My Posts

Saba’s Emerging Vision of Talent Management in an Unsettled World

Note from Lance: I wrote over a thousand words on my thoughts on Saba Insight, Saba’s user conference, the weekend after the event. The Monday following the conference, they announced their purchase of Lumesse and I held this post back. I’ve had some time to reflect on both that acquisition and the conference itself, which is what you‘ll read here.

Regardless of what people say with all of the confidence of the world — including me — nobody knows what’s going to happen to talent management in the future. If I knew, I would be selling it to the highest bidder, not writing free shit on the internet about it.

Talent management is changing, though. The din of disruption was an unstated guest at Saba Insight this year. I say unstated instead of uninvited because if Saba has done one thing well, they’ve been transparent about how they think about the future and where the opportunities and challenges lie. That includes the very real challenge of acquiring Halogen Software approximately 18 months ago and integrating the Canadian technology company into the Saba family. Oh, and there’s something that wasn’t announced at the conference with a little company called Lumesse. More on that in a bit.

Like all user conferences, Insight was a great reality check into the nuts and bolts of how HR technology actually gets off the ground. The audience and presenters skewed pragmatic. These were organizations trying to solve real problems, whether that’s working on performance management retooling or rolling out new learning programs. Talent management was alive and well in Scottsdale.

Something I heard many attendees talk about were implementation and adoption hurdles—not necessarily related to Saba, though. How do we get people using the performance management software? How do we convince them that these learning resources will help them in their careers? How do we tie this all to engagement? What do executives care about—and what should they care about?

I was pleased to hear many organizations thinking smarter about building programs that worked from the bottom up, not the top down. There was a lot of focus on employee communications and marketing. Ultimately, the success of talent management is dependent on your people’s buy in.

Unfortunately, there’s still too much talk about issues that I believe hold talent management back from taking a real step into the future.

  1. Thinking programs instead of holistic. Performance management doesn’t work in a vacuum. Learning management doesn’t exist without context about what people need to learn. We need more stories about companies that get the connection between performance, learning, recruiting, recognition, communication, etc… How are we breaking down long-standing silos and actually taking an integrated approach to talent management? Or is the now decades-long promise of an integrated approach so impossible to reach that the focus on creating or reimaginging narrow programs is our best bet to make something work?
  2. Too much focus on executive buy in. It was a question at every session I hit, I think. Which, I get it on one level. We need to get our C-level folks on board and part of that is building relationships and knowing what they care about. On the other hand, most executives didn’t get their jobs by being idiots and ignoring obvious needs. Good solutions don’t sell themselves but it certainly doesn’t hurt. It makes me wonder if people are still pitching programs (let’s fix performance management process) rather than outcomes (let’s improve performance and retention). That might help organizations focus on looking at all potential impacts.
  3. Not enough focus on employee attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. I still don’t know why generations come up time and time again but it seems to be a poor stand in for actual psychographic data, skills, and competencies. What we lose in this conversation is that our enterprise systems—whether it’s communications, financials, or HCM—need to be more people focused for all employees. I would suggest that instead of focusing on executive buy in, work to trial software that your people actually love to use and have them work with you to get it implemented across the organization.

These challenges, and how organizations using Saba are approaching it, aren’t unique. Years and years of talking to leaders of HR in organizations makes me simultaneously hopeful that there is movement and concerned that we aren’t moving fast enough.

There are some things that are unique to Saba that I do want to highlight.

They are calling themselves a talent development company, which is an interesting move. I’m not 100 percent sure if this represents a change in strategy or approach, but based off my conversations, it seems like it is a reflection of where they’ve landed since the acquisition of Halogen—and maybe where they are going with the addition of Lumesse.

My initial impression is that I thought it pulled them back into their learning comfort zone. I still feel this way, but I think development is one of the most human things that actually happens and can be attributable to work. There’s a counter message that talent, the kind most organizations want at least, doesn’t want to be managed—at least with the suite of solutions most ascribed to this category.

Descriptions aside, in contrast to a generally pragmatic user conference agenda driven by customer stories and product managers, Saba’s vision is big.

