Workforce.com

H(app)y Days

October 7, 2010

This year’s Seattle International Film Festival showcased new films from as far away as Iceland and Sri Lanka. But the films weren’t the only debut events. To provide some 700 volunteers with their work schedules and request last-minute help when more people than expected came to a screening, festival organizers pushed notices through an iPhone application.

Volunteer coordinator Monica Hinckley says the shift-scheduling application eliminated the telephone tree her staff once relied on to slot unpaid helpers into 2,300 shifts during the festival’s 25-day run. The change allowed festival management to cut one paid seasonal staff position and a handful of unpaid interns. Hinckley was so taken with the app that she used it again when managers at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s annual Labor Day music festival, hired her to coordinate their volunteers. “When we’re dealing with so many people, it makes it a lot more efficient on both ends,” she says. “My job has gotten a lot less stressful.”

Welcome to the dawn of the HR mobile app era.

In addition to the Seattle festivals, such companies as AT&T Inc. and National Instruments Corp. are using mobile apps to recruit, hire, train, track payroll and perform other human resources tasks. Companies either build their own apps or hire contractors to create them.

Companies that use mobile apps in key business areas, including HR, have seen a strong return on their investment, according to an August report from Frost & Sullivan, the business research and consulting firm. The 300 North American companies that Frost & Sullivan surveyed claimed mobile apps helped them bill more accurately, increase revenue, improve customer service and, in the HR realm, reduce paperwork and employee overtime, according to senior industry analyst Jeanine Sterling.

In another recent study, the research firm Aberdeen Group found that organizations using mobile HR tools increased manager productivity an average of 13 percent compared with a 6 percent boost for managers at companies that had yet to adopt the technology. Shift-scheduling apps and other tools that help expedite back-end HR processes are especially useful, says Mollie Lombardi, senior industry analyst at Aberdeen. “You can not only optimize things from a company’s point of view, but you’re serving the needs of the employee better, too.”

The first apps in the HR arena were aimed at job seekers on CareerBuilder, Monster and other job boards. Now, mobile HR apps for the iPhone, Android and BlackBerry smart phones are catching on faster than you can say, “There’s an app for that.”

Kenexa Corp.; Peopleclick Authoria; Saba Software Inc.; SuccessFactors Inc.; Taleo Corp.; Ultimate Software Group Inc.; Workday Inc.; and other HR software vendors have already introduced apps encompassing all or parts of their existing human-capital management, recruiting, talent management and e-learning systems. More are expected to hit the market this fall, and iPad apps—such as CyberShift, which is designed for workforce management—are trickling in.

It’s still early days, though. While more companies worldwide are adopting apps for HR functions, they’re still a small minority. Among the holdouts are skeptics concerned about security risks in transmitting sensitive company or employee information on smart phones. Some companies are still figuring out how to integrate apps with existing HR information technology systems, while others are debating whether to buy smart phones for their workforce or let employees use their own.

In addition, companies whose HR budgets have been stretched thin during the economic downturn are finding it difficult to invest time and money in new technology platforms—no matter how innovative and efficient they might be. There are too many other things vying for HR executives’ attention to adopt mobile apps now, says Steve Bogner, managing partner at Insight Consulting Partners in Cincinnati, which helps midsize and large clients with their IT systems for HR functions. Putting mobile into action “is always going to lag the hype.”

Despite such reservations, companies can’t afford to ignore mobile apps. Studies show that about 76 percent of the U.S. population has a mobile-phone subscription. As of August, a quarter of all cell phone users owned smart phones capable of accessing e-mail and the Web, according to Nielsen Co., the New York-based market-research firm. Nielsen predicts that for the first time, U.S. consumers will buy more smart phones than any other cell phones by the end of this year.

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Since more people are switching to smart phones, the demand for mobile apps has skyrocketed. Apple’s App Store alone offers more than 250,000. The Android Marketplace has 80,000, according to Google, although AndroLib, a Droid app researcher, puts the number well over 100,000.

Most people still use smart phones mainly to play games, listen to music or check e-mail, according to a Nielsen report in June on the state of the mobile phone industry. But more are bringing their phones to work and assume they’ll be able to use them on the job. Still, there’s only so much information you can put on a smart phone screen, and only so much typing people will do on their BlackBerry or iPhone. As a result, many HR mobile apps are stripped-down versions of existing software for tasks that are easy to transfer to the small screen.

Most HR apps fall into three broad areas: recruiting, training—both formal and informal—and productivity boosters for sharing information, processing approvals or tackling other transaction-based functions. Some companies are focused on outward-facing apps to give employees better access to HR information or to reach out to job candidates, while others have adopted them strictly for internal HR functions. As with mobile apps for consumers, prices vary. Some vendors don’t charge anything for apps they offer as an extension of existing products. Others tack on extra subscription fees based on the number of users. Jason Corsello, an analyst with Knowledge Infusion, a Minneapolis-based HR consultant, predicts more HR tech vendors will offer mobile apps on a “freemium” basis: a free, bare-bones version with no tech support that users can upgrade to a fee-based premium version with technical help and other customer service.

 Apps to streamline
As the Seattle Film Festival’s staff discovered, mobile apps are especially helpful in streamlining back-office HR processes, such as scheduling. Hinckley coordinates volunteers and also oversees recruiting, hiring, training and scheduling for 15 year-round employees, 75 paid seasonal workers and about 15 unpaid interns.

She had previously used Web-based shift scheduling software from Shiftboard Inc. for about three years before the Seattle company introduced a mobile version of the program in May, and offered it to the not-for-profit festival at no charge.

It didn’t take long to see the benefits. Today, Hinckley uses the desktop version of the program to push schedule information to staff and volunteers who can accept assignments or submit shift requests from their iPhones. “The faster we can get staff and volunteers in touch with one another, the happier everyone is,” she says.

