HRchat Podcast: The importance of personalization in the digital employee experience.

Applaud CEO and Co-founder, Ivan Harding sat down with HRchat's Bill Banham to discuss personalization in HR technology and how businesses can embrace and design journeys that intertwine both the digital and physical experience for their employees.




HRchat interview transcript


Bill Banham: Start by telling us about yourself; your career background and the mission of Applaud.

Ivan Harding: I've been in HR technology for just shy of 25 years. Started my journey in the product side of the business. I worked with Oracle for about 10 years as part of the product team working on their HR product. I left there and went into…. consulting. I spent time in the consultant world implementing the products that we've been building for customers, which is very interesting. It was probably the most instrumental period in my career. 

One of the jobs I always remember is after a difficult go live on a recruitment system, I was given the job to floor walk around the floors of the offices and sit with managers who were having difficulty with the system, we did things like raising vacancies and stuff like that…. One of the things that really stuck with me back then (and) we're going back over 10 years now, is a woman who just said to me, "we would never put our customers through this". And there was a kind of light bulb moment there and at the time, you know, iPhones and iPads were coming out. This was a big thing, and there was a big focus on user experience. And to me, there just seemed to be a big disconnect between the HR tech vendors out there and the end-users (who) are meant to be using this stuff. The technology (was) being built for HR, not the end-users.

So that's really where the seed of Applaud started. We were looking around, and no one was addressing that area of the market. We started up in about 2010, and 10 years later…. our mission really is to deliver a simple to use consumer-grade experience across the HR services. So we're all about the workers.


Bill Banham: Talk to me about digital HR technology. Can you paint a broad picture of ways the HR function is augmented or assisted today? How has it evolved and what can we expect in the next 12 months?


Ivan Harding: I think one of the things that fascinates me about HR technology (and) kept me in it so long is…. how it evolves all the time. It…. mirrors consumer trends. You sort of think about mobile coming 10 years ago and seeping into the workplace. Five years later, we're starting to get used to the things like digital assistants, where we do our shopping. That's coming into the workplace now. And HR is always at the forefront of technology changes within the business because the audience is the entire workforce, much of the time. I think what we're seeing now as we've had this kind of land grab over the last 10 years of customers moving to the cloud…. I think what we're seeing now is that that move to the cloud hasn't necessarily delivered the simplicity and adoption that customers are wanting.


Ivan Harding: And now they're really starting to focus on…. HR buying for HR…. I think…. HR leaders, (are) looking at platforms that can help this sort of simplicity of service delivery to make it easy for people to find out what they need to know what the policies are, get information out quickly, adapt processes really fast and putting together all the services they have into sort of a one-stop-shop. That's a term we hear quite a lot. (HR leaders ask) “now we want a one-stop-shop for our employees (and) we want it on mobile!”. 


Ivan Harding: We want it on whatever device people are using to be able to get our information across. That's probably the trend for….this idea of a personalized service as well, which is obviously something we'll talk about the idea of getting content to people that's relevant for them. So we're not overwhelming people with information that's not, not relevant to their work or what they're doing day to day. So there's definitely a trend towards what we call work, attack technology you're buying for your workers, not necessarily for the HR administration practice.


Bill Banham: What does it take to successfully implement a digital workforce experience platform? How can businesses embrace and design journeys that intertwine digital and physical experiences


Ivan Harding: I think that's a challenge that a lot of HR leaders are looking at. This isn't something that just stays purely in the digital space, because there are so many processes that we go through and things we do at work that involve physical things…. One of the analysts we like to mention…. is Josh Bersin, the thought leader in our industry and he talks about...moving away from putting in programmes or putting in solutions and start talking about experiences.  And if we can put some color around what that means in practice, we might look at our HR estate and think, well, it's not working for us so let’s put some digital assistants and chatbots in, or maybe we’ll have some sort of survey tool we can put in or maybe we’ll improve our case management system…. but this is layering more systems on rather than adding simplicity. 

…. If you sort of take a step back and think about how we make it easy for customers to buy from us, you've got to have that same way of thinking within the workplace. So personalization comes through again, and I think where we make a start with this is…. looking at the (make-up of) workers in our organization and realize that not all workers in our organization need the same things. Retail is a good example. If you think of a retail organization and…. some of the different roles and responsibilities you might have within the retail organization, you might have young part-time students coming in at the weekend. You might have drivers transporting goods around. You might have someone on the manufacturing line If you're in consumer packaged goods. You'll have people in your back office doing finance.