This is not a change. The folks at Saba have always been happy to be out front. With all of the talk of AI and personalization at scale, Saba was ahead of this trend by a good three years with TIM (The Intelligent Mentor). Being able to leverage learning from TIM and iterate before competitors were even thinking about it has served Saba well. Their move to add Saba Labs formalizes a culture that already values innovating.

We also got a view into the roadmap that Saba is working on with their Cloud and TalentSpace (formerly Halogen) products. I’ll be honest, I had some concerns with actively selling and building two flagship technologies that have a ton of functional overlap. The addition of Lumesse won’t make things easier—and you can bet competitors are going to latch onto any stories coming from these camps.

I understand the reasons why Saba is staying the course on this today. Saba TalentSpace customers in particular are passionate about this platform. Saba Cloud customers are often there because Saba was the only solution that could meet their complex learning requirements. The same could be said about Lumesse in talent acquisition and learning on an international basis. TalentSpace traditionally focused on the mid-market down to the SMB. Cloud is largely an enterprise initiative, though I believe that is less true today than it was in the past.

Saba executives, on and off the record, will tell you there’s no plan to change this approach. They believe there is a growing market for both and that they have the resources to tackle that challenge—and still gain many of the efficiencies from the acquisition. In public, they were careful to show balance to both, with no favoritism to either platform. They also sold hard on the advantages of these solutions being built together.

Conventional wisdom says it’s really hard to do this. That same wisdom also says it’s something that private equity-backed firms rarely do. I’m willing to suspend disbelief because Saba is making progress and clearly has the trust of Vector Capital to swing big. They are making money and converting legacy customers into cloud customers, something other software companies who have been around as long as Saba aren’t always doing so great on.

This leads us to the epilogue of the user conference, Saba is acquiring Lumesse. I would’ve loved to gauge the reactions of attendees to that news—better luck next year.

Funny side story: At the analyst lunch, Saba President and CEO Phil Saunders was asked a direct question about whether more acquisitions were on the horizon—five days before the announcement. Let’s just say I’m not playing at his poker table next time we’re in Vegas.

Tangent aside, Lumesse has some pretty great technology that not many people in the North American market know about.

  1. Lumesse’s talent acquisition platform is very good. It gives Saba an easy in to international markets and a talent acquisition solution that is in line functionally with the rest of the platform. Talent acquisition is one of the hardest areas to internationalize (besides learning content) and Lumesse has given them a head start on this front.
  2. Lumesse’s learning experience is underrated. Aragon’s Jim Lundy covers this better than I could but in short, Saba bolsters their learning chops with this move—not to mention, again, that Lumesse is built for international markets. Learning content and technology are some of the hardest HCM solutions to get right from market to market.

Read some other great takes from Sarah Brennan, Ben Eubanks, Steve Brooks, and Michael Rochelle if you want to really take a deeper dive into this acquisition. Most of them see many of the same opportunities and challenges ahead.

Saba has had an amazing turn around in the last four years. Considering all of the disruption inside and out of Saba, that’s an accomplishment in its own right.

But history doesn’t dictate the future. Saba has to sell the market on a future vision and roadmap that goes beyond functional rollups, consolidation, customer acquisition, and increasing their international presence. Until that vision is clear, the market uses the vacuum to create its own assumptions.

On the other side of the Lumesse acquisition, we could be looking at a new talent management leader—or whatever you want to call the category. A company that can sneak into the largest enterprise talent management deals in the world—and win.

Other cloud HCM and talent management providers will have their own piece to say about that possibility. Certainly SAP SuccessFactors and Cornerstone OnDemand still lead the enterprise market in talent management, at least for the time being.

But this market isn’t set. Not by a long shot. While cloud giants battle each other and others worry about market pressure, private equity backing has one major advantage: The ability to focus.

I can’t wait to see what it eventually looks like.

My Posts

The Present of Work at #HRTechConf

Being a human resources leader can be a slog. I know this on an intimate level, but to be fair, I haven’t experienced it personally for nearly a decade. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with some of the best (and yes, worst) HR leaders in the world.

