Today our interview is with Bill Kutik, one of the top four HR Technology influencers in the US, and the industry’s leading producer of shows – live and online.
For 19 months, his independent broadcast-quality video series called Firing Line with Bill Kutik® has featured monthly interviews with leading HR tech thought-leaders on YouTube.
Since 1990, he has been monthly Technology Columnist for the US trade magazine Human Resource Executive (you can read his columns at Human Resource Executive Online®).
But he’s probably best known as founding co-chairman (sometimes called “The Father” or even “The Godfather”) of the magazine’s famous annual event, the HR Technology® Conference & Exhibition, the world’s largest held every October in the US. He began it in 1998 and stepped aside for new leadership in 2013.
The Bill Kutik Radio Show®, his previous online talk show with industry leaders, has suspended new shows but many people are still listening to its 183 podcasts in the archive at HRE Online.
In 2012, the magazine named him one of the “10 Most Powerful HR Technology Experts.” He previously wrote for The New York Times and has a BA degree from Harvard University.
The interview is hosted by Alexey Mitkin, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, The HR Tech Weekly® Online Media Co.
- Hi Bill, and first of all thank you very much for this interview with The HR Tech Weekly®. You run the TV show well known among the business audience as Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. What are you trying to accomplish with it and how do you make decisions on inviting your guests? And curiously, what do you feel today to be at the opposite side of the table?
Hi Alexey, thank you for inviting me.
When I started planning the TV show in late 2014, I realized that all the various shows I had produced since 1998 (HR Tech, the Radio Show) were all based on the same bedrock principle: Guests talk about what they’re thinking and doing, not what software they’re selling or which software they might be using.
The analyst relations executive at Workday, Geoff McDonald, asked me to repeat that after I said it because he thought it was the best description of “thought leadership” he had ever heard. I was flattered.
Because I came to HR technology from years in commercial journalism (doing work for The New York Times and The Boston Globe), I have brought with me some values that are now sadly considered old-fashioned. Namely that articles (or blogs), conference presentations and interviews (audio or video) should be in the best interests solely of the reader, listener or viewer – the audience – and definitely not necessarily in the interests of any vendor involved.
I was ruthless about that at HR Tech, where happily the owner Ken Kahn completely supported the idea that we never sold speaking slots to vendors. Imagine, attendees are already paying to see the content. Should anyone sell it a second time so it’s no longer in their best interests?
So I started Firing Line with Bill Kutik® to continue providing HR practitioners with objective information about the latest technology trends without marketing or favoritism. It was the same with the Radio Show, which I did for seven years.
Decisions on the guests for both are made simply based on who can best deliver value to the audience.
As for being on the other side of the table… being a good interviewer means taking second chair to the person being interviewed. Teasing out and highlighting what they know. Since much of what I do are interviews and panels (except for my columns), I don’t get to do much of the talking. So I love whenever the roles are reversed! Look how much more I get to say here than you do, Alexey!
- You provide the HR Technology Column at Human Resource Executive Online®. How do you choose your topics to be covered there and what other projects do you undertake?
Being a columnist is the most difficult job in journalism. Others only write when something happens; columnists have to fill the space (in my case) every four weeks, even if nothing has happened.
Of course, HR technology is so dynamic that I can’t think of a month when nothing happened. Because I like my columns to be in-depth, I often write them after attending full-day analyst meetings or multi-day user conferences. That gives me the kind of perspective a good column needs.
Thirty years ago, I learned from the world’s leading computer industry commentator (an old college friend, Esther Dyson) that vendors do most of the innovation in the industry. Certainly there were terrifically innovative end-users like Cisco and Walmart, but they were the exception.
So my columns tend to focus on what the vendors are doing. In addition, I try to use them to explain to the practitioners how the software industry works. Think about it. Practitioners may buy new solutions every three years or so from someone who sells them every day! The match-up is so unfair. I try to level the playing field. In that regard, one of my favorite revelations was that salesmen for large, on-premise enterprise software regularly asked for four-times the price they were willing to settle for!
Now that’s exactly what the street urchins in Cairo trying to sell you cheap souvenirs do. It was never universally true, but I was shocked to discover it and thought it important to tell HR practitioners about it.
- You started the HR Technology® Conference & Exhibition (also known as ‘HR Tech’ which probably gave the name to the whole industry). What was the mission behind the idea to establish such an event in 1998, how it was changing during the time and what other events should HR managers keep their eyes on?
