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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Shawn Farshchi, CEO of Saba Software


Shawn Farshchi is CEO of Saba Software, a provider of learning and HR software. Shawn has over 30 years' experience leading, driving and managing technological, organisational and cultural change across many different business environments. Before joining Saba, he was COO for IBM subsidiary Coremetrics.

1. How are the expectations of the client evolving when it comes to HR software?

The world of work is moving faster than ever. New market opportunities open and close at breakneck speed, new competitors emerge overnight, product lifecycles are getting shorter and customers are more sophisticated. To embrace and thrive in this environment, companies need to achieve organisational agility to help transition the workforce to the optimal operating shape and then be ready to change again.

With that as the back drop, senior management is looking more to their HR department to champion and facilitate this new agile state. So previously where HR departments were more reactive to change and focused on providing data which was reflected in the ‘transactional’ systems they used, they now need to adopt new systems. Today, everyone in the workforce, especially younger generations of workers, have a completely different expectation about the technology used at work. We expect enterprise systems to be as intuitive and engaging as Facebook, with the ability to create and share content like we can on YouTube and be able to do all of it from our smartphone or tablet, anywhere and at anytime. This is forcing HR not only to focus on transactions and processes, but also to provide an engaging, collaborative set of solutions to help their workforce improve their own productivity and have better control over their own professional development.

Today we see an increasing requirement from HR for software not only to manage and develop talent, but also to provide an environment which supports the emerging collaborative and social way of working for a diverse, multigenerational and geographically spread workforce.

2. To what extent are companies becoming more ‘social’ and how does this affect staff engagement?

People are naturally social. It is only the rigid organisational structure of companies that in the past created artificial barriers between their employees, creating silos and discouraging cross functional interaction. Today in their personal lives, employees are using and relying on social technology to find out information, seek services, gain recommendations and expand their network of connections and influence to great effect. Unofficially this is spreading into their role as an employee. Research conducted by the likes of PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM indicates that senior management want their employees to become more ‘engaged’ in the business and that social technology is a means to increase this level of engagement in the business and with their customers.

Today there is hard evidence supplied by companies such as McKinsey who in their 2013 annual survey on social technologies show that social technologies can improve productivity by between 20-25% through better access to data, faster responses and collaboration, which results in improved customer service and ultimately increased revenue. Such evidence is hard to refute and ignore.

3. How will the recent acquisitions of Taleo by Oracle, Kenexa by IBM, MindLeaders by Skillsoft, affect the future HR/tech landscape?

The HR technology sector is becoming increasingly attractive to investors. Why? Companies have realised and are now looking at how they can better engage their employees particularly with talent management and social applications. It is therefore not surprising that large ERP companies who have previously specialised on the transactional and data aspects of business automation, are now looking to augment and extend their reach into this attractive sector through acquisition of specialist technology and application providers in the Talent Management sector. Such activity generally limits the market in a number of areas. Your choice may be limited by the ERP system you have already deployed and so you are ‘advised’ to adopt the system acquired by that ERP supplier. On acquisition, the investment and focus made by stand alone vendors is invariably reduced or diverted with the talent management application becoming ‘yet another module’ in the ERP stack, which limits development and innovation.

At Saba we firmly believe that there is a new generation of talent management solutions that are more social, mobile, intelligent and people-centric and that independent vendors will be at the forefront of this next wave of innovation. These vendors will be in a position to reimagine and reinvent traditional HR and talent processes from the ground up with social and collaboration technologies and possibly displace legacy solutions.

4. Recent trends in HR software include the transition from off-the-shelf to cloud-based solutions. What will be the next big advance?

There have clearly been some major advances in the development and application of HR software due to cloud computing, the internet and the rise of social applications. Big Data and machine learning technology will be the next big wave of innovation in the HR software market. Social analytics combined with machine learning capabilities will provide the ability for systems to become smarter about their users to provide a more compelling, personalized and engaging experience. As is often the case the adoption of emerging technology provides new opportunities to analyse and interpret resulting information to gain even greater insight into how organisations and their employees operate and perform.

