Ten Minutes with Naomi Bloom - Industry Expert

Naomi Bloom is the leading independent voice, strategy consultant, analyst and thought leader throughout the HR technology/HRO/ HRM delivery system industry, specializing in the application of HR technology and innovative service delivery models to achieve breakthroughs in organizational business outcomes. She shares with us her perspective on the state of the industry, the launch of her new blog and tips for successful project management.

My first job following graduation from Penn was as a computer programmer trainee at John Hancock Life Insurance, but from day one I was more interested in the business problem we were trying to solve than I was in writing the code.


You are considered the leading independent analyst in the HR technology and HRO industries.  Tell me about your career and why you decided to focus in these areas.

In that era we were automating in-place. We weren't reengineering, redesigning, or rethinking. When I got to Polaroid in its heyday, I was responsible for all of the automated support to payroll and for the payroll department, and it was an eye opener. I began to really understand that if we were going to make effective use of computers, somebody had to understand the business, and then automate it well, not just in-place. I spent five years in Boston, getting my MBA the hard way going nights to BU, while working in several then-called EDP jobs. Two of those years were spent at Polaroid trying out some of my ideas about a better way of doing business. That was also the place where I first had the "aha moment" that people data was the connection between what were then two separate departments, personnel and payroll. 

In 1972, I earned my MBA, got married and relocated to the Silicon Valley.  While in California, I spent two years working at a behavioral science research firm in the hills behind Stanford, the American Institutes for Research. I was the head of scientific computing for that office and, because the focus was social science, we did a lot of research about people. That led to a second "aha moment": people played multiple concurrent roles with respect to their personal lives, their educational lives, and their work lives, and we needed to be able to recognize those separate roles in the related information systems. 

We left Silicon Valley in 1977 and moved east so that my husband could pursue his PhD at George Washington in DC.  I spent the next nine years at the most amazing firm: American Management Systems (AMS). I worked on some huge custom software projects, learned from a lot of incredibly smart and driven people, and built up my software lifecycle, project management and consulting skills. More importantly, I was finally in a place where everyone agreed that we had to bring analytical and methodological rigor to business systems analysis. And because I had had experience in payroll and personnel systems, I found myself on point whenever we had opportunities in that domain.

In 1984 I wrote an article for Computerworld about writing less code, and I talked about tools that didn't exist at that time but do now. One core idea was let's not automate in-place, let's rethink. That article got a lot of positive critical reaction from the larger world, but inside of AMS there was some discomfort because I wanted to take my message outward and make myself quite visible. Today we would call this personal branding, but in 1986, it was not quite the thing. I also wanted to pursue private sector HR systems work at a time when AMS was very focused on having me build my Federal practice.  In 1986 I left AMS and soon hung out a shingle.

I've been a solo ever since, and I've had a consistent vision of what I wanted to accomplish. I felt that if we used technology well, we could improve fundamentally the practice of Human Resource Management (HRM). I developed a strategic Human Resource Management Delivery Systems (HRMS) planning methodology with "starter kits" for all of the critical tasks. I did projects with Alcoa, Bank of America, International Paper, Hewlett Packard and lots of other major corporations, proving the methodology and expanding the "starter kits".  One set of "starter kits" evolved to become a saleable product, a HRM Business Model "Starter Kit," that has since been licensed to many HRM software and BPO vendors as a key input to their software object models and application architectures and to their outsourcing service delivery models.

Over the years there have been some fundamental and very substantial changes in the way that HRM software is designed and from a business perspective, what it can do. However, my mission remains the same: to improve the practice of human resource management by using Information Technology in the broadest sense. We are making progress, but to make more progress faster we need an HR community that is more technology literate, more analytical, more knowledgeable about the systems lifecycle, more rigorous in their project management work habits, and more able and willing to rethink what they do and why they do it. They also need to be more willing to take the heat to get to standardization where there's no competitive advantage to difference, and by the same token, to be articulate about the need for uniqueness in their data and processes where it produces competitive advantage.