…. They all have very different needs and they have different technology demands and expectations of you. So a good digital experience was really starting with the people…. using the technology. It's not with, what's the best vendor it's looking at, who the workers I've got in my organization, what they need, where are the pain points at the moment, what processes are causing me issues, what processes are taking our service desk time up and raising lots of tickets and sort of taking a step back from there. Once you've started to model the people in your workforce, persona design, we called it. And that's the thing to Google, If you're looking to do some reading afterwards…. Start thinking about the journeys those people take, things like onboarding or relocation, or what happens when I open a new office and move people there or global transfer, or even off-boarding, and then make an experience of leaving the company a positive one, then you can start to model how you use the technology to make those processes a lot smoother and untangled. We want to move away from these ideas of link farms and intranets that have policies all over the place and these very static experiences, to make something more dynamic and tailored to the individual and that’s what a good DEX looks like. 


Bill Banham: What impact does offering a personalized digital experiences have on the workforce?


Ivan Harding: I think, again, let's take our lead from the consumer world. One of the most famous examples of the personalizing experience, Netflix. When I log on to my Netflix profile, I see a much different set of programs and offerings and content than, say, when my daughter logs on…. So Netflix is a good example of content that's personalized for me; makes it easier for me to get stuff that I want to see. 


If we transpose that into the workplace. When I log on to my intranet or HR portal as a worker, I want this concept of a one-stop-shop. I want everything at my fingertips. I don't want to keep using a search…. If I'm a worker in a retail store, for example, I'm on a 24/7 schedule, and I try to book some holiday. The policy around what applies to me is going to be probably different to someone that's working in the back office on a Monday to Friday schedule. So, you know, when I go in to do that booking, how about having the right information? That's right in front of me alongside where I'm actually booking my leave. And if I get problems, how about having the help that I need right there, you know, access to a service desk agent, or a helpline or a way to raise a help desk ticket or something like that. 


Having an intelligent help pop up. Let's say, an employee is struggling with a task. We've got the technology now where we can actually detect that. If (an employee is) taking two minutes on a form that should take 30 seconds we can use technology to pop up a little bit of advice on the screen to help guide them through it. (The tech can also provide) feedback about what's working, what's not working and feed that back into the loop and improve the process for next time. 


So personalize the experience for the worker perspective, it should be seamless…. (HR and leaders) should be streamlining that to make it simple and easy for you to find the things you need.


Bill Banham: In a recent post on the Applaud site, you wrote “over two-fifths (43%) of HR leaders said that keeping a strong company culture alive will be their single biggest challenge in 2021. With organizations continuing to work virtually and developing new hybrid working arrangements, ensuring both existing employees and new starters buy-in to your company’s values is going to especially challenging." What are the 2 or 3 biggest challenges to employee engagement right now and how can organizations set themselves up to retain their top talent when we return to normality and when large numbers of employees feel secure enough to start looking for new jobs? 


Ivan Harding: It's going to affect all businesses and is something I'm thinking about as a co-founder of a company…. I think we've got to look at how we keep people motivated and informed of the company goals. What's our mission as a company and how can employees support that? We’ve got to face up to the fact that people aren't going to be going back to work in the normal way anymore, especially in some industries where remote working is a perfectly fine thing to happen. 


Technology is an enabler…. for me, it's all about communication. And from the very top level down and using technology to the different channels available to push company objectives and news and events and recognition and success, and, be open on the challenges that businesses are facing as well. And that needs to ripple down. It's no good to see your top-level management (simply) putting out a newsletter once a week or once a month…. It is (management‘s role, instead) to take feedback from the workers to know what's going on.


A big thing that a lot of companies are investing in now is not survey technology, but listening technology…. The dreaded employee survey that you can see once a year or twice a year is kind of losing the effectiveness in a lot of organizations’ view. So we're starting to look at listening technology and pulse-surveys…. The ability to do spot checks on how employees is another growth area within technology to give another channel to push out information are feeling and take feedback on what's working, what's not working. Things like nudges and notifications and celebrating success when it happens…. technology is the enabler, that’s the thing for me. But it really is down to the leaders in the business to understand that they might have to up their game with communication and openness about what's going on at the top level.


Bill Banham: Okay. So you've shared a little of your personal thoughts as a leader of an organization about what you'll be planning to ensure that you can retain your top talent. We're actually recording this interview towards the end of February. And just yesterday, Goldman Sachs boss, David Solomon, rejected remote working as the new normal, and he labelled it as an “aberration” instead. I've got my opinions on this, but what would you say to those out there who say that the tech doesn't exist to allow for effective work from home and effective ways to maintain company culture?


Ivan Harding: I thought it was a really, really interesting article. I read it as well and had my thoughts on it too. And I, I think some of it might be taken a little out of context as it came across as a sort of a bit stern and gruff when the article came through. I think in certain industries, we won't get back to everyone working in an office Monday to Friday, nine to five. There are certain industries where you can quite effectively work from home for a number of days a week. And I think organizations that don't recognize (that) are probably going to lose out on talented people that don't want to do a Monday to Friday in the office, and that's going to be the reality. 