For all the scorn that HR gets from everyone, I end up speaking to a lot of leaders who give a shit about their people and their organizations. They relish their role, something I could never square up with my own ambitions. On the flip side, when you’ve seen a leader run an organization in the ground on the people front, you appreciate the good ones even more.

So, I had a little patience when a vendor confidentially told me that the people he talked to at the HR Technology Conference didn’t get what he was doing to change the future of work for good.

They Just Don’t Understand

This vendor rolled out trope I’ve heard thousands of times: That talent acquisition is too advanced for an HR conference, that even recruiting leaders outside of the most progressive have issues understanding their vision for the future, and that in a perfect world, recruiting would never have to exhibit at an HR conference ever again.

I paused. There were a few things to untangle there. And there’s a whole post on whether talent acquisition belongs in close alignment with the rest of the talent management function (they do, by the way).

Here’s was the crux of my concern about this whole line of thinking:

  1. They had to have HR on board with their solution: Even they told me this. They were imagining a future that didn’t exist, and probably won’t exist for at least a decade or more.
  2. They didn’t understand HR buyers: They assumed they were idiots, yet I knew of a number of CHRO’s that had accomplished much more complex projects in recruiting, workforce planning, alignment, and development than what they proposed. We’re talking multimillion dollar initiatives. Their teams were there in spades.
  3. If people don’t understand your solution, that’s your problem: Look, most of the people you’re talking to are college educated. They can understand words if you string them together the right way and we’re not talking about quantum string theory or the multiverse here.

But maybe the biggest aha moment I had was that he — along with many other folks I spoke to on the trade room floor—were actually too future-focused.

The Future of Work Doesn’t Address the Present

Forever — is composed of Nows —

—Emily Dickinson

While I haven’t always beaten the drum of the future of work, I’ve been as guilty as the next guy of talking it up when I have, usually for the sake of eyeballs.

And look, it’s a lot of fun to talk about the future of work — the same way it’s fun to talk about destinations that you want to visit at some point in your life. It’s a lot less fun to research plane tickets, hotels, excursions, and the like to make one of those dreams happen. Travel shows are escapism for people who long for exotic vacations the same way listening to the future of work is for talent leaders longing for an easier way to get their job done.

No matter where you are in the workplace technology ecosystem, anybody with real budget has to get shit done today. There’s a lot to get done, too. It can be compliance or productivity. It can be development or planning. It can be inclusion and culture. It can be managerial. It can be strategic. It can be tactical.

If you’ve plotted yourself too far ahead, it’s easy for organizations to say not yet. In fact, it’s probably the responsible thing to do. There are a lot of problems for organizations to fix. Where does your solution fit and why should they care? Even if your message is about the future, how do you stop the escapism and get them thinking about how this actually happens in the workplace of today.

It’s More Than Buzzword Hate

Buzzwords are so easy to diss on. But it goes beyond that. These buzzwords are often thrown out there with no context for how they work, why it’s better, and why it matters.

In some cases, it’s not simply a language problem—it’s a function problem. When you dig into some of these “all too advanced” innovations, you find something more akin to vaporware. An AI solution only takes you as far as its creator’s ambition and talent.

Most buyers have done enough to see through that charade and it becomes problematic for anyone who latches on to the hot buzzword of the year. That’s not just bad marketing but it’s damaging to your organization if you do have a solution that actually has promise to impact organizations today.

Own the Present of Work

When I see an industry zig, I want a brave soul to zag. There are a lot of companies out there chasing the dragon that is the future of work. I saw companies talking about 2025 or 2030, just like they talked about 2010 and 2000 in years past. I don’t think I saw anyone talking about 2020, which is good since that’s a little over a year away.

I’d love to see a company that’s rooted in today with solutions for today. Some of those may not be sexy, but they may actually fix issues that exist right now. Ignore all the future proofing bullshit, after all, there is still a large contingent of buyers with software hosted on-premise.

And they are happy with it.