The technologies that are available today are more than capable of doing the things I would like to do, but you have to have customers who want to go there, understand why they need to go there, are able to make and defend a robust business case for going there, and can take their technology partners by the arm to get there.

I know you have a programming background and deep software expertise. What flaws do you see in most vendor offerings?

I would say there are three major areas of difficulty in software development today. One is that we are carrying around the past. Because of the installed base that many vendors have, it's hard to get rid of that. And here we're talking about data designs that can be traced to the very earliest HRM packages. The second problem is that the people doing the software are stuck with old concepts in their heads and that makes it hard for them to envision new ways of doing things. The third problem is that when we bring in younger talent, we make little provision for them to learn from the errors of the past, and each new generation makes many of the same mistakes that we did.

It is hard to produce contemporary, breakthrough approaches to the business of Human Resource Management. For example, I had someone say the other day "payroll is always a batch process." Payroll is a batch process because, when my ancestors were building the pyramids, they lined up at the end of the day for a ration of food and were processed as a batch. Why does payroll have to be a batch process? Why can't I say I'd like to be paid on Thursday, because that's when I have my bills due? There's no reason. Of course, there are regulatory expectations. For example, in California, I recall that employees must be paid no more than two weeks from the last day of the period for which they are being paid, but there is a lot of wiggle room in there. I could pay people every day of the week. I could issue a card that gets inserted into a device that adds their money for the day. You can't even think about stuff like that if you can't get out of your own way.

Why did you decide to become an expert in HRO as well?

In the early years of my solo practice, I would invest time and energy in my intellectual property and then go out and do end-user strategic HRM delivery systems planning projects. After a few years, it became obvious that I could be doing these projects until I turned blue, but I couldn't make major progress on my primary mission because of two large obstacles.

I could never do enough projects as a solo to educate the HR community and more importantly, every time we went to look at software, it was so bad compared to what we wanted that it was discouraging. So I shifted my focus to work with the software vendors.

I have worked with many of them, including the ERPs like Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, and Workday; many pure HRMSs like Meta4 and Ultimate, a lot of talent management vendors, and with lots of folks in companies that don't exist anymore. When General Atlantic started getting involved in putting investments into our space in the late 90's, they used me as an expert resource with a number of their portfolio companies including the formation of Exult, arguably the firm that popularized comprehensive HRM BPO.

I got very enthusiastic about comprehensive HRM BPO because it was clear to me that the investments that would be needed (financial, project management, subject matter expertise, etc.) to achieve an Amazon-like experience in the HRM delivery system was not an investment that even large organizations should be making for themselves. And off-the-shelf software just doesn't do all of it.

When you buy HRM software, the vast majority of it sits there and stares at you. If I don't know how to make a good hire decision, automated onboarding doesn't help much if I 'm onboarding the wrong person. If I don't have well-designed compensation and benefit plans, the fact that we can administer them brilliantly is not a whole lot of help. While there are certainly exceptions, particularly among the talent management vendors who go deep in specific processes as well as add-ons that provide further content, like competency models, self service without a ton of embedded intelligence is mostly data-entry. And embedded intelligence is not something the primary ERP/HRMS/TM vendors do. That was the hope of BPO. That there would be sufficient scale for the BPO firms to invest in great self service and in many other areas because it was in their economic interests to do so. With Amazon-like self service, there are no call centers to sustain or offshore. Even with great HRM software, people still have to do all the things that software doesn't do, which is plenty. Hence my initial take on the business case for BPO.

Further to the business case for BPO, the focus of corporate IT shops is on total cost of IT ownership. The focus of business people is on the total cost of service delivery, which includes the people, process and technology costs. Even more so is the focus of business people on the total cost of achieving their business outcomes - not just delivering some internal function, but actually meeting the goals of the company. I thought that BPO providers would have the right incentives because they have to pay not just the total cost of ownership of the technology they use, but they have to pay the total cost of service delivery. So the more they could automate and have self-service, the better off they would be. It was a good idea, but most of the BPO providers have really struggled to get there, in part because too many of them started with a flawed business model. "Lift and shift" or "your mess for less" is not a path to sustainable profits for the providers or excellent business outcomes for their customers.