The mission from Day One was to help make HR practitioners more tech savvy. Not to understand the bits and bytes of it, but to understand the business benefits that technology could bring them. And offer that to them from their colleagues, senior HR executives, and not from vendors who too often do the educating at other events, sometimes to their own benefit.
Our mission enlarged, when I realized there was a vast audience of HR generalists who somehow thought technology did not apply to them. We started a major campaign – with the help of the most popular U.S. bloggers at the time such as Laurie Ruettimann, “HR Ringleader” Trish McFarlane, “HR Capitalist” Kris Dunn, “HR Bartender” Sharlyn Lauby and Dwane Lay – to convince them their career advancement required it. I’m often guilty of exaggeration, and I remember once writing that if they didn’t get tech savvy, “They should start looking for a large cardboard box and nice place under a highway to live in it.” Over the top.
HR Tech was almost alone at the beginning. Now there are similar events around the world: Australia, China, India, Dubai, Bahrain, Norway, Amsterdam, Paris and London. I was once invited to an event in Moscow, but organizers never got beyond a brochure (which I still have) describing me in Russian. I love that because all four of my grandparents came from Russia, where I’ve been told my family name translates into “little cat,” not kitten. “Kooteek”: a term of endearment.
And don’t forget the show that started it all organized by IHRIM (International Association of Human Resources Information Management), begun decades earlier than HR Tech. Its next annual conference is scheduled for March 2017 in Toronto.
- SAP, Oracle and Workday, sometimes called as SOW, deliver most integrated and complex HR Tech solutions on today’s market. What are the core advantages they have, in terms of daily HR needs?
What I like to call the “Big Three” specialize in meeting the most complex needs of global corporations with more than 5,000 employees. Among the advantages they bring is being able to deal with specific HR needs in dozens of countries, especially in payroll.
Our largest analyst firm, Gartner, often publishes a “Magic Quadrant,” which graphically compares the “ability to execute” and “completeness of vision” of all HCM vendors. The leaders are in the upper right corner of the four-box labeled “leaders.”
The Big Three are always there. But practitioners too often make the mistake of tearing out the leaders box and making it their short list. Without considering that their company, for example, may have just one location in the US with just 600 employees. So that’s not necessarily the way to go.
- What are the market expectations from HR technologies to appear in the nearest future? Briefly.
Everyone is touting predictive analytics, most especially “proscriptive” analytics that suggest what you should do to fix a situation revealed by the data. HR departments need to move very slowly on this and insist that vendors go beyond their canned demo. And instead, load the company’s own data – say from 18 to six months ago – and then test to see if the predictions turned out right in the last six months, which HR already knows! Still very much a work in progress.
- Do we really need all that ‘bells-and-whistles’ HR Tech vendors deliver as stand alone, OEM or integrated solutions?
It’s often said that most people use only 10 percent of the functional capabilities in Microsoft Word. In my case, I know that’s true because it is marvelous software for writing a book, keeping track of footnotes, re-numbering as they are added or removed, automatically putting them at the bottom of the correct pages, or even aggregating them for a section at the end.
The same is true of HR software. But with SaaS, customers are generally not paying for the capabilities they’re not using and someday may use them. Many are terrifically useful, and I’m glad they are there.
- You follow the evolution of the recruiting systems since 1988 when it was ever evolved to the present digital times. In this new era, which are the powerful approaches to be used as effective recruiting solutions? What recruiters should never sweep aside and take to the future? Only applicants…
I was present at the birth of the first Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) in 1988, as you mention. What has happened in that last 10 years is the ATS has come to be seen as the essential, but largely administrative, system involved in the Talent Acquisition process. Much like an HRIS, HRMS or what’s now called Core HR is essential but not very strategic.
And just as with Core HR, where people realized the real strategic advantage was in the programs that were attached to it (later called the Talent Management suite), the center of value in recruiting has moved away from the ATS to what were once called “edge applications” but now more often are called “Recruitment Marketing.”
I love to point out that the reason an ATS is called an Applicant Tracking System is it cannot deal with candidates who have not yet applied. Yet the very best recruiters are spending time dealing with them, not just sorting through applications and resumes.
I admit that focus on candidates can seem a little like the famous Groucho Marx joke: “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member!” But the War for Talent is all about identifying and attracting candidates, not just throwing out a baited fishing hook (job board postings) and hauling into the boat everything that bites on it.
Obviously, I could go on and one about this topic. But I’ll spare your readers and hope they have stuck with us this far.
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