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Now Showing on the Small Screen

HR software is going mobile. So far, the programs are transaction-based and intended for small businesses or workers on the go. But judging from what’s happening behind the scenes, it won’t be long before more HR programs make their small-screen debut.

March 13, 2008
The scene: A construction site.

    The action: A foreman interviews a temporary worker, and satisfied he’ll be a good fit, hires him. But instead of making the new guy drive to headquarters to fill out paperwork, the foreman pulls out his pocket computer. He logs on to the company’s Web-based personnel database, enters the new guy’s information on a form, checks the box to verify he’s got a Social Security number and driver’s license, and pushes a button. Voila, the paperwork’s in and the worker’s ready to grab a hammer.

    This isn’t a story of what hiring will look like in the future. It’s happening now, and it’s one example of how HR software is making the big leap to the small screen.

    Over the next year or two, expect more HR applications to make their way onto iPhones, BlackBerrys and pocket computers, part of a larger migration of Web-based software to mobile devices.

    As those devices get smarter, people are using them to do more. Add a workforce itching to be unchained from the office, Gen Y workers who’ve grown up glued to their cell phones, and trends toward "software as a service" and employee self-service, and you’ve got all the elements needed to push applications to mobile computing.

    A lot of the credit goes to the iPhone, the smart phone with a touch screen and fully figured Web browser that Apple introduced in summer 2007.

    "It set the bar for all of the other manufacturers to build devices that can use standard browser applications in an easy way," says Sean Kennedy, a product manager at NetSuite, the Web-based software vendor.

    In all honesty, HR won’t ever be the main reason people use mobile devices, according to industry analysts, HR veterans and software company executives. But certain HR processes make sense on smart phones and other pocket devices, they say.

    "HR is far down the line. It’s not necessarily going to be at the top of the list," says Nov Omana, a longtime HR industry player and currently product manager at TriNet, a Web-based professional employer organization. "But it can piggyback on other applications."

    Best-bet HR processes for mobile devices include recruiting and new-employee orientation, expense reporting, sales commission management and simple administrative tasks such as confirming a pay raise or granting a request for time off.

    Not surprisingly, software companies in those HR segments are some of the first to offer applications on smart phones and other mobile devices. They include:

  • Varicent Software and its partner, Vaultus Mobile Technologies, which introduced a scaled-down version of Varicent’s sales incentive management program for the BlackBerry in late 2007. Similar sales incentive software from Xactly runs on the iPhone, and a competitor, Callidus, expects to unveil a smart phone version of its product later in 2008.

  • TalentSecure’s talent recruiting and staffing module for midmarket companies, which has a text message feature that sends new job postings to a job seeker’s cell phone.

  • Facebook Mobile Web, a mobile version of the popular social networking site that recruiters have picked up on. "I have recruiters as part of my Facebook network, and when they’re looking for someone for a job, I see that on my phone," says Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, the Minneapolis HR and talent management consultancy and think tank.

  • MobileDataForce, a Boise, Idaho, company that makes a Web interface for Microsoft’s Dynamics GP, a midmarket accounting software package with personnel profile, attendance and other HR functions. MobileDataForce’s customers are small and midsize contractors and businesses that use the software on rugged hand-held computers on job sites, such as the construction scenario at the beginning of this story.

    At present, most HR software that works on smart phones or pocket computers fits into very specific niches, or is suitable for small or midsize businesses. That won’t always be the case. Oracle, SAP and SuccessFactors are all are looking at mobile computing, according to Averbook and other industry consultants.

    Elsewhere, Taleo, the software-as-a-service-based talent management software company, has products on the drawing board that could be ready in the next 18 months, says Karl Ederle, Taleo’s vice president of product strategy.

    Companies that have made the biggest inroads so far started out with Web-based software-as-a-service applications, so they don’t have to re-engineer old platforms to move software to mobile devices.

    Two are Salesforce.com and NetSuite, both of which sell a handful of HR-related applications that work on the iPhone. Salesforce.com offers its HR applications through a network of developers who write programs based on the company’s open-source software.

    NetSuite has separate employee record keeping, payroll, expense reporting and time-and-attendance reporting modules, and sells all four programs bundled with an employee intranet in a product called Employee Center. For every full-product license a company buys, NetSuite throws in five Employee Center licenses. So if a company has 100 employees but only 30 need access to the entire NetSuite lineup, the rest could use Employee Center to do things like file expense reports, says Kennedy, the NetSuite product manager.

    HR software from Salesforce.com and NetSuite is best suited to small and midsized businesses. But large-enterprise products are coming. NetSuite, for example, wants more major companies as clients, and to that end is actively seeking a partner for a beefier payroll program, Kennedy says. "Our goal is to be more of a player in HR," he says.

    Getting HR applications on mobile devices isn’t easy. One of the biggest hurdles is persuading the people who run HR departments and who grew up in the pre-cell phone era to buy into the concept, Knowledge Infusion’s Averbook says. "There’s a big chasm," he says.

    But as companies are discovering, the Gen Y workers who are starting their careers aren’t going to log off Facebook and put down their iPods and cell phones. They want the same tools at work that they use in daily life. Companies need to accommodate them or risk alienating a whole category of potential employees, says Omana, the TriNet executive.

    "They want to know why they can’t be on a conference call while they’re texting on their cell phone. They’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing, but they’re being measured by standards that go back to the 1930s," he says.

    Technology is definitely a roadblock. Making HR software that’s readable and usable on a one-inch cell phone screen is more complicated than building or rebuilding a product on a Web-based platform. It could mean peeling off some parts of an application and reconfiguring them so they’re workable on cell phones. Or it could mean developing a separate interface for mobile devices, according to analysts and others.

    "In reality, it’s difficult to get a whole lot of picture on your BlackBerry, and even with e-mail, you’re scrolling forever. The practicality of doing a lot of your work on a mobile device isn’t there yet," says Jacqueline Kuhn, chair of the International Association for Human Resources Information Management (IHRIM) and senior director of corporate and administrative services at OfficeMax.

    In the end, smart software makers and end-user companies will come up with software they can use in different forms for different constituents, whether they’re HR managers, employees or job seekers. That could mean putting one version of a talent management program on smart phones, another version on in-store kiosks and a third version on HR managers’ desktop PCs, says Ederle, the Taleo product strategy vice president. "The answer will be multiple access points. It won’t be A versus B," he says.

    Security is another big issue. HR and IT managers want to safeguard confidential employee and company information wherever it resides. "How do we get secure wireless access into our networks for people to access their corporate e-mail or put in an expense report? How do we do that with hand-held devices that are so ubiquitous that you don’t know where your data is anymore?" asks Kuhn, the IHRIM chair.

    But HR can be overly concerned with security, "and this new technology scares a lot of people to death," Knowledge Infusion’s Averbook says. On the other hand, put too many restrictions on something that’s supposed to give people easy access "and you’re defeating the purpose of what you’re trying to do," he says.

    Developments outside the HR world are pushing global corporations and HR software makers to take up mobile computing. A big step in that direction happened in November 2007 when Google and 29 other technology companies announced Android, their attempt to beat the iPhone. Android is a Linux-based open-source software platform that Google and its partners are using to write applications for smart phones, and some of those products could start showing up this year.

    Microsoft is getting into the act too. The company already makes the Windows Mobile OS, an operating system used in a variety of pocket computers and smart phones. In February, while its hostile takeover of Yahoo made headlines, Microsoft quietly acquired Sidekick, a smart phone with just under a million users. Technology pundits have speculated Microsoft could use Sidekick as a platform to challenge Android.

    For future developments, stay tuned to your small screen.