By Us, For Us: How HR Can Actually Create Software Solutions to Solve Unique Challenges

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May 14, 2020

We live in a largely digital and mobile world—one in which job postings almost always occur online, networking happens in the context of social media, and many candidates prefer to search for jobs on their smartphones and tablets. Even employee onboarding can be almost entirely managed using online platforms. In fact, with the enforced work from home situation brought on by COVID-19, all these things MUST be done remotely these days.

At the same time, HR professionals have assumed a broader role and more responsibilities. Not only must they contend with shifting trends like ensuring the right cultural fit to developing initiatives that improve diversity and inclusion, but they must also foster the productivity and happiness of their organization’s talent.

And while the roles of HR continue to evolve and grow, the available range of not only HR-specific software expands rapidly but also software technologies in general, some of which can significantly impact an organization’s productivity and engagement more broadly.

The freedom to create

In a groundbreaking research paper, Chris Marsh of 451Research coined the term “WorkOps” to describe his vision of the future of work and the emerging software segments that are enabling it. In his view:

The local expression of WorkOps will be TeamOps – the agility of teams empowered with the freedom to design and create new work processes at the local level that will unlock new ways of organizing resources across the company.

This ‘freedom to create’ not only empowers individuals and teams to chart new, more productive ways of doing things, but it intrinsically nurtures a more engaged and happier stakeholder base. Visual programming, or no-code development, platforms that democratize software development and empower ‘citizen developers’ to create their own solutions for their own processes, is a key emerging software segment driving WorkOps forward today.

The HR solution challenge

Stepping back and thinking specifically about the HR department’s internal use, traditional ‘point solution’ software tools can automate processes well, but they often lack the flexibility or customization capabilities to add specific features or manage specific processes that may be unique to your organization. Moreover, with so many options to choose from, how can an HR professional select the right mix of apps and tools to address the changing demands of internal teams?

Josh Bersin of Deloitte Consulting puts a fine point on it, seeing it as one of HR’s core challenges:

The big topic in business today is productivity. We are now working in agile, team-centric organizations, and we are overwhelmed with too much to do. Burnout, focus, and employee engagement are all issues… Can we build HR software that really improves productivity and helps teams work better together? That’s the next challenge.

In our increasingly data- and analytics-driven world, the most effective HR teams will be those who can harness the data available to them, analyze it, and use it to their advantage. Take people data, for example. It’s a growing and valuable resource for HR teams, but it’s just data unless you have the tools and methods to analyze it truly and effectively. Many HR professionals still organize this data in unwieldy spreadsheets and adapt spreadsheet tools to make sense of it, report it, and share it. Not ideal.

You may be thinking: “No problem, we’ll ask IT to develop a custom app for us.” But most in-house IT teams are already overwhelmed with a long backlog of projects, and paying for external IT consultants can be very costly and time-consuming. Of course, you could purchase that expensive bells and whistles -loaded sprawling HR software system — but you might end up using only ten percent of the features.

Value to the whole organization

As Josh Bersin implies above, though, this is not just about software for the HR department themselves, but software generally that helps teams work better together, be more productive, and encourage employee engagement. The dynamic described above in the HR department is often similar in other departments as well.

And progressive organizations understand this and are deploying these visual programming platforms not only to improve the agility and productivity of the organization but also to make the organization more attractive to top talent. Because having such a platform and giving employees the power to create their own solutions to optimally manage their work and processes gives top talent the creativity and control they desire.

Even IT leaders at leading organizations understand the positive impact of this emerging technology. GE’s CIO recently called citizen development “the most transformative concept that is going to happen in IT over the next several years.” 

But can non-IT teams really develop their own software?

This may surprise you: HR pros and anyone else with zero IT background can easily develop software to address specific needs or even run their entire department. Don’t worry—no one needs to sign up for a coding bootcamp! If you’ve ever used tools like Squarespace and MailChimp, you’re already familiar with the basic skills needed to create software. By using these drag-and-drop visual programming techniques, anyone can create sophisticated interfaces and functionalities. Here’s how you (or your team) can get started on the road to becoming a non-technical citizen developer.

1. Tackle a simple problem with definable outcomes

First, identify the tinkerers and problem-solvers in your department. Often, they’re the ones who have already introduced others to new tech and apps — the so-called “shadow IT.” Encourage them to think about their daily tasks and workflows; how could a cloud-based automation platform boost their productivity and accelerate those processes? Maybe there’s an annoying spreadsheet process that could be improved. Or a simple team task dashboard they’ve wanted to build. Get team members started with small projects that build confidence as they work towards solving bigger problems.

2. Build a prototype

Visual programming tools are great for rapid prototyping because they let you experiment freely without fear of breaking anything. You can quickly assemble a data model, interface, dashboards, and custom processes—all just by dragging, dropping, and connecting pre-built modules. Initially, developing a custom application is a process of trial and error. Build out a prototype, show it to the team, and then improve it, bit by bit. The beauty of these visual programming platforms is that updates can be made instantly while the team members are engaged in the review process.

3. Leverage product support and user communities

There are tons of online resources to help you learn, such as training videos, webinars, online communities, and user conferences. Be sure to watch those training videos as you build out your first app—they’ll be a huge help. And when you have questions, tap the vendor community for answers. One of the most important tools for a budding visual programmer is connecting with birds of a feather—these online communities are full of companies, non-profits, and individuals who have built amazing applications and love to share how they did it. Don’t hesitate to get in the mix.

Of course, developing custom solutions to manage workflows, data, and collaboration takes time—but then again, it will save time down the road because these solutions are easy to update, reusable, and expandable. The best way to get started with visual programming is to think agile and just begin and then iterate along the way.

Pretty soon, your organization will be among the ranks of today’s emerging companies that are transforming their operations and workplaces by empowering a new revolutionary army of citizen developers who are more engaged, more productive, and happier.

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