager’s future potential.   An integrated system has the added benefit of collecting all of this data with the same user interface “look and feel.”

As an organization uses various processes, whether they are year round or pushed through cycles, the system continually adds to its data set.  Each new process pulls hundreds or even thousands of new data points into the system, adding to the overall potential value of the data.  It is at this point where the computer does “what computers are bets at.”  In a microcosm, a well networked business manager might know three or four internal and or external candidates she has for an upcoming open position.  She knows what she is looking for to get a particular set of work done (a “job”) and she knows of a few people that she perceives as potential matches.  She may even know a bit about the attitudes those potential candidates have toward taking on the role.  The computer does this same process (perhaps more clumsily in spots that the human mind, perhaps not) and adds “rocket fuel” to the process.  With a good job profile detailing the requirements of the job, the system can search across hundreds and thousands of people for potential matches.  In practice, this means that the business manager has more options, more “supply” as it were to choose from – most of which she would never have found out about on her own.

While there are certainly benefits to having a single system that asks different HR domains to “speak the same language,” the drive toward integration should really come from each HR domain looking to answer the question, “what’s in it for me?”   Pushing an HR group to “play nice” with its peers by giving up its system to work on an integrated platform can be a difficult sale.  In practice, what each function should be after is how working in an integrated fashion can help them leverage another domain’s information in order to do their own jobs better.   How can integration help a recruiter hire better?  How can a system help a Compensation professional better spend the organization’s incentive resources?  Fortunately, in addition to aggregating large data sets to create more options for the business, the system’s data collection builds the data required for the “common picture” of an organizations talent status, which can then be viewed through each HR domain’s own lens.

(Mike Ditson)





Matching Supply with Demand

13 05 2011

A large part of talent management comes down to understanding an organization’s demand for talent and then identifying and or building a supply of internal and external candidates to fill that demand.  Demand can be described by answering a set of questions like the following:

  • What are the goals of the business?
  • What are the types of work required to meet those goals?
  • What are the exact jobs that need to be filled to accomplish that work?
  • How many of those positions (holding each of those jobs) need to be filled?  And by when?

These questions and others like that can be used by Talent Managers to best understand the demand for talent (i.e. work capacity) in their organization.  Constantly layered on top of that is the same ambiguity that senior managers are facing, namely: conditions change, markets change, the tactical and strategic goals of the business change – which all constantly affects the underlying demand for talent.

Demand may be a moving target, but it can certainly be better managed with the proper attention.   By segmenting jobs according to their importance to the business, HR professionals have direction on where to focus their integrated talent management lens first.  When looking at a particular job, an integrated approach can help better characterize the demand for that type of work.  By collecting metrics on a per job basis it can help forecast supply needs or prioritize work.  What is the turnover for a particular job?  What is the typical time for a job of that type to remain unfilled?  Does it change by geography or organization? Is demand for this job seasonal?  Is demand for this job affected by growth in demand for another job (e.g. when I hire three software engineers does that open a need for new quality engineer and a technical writer)?

When an organization better understands the changing demand for talent inside its organization it can more proactively manage its supply.  Supply of talent can come from inside or outside the organization.  Each solution has its own costs.  External talent may require advertising and or agency fees.  Internal moves open up new positions in the organization that may need to be filled. Wherever a candidate comes from, the likelihood that the position is filled in the way an organization would prefer, can be influenced by managing supply.

For instance, a company that wishes to increase its internal promotions rate may take normal measures of posting an open position internally for some amount of time before advertising it to the outside world.  An organization with an integrated approach to talent management would be able to extend that effort further by having full knowledge of everyone in the organization that currently aspires to that type of job (“demand”).  In addition, an integrated system would give both external recruiters and internal succession planners a full listing of those employees who had been assessed as being a good fit for that type of job or who were ready for that type of job rotation.  In this case, information about the “supply” has been generated by various talent assessment and career planning processes to give the organization a “day-one” list of suspects to fill a particular role.

