By: | September 26, 2019 • 6 min read

Some of you may know I spent two weeks of September on an expedition cruise to the coast and islands of Arctic Siberia. Got aboard in Nome, Alaska, took a left turn around the northeast corner of Russia and Asia (one side of the Bering Straits) and then to Wrangel Island and two others.

At the end, I loved getting off the boat in Nome and, in one day, taking three flights to Anchorage, Seattle and, finally, Las Vegas to attend the annual SuccessConnect Analyst Day and user conference. Arriving in Vegas for the first time ever with a checked bag—and this one full of fleece layers and mittens—plus my blazer!

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There I discovered—less fun than seeing an “ugly” of 200 walruses hauled out on a beach—that constant surveys were being extended to HCM. You’ve noticed it as a consumer: After every business transaction—directly with a store/hotel/ship, over the telephone with an airline/insurer/public utility/pharmacy-benefit manager and certainly online—you get surveyed immediately or a day later via e-mail. We’re becoming Survey Nation.

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I admit being spoiled after 30 years of being paid for my opinions making me feel a little put out being asked them for free. How do you feel about this avalanche of surveys? Annoyed? Happy to help improve the business you deal with? I only respond when I have something really negative to tell the company and delight in whining about their institutional failures or a particular clerk or CSR. But also respond when absolutely delighted, which happens whenever someone actually goes the extra mile to the job right!

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Now with the $8 billion acquisition of Qualtrics, SAP SuccessFactors HCM suite has already started doing that with employees and managers: surveying them after many transactions. Call them pulse surveys or whatever you want. A handful of functional integrations are now available as part of the larger project called “UX Reimagine,” of course meaning user experience. SAP Executive Board member Jen Morgan challenged Amy Wilson, head of products and applications development, and the team to go bigger, get more passionate and fundamentally change how HR approaches technology.

New projects don’t happen at SAP without the support of an executive board member, especially when she is the head of all cloud applications—Concur, Fieldglass, Ariba—plus Customer Experience. Amy’s team responded by branding it as a new “HXM” layer, which parses out to mean “Human Experience Management.” Not to replace HCM or “Human Capital Management,” but to double down and try to lead the market currently laser-focused on the importance of the “Employee Experience.”

Ever since that started trending, I’ve been wanting to point out that for at least the 30 years I’ve known him, one HR tech pioneer in his managerial actions, perhaps not at first in his software, always put employees above customers. His reasoning was if you treat them well, they will create delighted customers. Guess the Co-founder of PeopleSoft and Workday Dave Duffield was onto something early. Now he’s started his sixth company—Ridgeline for financial advisory firm software—near his home on Lake Tahoe, where he was supposed to retire. At least twice!

SAP SuccessFactors likes to talk about “O Data,” which is operating data coming from its existing suite. As compared to “X Data,” experience or sentiment data gathered by Qualtrics functionality. VP of Product Management Sam Passman says the best available example combining the two is a module called “Employee Lifecycle,” which for now covers onboarding and offboarding.

Understandably, integration is still a work in progress. Users can call up Qualtrics’ question templates (created and vetted by the company’s 50 OD people), pick what they want, distribute the survey and receive the results all from within their SuccessFactors applications. But to get access to Qualtrics’ full range of analytics, not to mention some impressive graphical representations, for the moment they have to switch to that software.

It’s well worth the small trouble because Qualtrics also offers real-world advice—called “Guided Action Planning”—on what the data suggest you should do! From interpersonal suggestions like have more routine 1:1’s with employees, for example, or help new hires connect early on with mentors. Plus written material (learning!) based on the survey results and data: e-books, white papers and TED Talks relevant to the subject. It assumes the user is more or less clueless—always a safe starting point.

If the survey allows free-form text, Qualtrics can at least categorize the words, assigning them to topics, and will create word clouds from them. Altogether, they can support business outcomes and even prove their ROI, which is the point.

Three other modules are available now (all sold separately) with lots more planned for the next two years. Engagement Survey allows the typical, once-a-year questioning of employees. Pulse Surveys offer three more, presumably once a quarter. (Getting employee data into Qualtrics is a delivered integration, not a separately priced module).

Benefits Optimizer is really interesting: getting employee sentiment on their preferences between benefits and cash compensation. It’s a big-picture tool right now, but could eventually lead to personalized comp plans at scale. The mind boggles at the thought of that after decades of HR’s dedication to treating everyone the same through compa-ratios, mid-points, etc.

If customers use SuccessFactor’s career-site builder (formerly jobs2web functionality), they can embed Qualtrics in the first part of the candidate experience: poking around on the site, which is particularly useful when they don’t apply. First half of next year, they can discover what the candidate experience was actually like applying. Usually awful, but ATS results do vary.

Obviously, the future of gathering sentiment data, historically tied to surveys, will lead to listening and reading systems. While that may feel creepy when it comes to e-mail, remember your agreement for Gmail allows Google to read yours already. Not to mention, your company, which owns your e-mail. And forget about the NSA, which wasn’t even polite enough to bury it in a 20-page softer user agreement!

Amy and President Greg Tomb say all the latest technology components—AI, machine learning for nudges or reminders, robotic-process automation, conversational AI—will be leveraged for the larger project of UX Reimagine, which includes rearchitecting and redesigning the system. The second got an enormous boost when Scott Lietzke, Workday’s former creative director (UI designer and leader of many other design projects there), joined the company in October 2018, and now has 50 people rolling up to him. Since 1998, I’ve seen SAP ballyhoo at least six new user interfaces, and it’s clear the latest, Fiori, is falling out of favor. So, look to Scott to make a big difference.

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Survey Nation is fine with me, so long as the businesses act on the responses. Tech won’t make them do that. And with the sentiment now coming from employees—rather than random, crotchety customers like me—SAP SF could grab the market lead in employee experience. I told the expedition leader in Siberia the Zodiacs should have gotten us closer to the walruses. He replied the one time, they did, all of them jumped in the water. So just having a sentiment doesn’t make it right!

For more, read Stacie Garr of Red Thread Research, who also attended the conference, and Phil Wainright of Diginomica, who didn’t.

HR technology columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, is at the HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Las Vegas, Oct. 1-4, 2019.

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