But I think what he was saying in his article, that I agree with to a certain extent, is it's not the company that's losing out. It is the workers themselves. He was very much coming from the angle of, you know, we're an apprenticeship firm and these young people coming out of the college (and) coming into our firm need experienced people around them to mentor them. In a virtual environment, that’s much harder to do. A team Zoom call…. doesn't quite match up to what you can do in the office. So I think remote working only goes so far. I think the (post-Covid) new normal is likely to be hybrid work working as opposed to permanent office-based staff. 


….. I could potentially hire people anywhere in the world, but actually, I still want to hire people that are within commutable distance to our office (because) we want (the ability to have in-person) meetings. If my people are within traveling distance to the office for that face time. But, going back to your question about the Goldman Sachs quote, it is very thought-provoking and interesting for a leader to make that sort of statement as it is a little bit against the grain, but I think he's basically reflecting that, actually, (in-office work) is for our employees’ benefit – so they can get that interaction back again.


Bill Banham: How far can personalization support the health and well-being of employees? Talk to me about the challenges and how digital employee experience can help.


Ivan Harding: I think HR has had tremendous challenges over the last 12 months with the pace of change and what’s happened around us at speed - as government decisions have sometimes happened without notice. And that's had a tremendous impact on people's physical health and (caused them to) worry about coming back to work and safety at work (in addition to the) mental health (effects of working) at home. 


And again, I would say the technology is an enabler. It doesn't solve these things, but it does help HR get out information that they need to do faster. One of the trends I think we'll see over the next 10 years is platforms that react fast and deliver services, content and knowledge more quickly than they've been able to do in the past.


An example I can think of (is) we had one university customer last year that was thinking about how to get staff back onto campus in a safe way. And some of the information they needed to retrieve was things like “are you shielding?”, “do you have any vulnerable members?”, “have you had the virus yourself?” and you know, in the old days this would be some sort of online spreadsheet but (the university was able to) use the platform to build a quick return to work form within a couple of days and they had something that was very robust and they could start tracking people coming into the office like that.


The platform can (also) deliver personalized content…. It can push (information about how) the company is providing support, like EAP schemes (Employee Assistance Programmes)…. A lot of companies have these schemes that have really great support for employees, especially if they're struggling with mental health issues and so on. 


You know, start pushing that out. This listening technology I'm talking about, the real-time feedback to (help you) say what your experience is like, let’s start using the technology to embed that into the tools we’re using. Can we capture when people are feeling a bit low and trigger that and maybe we can reach out for help…. We can use technology to detect what's going on with workers and react to that.


Bill Banham: According to Applaud's research, less than 10% of organizations offer hyper-personalized digital employee experiences. Why do you think organizations have been slow to adopt personalization technology when there are benefits to be had?


Ivan Harding: Yeah, I don't think it's from the lack of wanting to. I think it's quite a tough and tricky thing to get started with. And I think the reason for that is it comes back to the way you phrased your earlier question – it is because we’re starting to look at the way digital and physical processes intertwine, yet we've got a lot of silos in our HR technology stacks. You have your core HR system, your payroll system, and so on and so forth. And when you talk about personalized experiences and simplifying the digital experience as a wider topic, you have to take a step back from your silo and your siloed system (because) when you take a holistic view of the digital experience, you've really got to look at your whole estate.

And think about how you wrap in the physical processes as well now…. If you've got things like offline forms and horrible Excel spreadsheets that someone has to fill out, say for the holidays, get an email off to HR, you know, all those sorts of things. So I think people are struggling with knowing how to start. And there's tips and tricks on, you know, how you can kind of take a nibble of this and maybe of take some proof of concepts and, and start small. But I think the real struggle is that there really isn’t a sort of a part of the HR technology market that has really come forward and said, this is what we do. So a lot of the customers are looking at their existing vendors and trying to figure out how you stitch all this stuff together into this…. one-stop-shop that they're actually looking for. And once you've got that single pane of glass to look into all your different processes and so on, then you can start to build that personalization. You can’t really do it in fragments. 


Bill Banham: We’re coming towards the end of this interview Ivan. Before we wrap it up, how can we learn more?


Ivan Harding: I think in terms of sort of learning about the wider topic of personalization of the digital experience, there's lots of great content on the Applaud website and not just that we've produced, but links out to other parties that have done this, particularly around things like persona design and journey mapping, all those fancy new terms that are entering the mainstream. Learn more at You can connect with me on LinkedIn


Bill Banham: Well, that just leaves me to say for today, Ivan, thank you so much for being a guest on this episode of the HRchat show!


Ivan Harding: Thanks very much. I enjoyed it very much. 


About the Author and Host of HRchat Podcast

Bill Banham is Editor at The HR Gazette, Co-founder of the InnovateWork event series for HR, Talent and Tech pros, President at Iceni Media Inc., and host of the popular HRchat podcast. He has 13+ years of experience in B2B publishing and events. Bill’s previous roles include Editor at HRreview magazine and Marketing Manager at Sprigg, the performance management tech platform.

Published March 19, 2021 / by Ivan Harding