The Wisdom of Choosing 'Good-Enough' HR Over 'World-Class' HR

July 22, 2010
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler."
—Albert Einstein

I love to watch friends and family members struggle with over-engineered products, especially if I already know how to use those products well. It just makes you feel a little bit superior to see someone struggle to use something you’ve mastered, doesn’t it?

You know the type of product I’m talking about and what happens when someone tries to use it. Consider the following examples:

• High-end HD video cameras that make dads look like Quentin Tarantino showed up at a youth baseball game, until they put the camera back in the bag five minutes later because it’s too hard to use. The suburban version of Reservoir Dogs will have to wait.
• Forcing a non-coffee drinker to order you a grande nonfat latte while you sit in the passenger seat and snicker at their confusion in the drive-through lane at Starbucks. Just say it, Mom. They’ll know what you mean—honest.
• The blinking light on your parents’ VCR (or grandparents, if you’re a youngster and your parents are smooth enough to program that contraption). It’s comforting to know that it’s always midnight somewhere.

Name a product line, and examples of feature overload are easy to find.

Of course, the laughter should stop when over-engineering limits the effectiveness of your HR practice. Name a segment of the HR and talent world, and it’s easy to find complex, overloaded solutions that confuse HR pros and, more importantly, the team members we support. Nowhere was this more apparent than the vendor floor at the SHRM 2010 annual conference.

Most of the solutions offered at SHRM 2010 featured a world-class feature set and incredible thought leadership. Once someone has the money to buy a booth at SHRM, you can pretty much assume you’re dealing with smart people. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is, the vast majority of the solutions offered at SHRM 2010 failed the “good-enough” test.

What’s the good-enough test, you ask? The good-enough test challenges conventional wisdom by stating that you can actually put too many features in a product. Once you’ve created a solution that can solve 60 percent of the average end user’s needs, the good-enough test shows that there’s a law of diminishing returns in adding more features to solve nonessential problems. Add more features, and you’ll create a product so complex that no one will use it.

Examples of consumer products and services that pass the good-enough test are everywhere around you. Think about the Flip video camera, MP3 files, Skype and Hulu.

Each of these products delivers on a simple consumer need and is successful even though it faces competition from rival products with more features, functionality and quality.

How do products like the Flip, Skype and Hulu carve out a successful niche when competitors provide more features and higher quality? The answer is simple: The solution they provide is cheaper, more convenient and easier to use.

In other words, each of these products has avoided over-engineering features, which means customers will actually use the product because it meets the basic need.

If only the same held true in the world of HR solutions. Since competition is fierce in the HR vendor game, over-engineering features is seen as a competitive advantage, often at the expense of making the product easy to use.

Need examples of this in the HR solution game? Think about the areas of performance management, the candidate experience in recruiting, and training on managerial skills.

Let’s look at each sector and define some elements of the world-class solution in the marketplace, then contrast it with the simple features a good-enough product delivers.

Performance management: The world-class solution features a competency database allowing you to build a stellar, customized deck of performance requirements for each position, then ties 360-degree feedback into the workflow of the annual review. The good-enough solution simply provides a quick-hitting format that automates the goal-setting process in a graphical layout that makes it easy and compelling to use.

Advantage: The good-enough solution. The manager who has to do the work needed a nap as soon as you said “competency.”

The candidate experience in recruiting: The world-class solution (applicant tracking system, or ATS) can do it all, including automating a killer careers site designed to provide massive amounts of data and incorporating social media into the employer’s recruiting presence. The good-enough solution has good tracking flow but focuses on a simple, impossible-to-screw-up way of acknowledging a candidate has applied and letting the candidate know when the organization has selected someone else for the job. It also gets the application process done in five minutes.

Advantage: The good-enough solution. For all the shine associated with careers sites and social media, the most important factors in candidate satisfaction with a hiring process are a quick-hitting way to apply and honest communication about where candidates are in the process.

Who knew?

Actually, all you had to do was ask the end users.

Managerial skills training: The world-class solution features a book tour and motivational speeches from a high-profile leader/coach/star who may or may not have anything in common with your frontline managers. The good-enough solution skips the star model and instead focuses on presenting the top six situations that managers struggle with in the workplace, then delivers entertaining tools, talking tracks and exercises designed to help the manager survive those specific situations.

Advantage: The good-enough solution. It’s great to hear the coach wax poetic about the championship season. Unfortunately, you can’t call a blitz in the workplace when Sally doesn’t meet her objectives.

Look at any segment of the HR solution game and you’ll find similar examples. The conclusion is simple. HR vendors get paid to compete by adding features and complexity to solve every problem. That’s why you feel compelled to buy. You, however, get paid to make sure the managers and team members you serve will actually use the tools to solve the problems that really matter.

Think simple, even if the product you purchase can do more; you’ll win in the long run.

Workforce Management Online, July 2010 -- Register Now!