Therefore we see an increasing requirement for more versatile analytical functionality to make sense of all this news data. We see the ability with Big Data technology to begin to combine HR and people data with business data. With this advance we will begin to understand the true business impacts of HR and training programs on the top and bottom line.

5. What’s the appetite for uptake of HR software at the moment? What barriers are potential customers experiencing?

The appetite is strong however the confidence or the power to act is sometimes the most limiting factor. There has never been a clearer case for HR to drive the requirement for a new approach in engaging employees or stronger evidence to reinforce the business case for the investment in HR applications. In many cases the obstacles originate from HR’s position or the perception it has in the business and the traditional relationship it has with the IT department. With cloud-based technology, applications can be activated and deployed with the minimum of IT involvement or resource. This is especially true when applied to smaller projects aimed at proving the business case against a single requirement in the knowledge that the software can expand to accommodate a wider cross-company brief.

6. What are the main disruptive technologies either at the heart of HR software at the moment or on their way in?

Cloud, social, and collaboration technologies are fundamentally transforming HR and Learning processes and we have only begun to see the impact of these technologies. These types of disruptive technologies enable different types of capabilities such as PQ scores (Personal Quotient) which can supplement traditional performance reviews for measuring employee performance and effectiveness as well as measure employee engagement.

Additionally, social rewards like badges and feedback help to increase engagement, social analytics like Dynamic Network Analysis and Intelligent recommendations based on machine learning drive a more personalized experience for end users.

Mobile is also a significant disruptive technology that is changing how users learn and conduct HR transactions. The ability for employees to consume and interrogate data, as well as interact with each other whether on or offline, provides companies with even greater and more consistent access to their employees as well as partners and customers. This is changing the way companies are structured and the way they interact and manage their people.

7. There have been major advances in the efficiency and functionality of HR software. Does this affect the need for qualified HR personnel in organisations?

HR software can never replace the skills of a true HR professional, but it can support them in their role. Increasingly organizations are looking for HR and learning professionals that have line of business backgrounds and stronger business analysis skills. HR software has automated and streamlined processes to remove much of the administrative needs that used to be handled by HR professionals.

However we are moving from ‘automation to innovation’ and with these advances in HR software HR needs a change in the skills and qualifications to take advantage of this new functionality. To begin with, HR must become more aware of how the business operates and where such technology can be applied to boost performance or competitive advantage.

In addition to understanding and being able to identify and develop the skills required to get the job done, HR needs to understand how the work is completed and the necessary cultural changes an organisation needs to go through to encourage and promote new working practices and employees types.

8. With the move to cloud-based, integrated suites, how hard is it for you to develop products that meet the needs of small, mid-market and enterprise organisations?

Cloud-based applications provide an ideal platform to supply solutions that are functionally rich and scalable to meet the diverse and heavy duty requirements of a large complex enterprise. By their nature they can be easily configured to meet the needs of both enterprise and smaller organisations using the same platform and so truly one size can fit all. Being cloud based means that develop cycles for new functionality are dramatically reduced with typical releases that add more and more functionality seamlessly released on a monthly basis.

As with most software applications, functionality is only one aspect of a successful deployment. At Saba we have developed the concept of ‘adoption accelerators’ whose job it is to help organisations identify and adopt best practice in the use of the application to solve problems. So looking at an example with the Saba Cloud, it can be deployed as a simple Learning Management System to deliver a program of formal training for compliance and skills development. Then with a quick configuration change possible by any administrator, the social functionality of the product can be activated to introduce activity streams and a more social based learning experience. This means that the product will expand and accommodate new and different working practices at the speed the organisation wants to evolve.

The last factor in terms of scalability and the ability to meet the needs of all sizes of organisations, is the ability to have an open and extensible platform with a rich set of web services API’s that help the customer, the vendor or partners to build scalable, extensible and upgradable integrations and functionality extensions to meet their needs.

One Response

  1. Great interview

    Very insightful.   Thank Shawn!

    I think one of the main shifts we’re seeing recently is one toward direct performance support software, and less of a focus on traditional training.  Is the classroom dead? Of course not.  But learning is definitely more distributed than ever before.


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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

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