An integrated talent management approach mingles data produced from all of the different talent management processes to better prepare and inform the organization.  In the military, various forces working across air, land and sea endeavor to work off what is called a Common Operational Picture or “COP.”  The idea is for all of your combatants to have the same understanding of the battlefield—the location of objectives, where your forces are, and where the enemy is.  An integrated approach to talent is the same way.  You want your Recruiters, your Compensation professionals, your Organizational development team, your trainers, and your field HR professionals to all have a common view.   The view that they share combines a shared understanding of what the organization needs to achieve its goals, along with the current skills of its available workforce (internal and external), combined with the actual aspirations of that workforce.  Where those three realms of information intersect is useful information that can be used by all of the HR domains.

Mike Ditson





Integrated Process, leveraged results

12 05 2011

The collective set of functions that make up talent management, Recruiting, Performance management, compensation, Succession, etc., can be likened to other systems that are actually made up of various sub-processes.  Think of all of the different systems that go into an automobile.  There is a structural system, a chassis, on which all the other systems are built.  There is an acceleration or power train, a braking system, a steering system, a diagnostic or dashboard system all of which come together to make a total system that gets the driver from point A to point B.  The human body is the same way.  You have a skeletal system, a respiratory system, a circulation system, a nervous system, and so on.  All of these work together to make a higher performing total system.  Of course, the one difference about talent management systems is that while your Applicant Tracking system is useful on its own, a braking system or respiratory system needs a car and a body and all their other ancillary systems to be of much use.

It is in the merging of processes, vocabulary, and definitions where Talent Managers from different HR domains can jointly put their overall Talent initiatives into overdrive, and build a greater overall Talent Management system.  By leveraging the skills, experience, and expertise of other HR domains, as well as working from a common set of data, Talent Managers can do more inside their own domain than they could on their own.  Together, multiple sub-systems of talent management can be brought together to create a higher-functioning whole.

There are multiple “sub-systems” that can be leveraged to work across multiple HR domains.  Some of these provide a standard way of communicating about people or jobs and are thus useful across all talent management domains, while others may be more specific and more useful only across a couple talent management processes.  There are several examples of these “sub-systems,” including:

Talent Information – the driving reason for integration of talent management processes is to produce data and talent information that help an organization achieve its goals.  It’s cliché for a CEO to say “people are our biggest asset,” but it is true that the success (or failure) of a business is largely made on the skills and efforts of the people that make up the organization.  Information on opportunities or potential risks associated with these people is key to growing an organization.  More on this in the next section.

Standardized, reusable, “live” data – Just as the system of the human body wouldn’t get far if the circulatory system used one blood type and the respiratory system used an incompatible blood type, talent management systems need to run on a standard set of data.  It’s common for organizations to institute job “leveling” and salary grades to help different groups understand how different jobs fit into the organization.  However, an integrated talent system needs to go even further by defining like of jobs, job descriptions, positions (if the organization makes that distinction), and the capabilities and experience requirements that go along with all of them.

It’s very common (almost the rule) for organizations to have multiple job descriptions for what is essentially the same job.  In the course of putting forth requirements and hiring new people into a role, line managers are left to “start from scratch” each time they hire in a new person, adding to the storm of non-standard data and job definitions HR is left to contend with.  What’s more, HR domains that work in silos don’t get to leverage this data across each other’s practices.  If an Organizational Development professional has figured out what capabilities are absolutely required for the job of regional sales manager inside her organization, the staffing organization (and sales management) should absolutely know that information and be able to hire with that information in mind.

Competency & Skill management – Competency and skill management is a special form of standardized data that is well known across HR domains.   As the “measuring sticks” that help HR professionals better define what capabilities are required for success in a particular role, competencies have experienced various levels of adoption in different organizations.  Many organizations have had their efforts to deploy competency models stunted by “biting off more than they can chew” for an initial project.  Other organizations have successfully deployed large competency models for specific portions of their business such as Leadership Development programs or key skills related to their core business.

An integrated approach to Talent Management requires a similar “language” for describing the demand for work (a job description for instance), as well as the available “supply” of workers (internal and external candidates).  So an early step in integrated approach involves making sure different HR domains are using the same “measuring sticks.”

Profile management – “Profile” is more of a HR system based term, but even without a system the term profile can be used to describe the collection of information an HR and business management team would want to have to support a discussion on a given topic.  A “dossier” is another term that might describe a complete set of information to describe a single person – capabilities, assessments, resume, etc.  A profile could be centered around a person, or it could be centered around a job, a position, an organization or business unit.  A profile serves as a single collection point for multiple data generating activities performed by each of the Talent management domains.  Over time, these collection points become rich data sets around single entities (e.g. a person, a business unit, a job family, a position, etc.) that can be mined for strategic advantage.