(That’s pretty weird)

Anyway, I’d love to get some organizations up to 2018. If I’m being realistic, I’ll take even 2015. There’s a market there that would be way more appealing than being just another buzzword has-been. Fixing problems of the present? That never goes out of style.

My Posts

Glassdoor’s Acquisition by Recruit Holdings is the Best Possible Outcome for Everyone

I haven’t always been positive on Glassdoor. I feel like their review system is problematic and that they aren’t really part of the employer branding ecosystem they desire to be. They may be a great job board with an interesting value proposition but that was it.

After their last round of funding in 2016, I predicted that they would be acquired or go for an IPO within 18 months. Glassdoor talked openly about preparing for the seemingly inevitable IPO.

I was off by a few months but that IPO will very likely never happen. Barring regulatory approval, Glassdoor will become part of Japan-based Recruit Holdings. The same company that owns Austin-based Indeed will add Glassdoor to its expanding portfolio of companies.

No Doom, No Gloom

I’m bullish on this deal for Glassdoor. I never felt like an IPO was inevitable because, as any observer knows, IPOs are particularly painful and risky. The level of regulatory and financial scrutiny is probably a little uncomfortable to a company that is as notoriously private as Glassdoor has been. A failed or withdrawn IPO is monumentally bad and there’s no way to control the story.

On the other hand, an acquisition is a deal that’s limited to a few players and a small army of lawyers. If an acquisition falls through, most will go unnoticed if they get out at all.

Rather than answering to shareholders who demand quarterly YOY growth, Glassdoor will be answering to Recruit Holdings. While growth is expected, they will be looking for long-term growth rather than the myopic, Wall Street version of short-term results.

Look to Indeed

One need to look no further than Indeed to see what Recruit Holding’s hands off approach can do. Indeed’s annual revenue is now eclipsing their acquisition price in 2012 (somewhere around a billion dollars). They’ve become one of the dominant brands in talent acquisition under their wing and they’ve vanquished the once powerhouses.

Indeed was even a bigger success story because they were largely bootstrapped before the acquisition. Glassdoor on the other hand took on about $200 million in venture funding.

None of that matters after the acquisition closes.

I expect Glassdoor to be around for a long time but I could see their business model shift. Maybe they lead more with the job board component. Maybe they make some technology acquisitions that gets them beyond reputation management.

These decisions will come deliberately, even if they involve some short-term growth challenges. That’s the beauty of answering to a conglomerate and not (direct) shareholders.

The Price is Right

The price of $1.2 billion (all cash) is probably right on the money, which is why this deal got done so quietly. It’s a good value for Recruit Holdings (Glassdoor was valued at around $860M-$1B after their last round of funding in 2016). Glassdoor investors likely get their piece and get a unicorn exit in their portfolios.

Was there a better time to do this for Glassdoor? Maybe. I don’t think they could’ve got this deal done in 2016 and their round of funding was clearly to buy time. Only Glassdoor knows if they could’ve done better but my guess is they couldn’t do it better by much.

What’s more exciting is getting more insight into the business and its workings. Recruit Holdings is a public company and the wealth of information on Indeed and its growth has been helpful in assessing the market. Seeing where Glassdoor fits in will be another useful piece of information for market observers and will ultimately tell us if Recruit Holdings made the right bet here.

My Posts

It’s Okay to Kill Your Company Culture, Especially if it Sucks

The title of this post may sound like the most obvious advice in the world.

In the land of employment branding and Silicon Valley startups, it’s not.

The party is over for Zenefits. Once the golden child of the HR technology scene with a funding round that valued them at $4.5 billion, they are on the wrong side of the roller coaster right now. They sacked their founder and CEO, laid off 17 percent of their workforce, and the fun’s not over yet. They’ll likely still have to pay massive fines for alleged compliance failures and see their workforce depleted and turned over.

Founder and former CEO Parker Conrad’s ouster has been in the cards since that massive funding round closed, though. Conrad’s inexperience in scaling and operating a company in a highly-regulated industry like insurance felt doomed to fail. Venture capitalists don’t like to see their investments get pissed away, either. I assumed he’d be out within a year and that Zenefits would be better off for it.