Hinckley uses the program’s time-tracking feature to monitor number of hours worked for payroll purposes and a separate job-board application to advertise seasonal positions. “Anyone who’s worked for us in the past gets a notice when our job board is up and can download their resume to us,” she says.

Having so much information available in the palm of their hands, new volunteers get up to speed faster. That’s very beneficial for organizations with limited full-time staff, Hinckley says. “They can immediately start and be on track to see how things have been done in years prior.”

Since Shiftboard’s iPhone app debuted in May, more than 150 customers have started using it, including the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, says Bryan Lhuillier, the company’s founder and chief product and technology officer. That represents more than 15 percent of Shiftboard’s customers, a percentage Lhuillier says he is pleased with because the company has yet to begin promoting it. “I’m actually surprised it’s that high,” he says.

Like many HR technology vendors, Shiftboard built an app for the iPhone first because the device claims a large share of the smart phone market. But it is planning to release versions for BlackBerry and Droid phones as well.

The Google-backed Droid is built on open-source software, which makes it easier to develop applications. While there isn’t a lot of vendor support for it yet, “it’s the one to watch,” says Knowledge Infusion’s Corsello.

Recruiting apps
For recruiting, companies are going mobile in two ways: giving their career sites makeovers or providing recruiters and hiring managers with tools to use behind the scenes.

Recruiters were among the first HR professionals to get smart phones and plug into mobile versions of Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks so they could stay in touch with candidates 24/7. Companies are turning the career sections of their websites into mobile apps to appeal to the millennial generation and others who increasingly rely on smart phones to hunt for information online, including jobs.

Among them is National Instruments Corp., an Austin, Texas-based maker of computer-based measurement tools. Each year, 80 percent of National Instruments’ 150 to 250 new hires for its U.S. operations are new college graduates, so a careers app was a no-brainer, says Roxanne Green, the company’s university recruiting manager. “Students have quite a few companies to choose from, and we want to make sure when they want to apply to us they can do it quickly.”

To power its mobile careers app, National Instruments used an upgraded talent management and acquisition program that Peopleclick Authoria introduced in June for all Web-browser-enabled mobile devices. Representatives from the two companies worked together to pick features that would look good on a smart phone screen. Green says the app was expected to be ready in early October—too late for the first round of fall recruiting fairs. “A number of schools have fairs in October so it’ll be available for them, and we’ll be out in the spring as well,” she says. “We’re still happy about having the application.”

To raise awareness of the app, Green is marketing it on the company’s main careers website, and will include information about it in an e-mail marketing campaign and a slide show that recruiters present at college job fairs.

Some companies are creating their own careers apps, including AT&T, which rolled out the AT&T Jobs app last fall for the iPhone. The company is the exclusive U.S. wireless network for the iPhone.

In addition to showing current job openings, the app lets candidates look at a calendar of the company’s recruiting events, sign up for job alerts and watch videos. AT&T worked with TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications, a recruitment advertising agency, and My App Creator, a third-party developer, to create the app, which pulls data from Taleo’s applicant tracking program.

Though it’s only a year old, AT&T’s jobs iPhone app has become an important part of its recruiting strategy, which also includes broadcast, outdoor, print and radio advertising, says Carrie Corbin, AT&T’s talent attraction associate director. Corbin says having an app lets job hunters act right away to pull up or request information rather than seeing a URL in a help-wanted ad and then having to try to remember it the next time they’re online.

“The way we see it: What things do people not leave their house without?” Corbin says. “Their keys, wallet and phone—and that is the power of mobile as a marketing tool, that it is readily accessible regardless of where a person is.” She wouldn’t say how much the company spent or how often the jobs app has been downloaded. But each year, she says, AT&T reaches out to 20 million potential job candidates and seriously considers up to a million.

Other companies are using apps behind the scenes, equipping recruiters, HR staff and hiring managers with mobile versions of talent management or application tracking systems to help them do their jobs more efficiently, wherever they happen to be working. Peopleclick Authoria, Taleo and other talent management and applicant tracking system software vendors have introduced mobile versions of their software platforms since the beginning of the year. In the three months since Kenexa launched a mobile talent management app for the BlackBerry and iPhone, 10 of the company’s customers have deployed it and another 60 are in the sales pipeline.

HR mobile apps are also making inroads into e-learning and training, with a number of vendors introducing mobile-based modules, including heavyweights such as Saba and SuccessFactors as well as smaller players such as Interfacet Inc., which offers a diversity training app called diversityDNA, and the Tracom Group, which rolled out a mobile version of its Social Styles work styles training program last March.

Lombardi, the Aberdeen analyst, says it’s already become standard practice for companies to ask e-learning vendors to include mobile apps as part of an overall request for proposal.

While most HR departments are still just warming up to mobile apps, the tipping point could be at hand as HR apps are now being developed for the iPad and other tablet devices.

While several recent polls show a majority of early adopters are using iPads mainly to read, share information or play games, major corporations such as SAP and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz Financial division are using them for business analytics and sales. In the first 90 days it was available, 50 percent of Fortune 100 companies were either using or testing the iPad, Apple’s chief operating officer Tim Cook said in a July earnings conference call.

The iPad’s rapid adoption has put HR tech vendors on notice. Early in the year, hardly anyone had an iPad demo, but that’s changed, Lombardi says. “Just in the last week or two, I’m hearing a lot of talk about, ‘We have an iPad app’ or that they’re developing one.”

But introducing software for yet another new hand-held device could be difficult for vendors as companies are still figuring out how to integrate smart phones and mobile apps, Lombardi says. The challenge will be to keep apps consistent while delivering them “in new ways.”

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