Collectively, these and other talent management “sub-systems” lay across the traditional Talent Management/Human Resource domains to create a greater whole.

Mike Ditson





The full embrace (Strategic On-boarding, part 1)

11 05 2011

  “On-boarding” is the name for the collection of processes and tasks that need to be completed to bring a new worker into an organization and up to speed.  Typical on-boarding processes include things like filling out I-9 and W4 forms (in the United States), filling out benefit forms, attending company training, getting a company photo ID and or security badge, and even procuring equipment such as phones, laptops, offices and the like.  The goal of on-boarding is to “dot I’s and cross T’s” all in an effort to get a new employee compliant with corporate policy and productive as soon as possible.   An extension of on-boarding involving talent management activities goes past just bringing someone into the organization and  involves full “assimilation” into the person’s role inside the company.  This is sometimes referred to as “strategic on-boarding.”

There are two goals to a strategic on-boarding process.  The first is simple and straight-forward, that is to make sure the organization hold on to any information it learned about the new employee during the recruiting process.  Second, and more involved, is the process to make sure the employee fully understands what is expected of him or her in the role.

Organizations that do a good job making decisions on who to hire and who not to hire spend a great deal of time and resources to make those decisions.  A great deal of investment goes into hiring, including: advertising open positions, sourcing, interviewing, assessment testing, background checking, and so on.  All of these associated processes generate a huge volume of data on both those people that are eventually hired and those who are not.    Most organizations that have more that several hundred employees track candidates using an automated system to track candidates and in many cases to report on hiring practice compliance issues.

Unfortunately, many organizations miss an opportunity to get more return on the huge investment they make in hiring.  Once a candidate has been hired and is brought into the organization, all of the learning and information gathered about an individual is effectively “lost.”  Managers and co-workers of course remember some of what they learned about their new colleague during interviews, but the reusable “data” about the person is not saved in a reusable format.  Resumes may go into a personnel file in a cabinet in HR.  If they are saved in an applicant tracking system, the resume is the same as lost because it is not easily available to any other process.  The results of assessment tests or applications or questionnaires are lost as well.

An integrated talent management solves the problem of “lost” data very easily.  Data captured during the recruiting and interviewing process gets added to a “container” in the form of an employee or “talent” profile.  Profile management for the employee acts as an electronic file for the employee, storing the results of any talent management process that person is involved in.  The profile includes information the person is privy to, such as the results of their last performance review, compensation history, and information they may have volunteered themselves (e.g. relocation or travel preferences, career aspirations, etc.) It may also include information about the individual that the company chooses not to make transparent to the person such as potential assessment ratings or their status as part of a succession slate or talent pool.

By saving or “moving forward” the learning about an individual in the hiring process to an employee profile, the organization increases the value of their talent management database.  Over the course of a career employees move around in an organization.  Managers change.  New people join.  The prior work history and experience of a new candidate is “forgotten” by the organization as a whole.  Captured in a profile, that information becomes searchable information that HR professionals and line managers can leverage in the future.

The second goal of strategic on-boarding is to assimilate the person into the specific role they are in.  The start of a new job is an important inflection point in the person’s career at a new company.  It is at the start of a new job when a person is on “high-receive” in terms of learning about the organization.  Is this a high-energy, fast paced environment, or slower paced?  Do people get to work early and go home late or do they punch the clock right at quitting time?  Most of what a new employee learns is going to be through observing their fellow employees; however, an integrated talent management system can help set the desired tone for new employees.

In any large organization there is variance in the quality and methods of line managers.  From manager to manager the first few weeks on the job might be vastly different from one employee to another.  What a talent management system can do is to put the process in place that ensures each employee is understands the answers to the following questions:

  • What is my job description?
  • What behaviors and responsibilities are associated with my job?
  • What are the goals of the company as a whole?
  • What are the goals of my manager and the organization that I am in?
  • What specifically are my goals?
  • What do I get if I achieve those goals?

Certainly it is important from a HR standpoint to get people enrolled into different talent management programs they may be a part of, but what the answers above questions do for an employee is to help them understand “how do I succeed here?”

Mike Ditson