I might still be right about the latter point but it’s going to take awhile to clean up the mess made by Conrad and his cronies. New CEO David Sacks has a lot of work to do and the first thing he is doing is rewriting Zenefits’ culture.

Entertainingly enough, this is a move that’s not universally applauded. Grumblings of anonymous Zenefits employees have made their way to a few news stories and comment sections as the company has attempted to curb office drinking and sex in the stairways (for reals). Even as Zenefits tries to fix the issues from their alleged institutionalized cheating and reinvent a culture on the fly, some worry they will lose their mojo and bleed talent in a very competitive Silicon Valley.

They say that like it’s a bad thing.

Zenefits has moved so far off the reservation, it might take a complete employee turnover cycle to turn the company around. If you loved the day drinking, (alleged) cheating, reported compliance miscues, and using manual data entry as a way to overcome lacking technology, you probably won’t love a compliance-focused company that needs to improve their offerings make its investors happy before it blows through all that dough they gave them.

As part of my job, I do a lot of discovery and research to learn what makes an organization tick. It’s not in my nature to do value judgments on culture. There’s a lot of companies I wouldn’t work for that make for good clients, do great work, and are otherwise outstanding.

But Zenefits’ culture sucked. Its recklessness was destined to fail in an industry where precision and compliance are table stakes. While the tech press lapped up stories about disruptive HR technology, they failed to take a critical look under the hood to catch any red flags.

It’s safe to say the company won’t get that benefit for a long time. And it’s hard to see a path forward that doesn’t look bad, at least in the short term.

Of course, it’s easy to play the hindsight game but I’ve been down on Zenefits for a long time. The agency I work for had a scathing post that was written right after their funding round closed. I’ve heard too many stories from former Zenefits clients about their shoddy work. Meanwhile, everyone else was losing their shit over how Zenefits was going to make HR obsolete.

This isn’t to highlight that I’m brilliant. You already knew that (I kid, of course).

Shaking up Zenefits is the right thing to do. Killing their crappy company culture was step number one of 546 to get on track.

The moves from Zenefits and their new CEO so far gives me more confidence in the company going forward. Who knows if Zenefits will eventually become a bust? A lot of things have to go right in any case to make back that sort of investment. But, one less failure point can’t be bad, right?

My Posts

Is HR Technology A Boring Story?

TechCrunch got some serious flak for their reporting of the acquisition of SuccessFactors by enterprise giant SAP with a despondent and bored tone.

The truth of the matter is that the comings and goings of the entire enterprise software industry is boring. I love technology and I love HR but even I know most people probably aren’t fascinated by this acquisition.

Now being interesting and being important can be (and often are) two separate things. Outside of the CIOs, CHROs, HRIS pros, industry consultants and analysts and the employees and clients of these companies, there is only a modicum of interest. Again, lack of interest doesn’t mean it is unimportant. SAP is a giant and this transaction will only broaden their reach.

Of course, the problem many people had with the TechCrunch story was the over-editorializing of a really important story by the author. That she dissed on an important story by saying it was boring. I get it.

Editorializing on a story can be great, though. Especially if you’re not the one breaking the story, adding analysis, quotes from experts or finding a different angle than anyone else can be an important piece that will make your story stand out from a simple, factual brief. Certainly, TechCrunch took that approach to the extreme and it was rewarded with a rash of tweets (over 600 at the time of this writing). Not too shabby for the most boring story EVAR.

You can’t go to the well too often on that though. If everything is boring, or new, or extreme, or the best, or the next ____, all of your stories can start to blend together. Eventually, they lose their punch in any extreme. Not every story can be spun, sometimes news is news is news. And knowing when to go off the deep end really go at a story and when to avoid it makes sure that the stories you do invest in beyond reporting really do count.

This is news that TechCrunch probably couldn’t afford not to report but isn’t in their wheelhouse. TechCrunch isn’t above simply reporting the latest tech news. They often do so with very little editorializing.

That probably would’ve been the best option here. Then again, would anyone in our niche be linking to or responding to the TechCrunch story on this acquisition if they hadn’t?