What does the future hold for you?

We are on our eighth generation of business applications software architecture, and we might even be getting into the ninth in terms of the impact of social technology. Keeping up with all of this, not to mention keeping up with the parallel changes in HRM as well as with the HR technology and HRO competitive landscape, is not for the faint of heart. For every hour of billable time I spend with a client (and I limit that to 900-1,000 hours per year), I spend two to three hours of non-billable time on professional and business development. You can't put yourself forward as any kind of expert if you're not willing to make that investment and there's no question that the pace of change and knowledge growth is daunting.

There's no way to do what I do to the standards I set for myself on a part time basis. I'd still have to do just as much professional and personal development, but spread that investment across fewer billable hours, and the economics just don't work. I think what the future holds for me is a clean break when the time comes. I'll turn off my LinkedIn account, hold one last Brazen Hussies farewell party, commit mayhem on Bill Kutik's analyst panel at that year's HR Technology conference, Twitter my goodbyes, and be done.  But that moment hasn't arrived yet - I still have passion for this work - and there's still a lot of work to be done before we can declare victory.

Between now and then, I'm launching a blog this summer called In Full Bloom. I'm calling it In Full Bloom because I intend to use this as a vehicle for offering my views without the restraints, however gentle, of appearing in someone else's publication. And as I slip my tent, and have more time to pursue my many other interests, the blog will be a means of communicating with my far flung circle of colleagues, friends and family. So I'll start with the obvious topics around HRM, HR technology, HRO, the HRM delivery system etc., introduce the odd entry on our travels and my painting/writing, and then just shift the balance of topics on the blog to mirror what will be going on in my life.

As far as other things in the future, I will be the closing keynote speaker at the HR Technology Conference in the fall, which is an opportunity I really value. We also have some exciting travel plans coming up over the next few years. We'll return to South America, to the Amazon and Ecuador, and we're making plans for seeing more of the Mediterranean coast. We are also avid coaster cruisers, we'll be looking for our next boat once this rotten economy improves.

You've worked as a change agent and process coach for major corporations. What are some project and time management secrets you can share with our readers?

Be meticulous about project plans, write project charters, get everything blocked out on the calendar (including approval cycles), and create formal work plans. I use Palm software to manage all my projects, and I have a completely integrated project management setup so that everything from my personal life, to travel, healthcare, client projects, speaking engagements, writing commitments are on the list.

One of the things at the top of the list is making time with friends and family. Right now we are laying out 2010 with family visits, personal travel, time for major conferences, etc. If you don't put time with family and friends on your calendar, we really busy road warrior people won't ever get to see them. Another thing I try to do is to have an orderly office. By the end of any given day my desk looks like an archeological dig, but before I go to bed, I try to bring some order to the piles.

I've recently been introduced to Twitter and I love it. It's an easier way to make connections and it is real time, intimate and brief. You can be selective in who you want to follow on Twitter, and I've chosen to follow the absolute smartest people in areas of interest to me. I'm interested in technology, the subject matter of human resource management, and the specifics and vendors of HR technology and HR outsourcing. I have a circle of people I follow and through this method have magnified my own learning twenty-fold. Twitter also allows you to carry on an ongoing conversation with people you really like but never get to see, but you've also got to beware the Twitter pit - time spent listening in to conversations that don't matter between people about whom you don't care.

Reflecting on your question about time management, the biggest challenge of today's always on, always connected world is finding time to think, time just to stare at a beautiful landscape and contemplate the HRM object model or a BPO strategy issue.  An important part of my job is to take the uninterrupted time to think about their issues and opportunities that so many of my executive clients simply don't have. And I'm blessed indeed to be able to spend that time in such a beautiful setting.

Devon Group in USA Today

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