Enabling Technology

R&D on the Road: HRIS Hunting

This summer, HRO Today’s publisher spent a little time looking behind the scenes at HRIS technology research and development efforts around the country. What he found surprised even him.

by Jay Whitehead

One of the curious bi-products of growing up as I did in Silicon Valley and publishing magazines such as UPSIDE in venture capital and PC Magazine, and CRN in computing is my morbid fascination with technological inventors and their inventions. Why morbid? Because 95 percent of these new things end up in a dumpster somewhere. But fact is, like watching NASCAR, the high danger factor makes it fun.

So in August and September, I spent several days on the road in San Francisco, Austin, Boston, and other tech hot spots searching for the next great HR gadget and maybe catch a crash or two.

Social networking websites were all the rage. Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn, and hundreds more wannabe sites dot the dot-com landscape. I saw five new viral marketing-type products in various stages of development. Each one had its own crazy-talk version of the “Chinese number” method of estimating market potential. You know, “if we only got one percent of the population of China, we’d be billionaires.”

Whenever I see a Powerpoint deck featuring that dog-eared cliché, I chuckle out loud. That may be impolite, but real entrepreneurs have to have thick skin. If they can’t take the heat of a giggling publisher, they should get out of the kitchen.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago—Google’s $1.7 billion acquisition of viral video site YouTube took everyone’s breath away. And I am sure it has spawned even more YouTube-me-too inventors now spending sleepless nights pecking on their keyboards.

But my most unlikely discoveries were in HR software. What about those predictions of the death of software? Judging from the level of investment and activity, it is clear that announcements of software’s demise are premature.

The biggest buzz in HRIS is around the skunk works Workday started by Peoplesoft founder Dave Duffield. Every day, HRO Today hears some wild new Workday rumor. But I am here to confirm these facts about Workday’s software-as-service solution. No, it is not a cure for cancer or the common cold. No, it will not help you understand the mysteries of the opposite sex. And no, it cannot guarantee HR a seat at the CEO’s table; you still must earn that.

Another big surprise was the discovery of Emportal, an HRIS solution-in-the-making for smaller companies. I attended an alpha-client and prospect focus group for the group, which is backed by PEO entrepreneur Kevin Grauman and a team of veteran HR service pros. The Emportal thesis is simple: affordable, customizable HR enterprise software-as-a-service for companies with 500 to 5,000 employees.

Even though the skeptic in me says that the last thing the world needs is another HRIS solution, the realist in me knows that for smaller companies, a viable HRIS solution—especially software that you buy as a service—is as rare as a Sasquatch sighting.

Emportal’s team includes software developers and small-company HRIS evangelists of the highest water—even some HRO vendor veterans from Workforce Logic. The users in the focus group included the CIO of Tivo, the SVP of staffing from Bank of the West, the head of accounting for Cost Plus World Markets, and an HR leader from Brocade Communications.

Each of the prospective users, for their own reasons, was in dire need of the solution Emportal promises to deliver. With several hundred highly skilled and high-maintenance techies and marketers, Tivo needs a tool to track its intense employee service needs. As a retailer with high turnover, Cost Plus needs a tool for managing services that reduce the churn. As a fast-growing bank in a highly competitive labor market, Bank of the West needs a tool that can keep its employee records up to date with its growth. And Brocade needs a new HRIS to make sure it avoids repeating the stock-option-dating nightmare that has its former CEO and VP HR facing federal charges.

So despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, Emportal’s solution answers real needs for smaller companies. Now the hard part comes—delivering, selling, and servicing. Can Emportal’s HRIS solution generate what venture capitalists call “escape velocity” and attract bunches of clients? Hopes are high.

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