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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Land of the Morning Calm: Tips on implementing a global HRIS in Korea

Last year when I spent several days in Shanghai gathering the requirements for a client as part of an HRIS evaluation exercise, I realized this was the easternmost place on Earth I had ever reached. I am gratified to announce that I just beat my own record by spending a week in South Korea's sprawling megalopolis, finalizing an amazing global tour as part of the implementation of one of the largest HRIS projects in the world. This post aims at sharing some of my thoughts about one of the Asian dragons as well as provide tips on how to include a Korean subsidiary in a global HRIS project.

Hierarchical society
Korea's society will come across to first-time visitors as a very class-conscious one, not in the traditional British sense where one's place is determined by birth, but by the merit-based place one occupies in the corporate world. I was  struck by the constant bowing that takes place: whereas in the West people shake hands when they meet, in Korea, you take a bow, with the person occupying a lower rung in the social pecking order bowing lower - When you meet your company's CEO your body's basically at a 90° angle.

Small wonder then that your global HRIS will need to track the various statuses, grades and levels an employee enjoys throughout his employment life cycle (make sure you carefully identify which ones apply to the person and which to the position.) Just like Germans love to be addressed by their titles (Doktor and Professor have to be included in the name section of your HRIS) Koreans use their professional gradess as part of the name when addressing each other. "Good morning, Mr Lee M32"  - Bow. "Hello, Mr. Kim L11" - Deeper bow.

It was therefore quite revealing that in the workshop I ran, when we covered the list of dependents (to be used for benefits purposes), the value "Sibling" was found lacking. "We should have Elder or Younger Brother/Sister" I was told. And, of course, in this most deferential and hierarchical of societies expect your workflow to include several additional approvers as  it travels up and down the hierarchy.

Finally, make sure when you organize meetings, especially workshops where decisions need to be made, that you mix equals with equals. Should you have participants belonging to different rungs on the corporate ladder, you'll find out that subordinates will almost always defer to their superiors, never contradict them, thus preventing you from getting a full picture of the situation.

Gyeongbokgung Palace.
A haven of peace in the hustle and bustle of downtown Seoul

Strong culture of service and duty
Koreans will go to great lengths to do their duty and ensure the service they provide is first notch. Of all the countries I covered while I crisscrossed the globe none did their prerequisite homework so thoroughly and conscientiously as did the Korean team. I took the subway one afternoon and must have gotten my fares mixed up because, on the way out, I swiped my card but, after a shrill beep, the turnstile remained stubbornly stuck while a few Korean characters in scaring red danced on the small monitor. I must have looked confused or lost, or simply obviously foreign in this racially homogeneous society, because a rider stopped by, embarrassingly explained that I had insufficient credit  and then swiped his card to top me up. The turnstile opened as if by magic. I insisted  to pay him what I owed him, but he'd have none of it. "I just did my duty to a fellow human," he said. Try that in Paris or New York!

HR and Technology
South Korea (or, as it is known officially, the Republic of Korea) has gone through dizzying changes in the past few decades becoming an advanced economy, with efficient public transportation, technologically savvy (I'd even say obsessed) with a high mobile-device penetration rate (you know you're on a Seoul street when pedestrians walk with their eyes glued on their smartphones.) A global HRIS would have few issues rolling out its self service features to a nation whose mobile devices have become an extension of its citizens.

Although Korea has a vibrant democracy (they recently impeached their president on corruption grounds- a first for the country, while France is still considering whether to prosecute a former president on similar charges), there is one thing it shares with China: social media and other tools that we take for granted in most of the world are largely absent in Korea. Don't message anybody on WhatsApp -  you are unlikely to receive a reply. Facebook and Uber don't fare any better, either, as Koreans rely on homegrown tools. Global HRIS vendors face an uphill battle to penetrate this market with only a handful of mainly multinationals adopting Workday, SAP or Oracle, midmarket businesses remaining largely impervious to them, in the absence of good localization work. To take one example, none of the SOW vendors provide the controls needed for Korean address formats.

Going lunar - not lunatic
Taking a break from a punishing
schedule of global HRIS workshops
Reminiscent of a requirement I saw in Saudi Arabia, Koreans use a dual calendar: Western and lunar. By way of consequence, employees will display two ages: the one they have according to a Western calendar, and the one based on a lunar calendar. Make sure your global HRIS can handle this seemingly puzzling requirement. Some allowances are paid depending on the lunar date, and if you feel like wishing an employee Happy Birthday, make sure it's the lunar one, not the Western (or "Sun" one as I heard it referred to.)

Compensation and Payroll Interface
Since it is most likely you'll be interfacing your Core HR tool with a Korean payroll (none of the three global HRIS vendors - for whom I coined the acronym SOW - has released a Korea cloud-based payroll), figuring out where to place the cursor between Core HR (Compensation) and Payroll will be quite a challenge. Just ask Samsung Electronics, embroiled in its attempts to interface local payroll PDSS with one of the SOW vendors.

Vibrant modern culture within a traditional society
Adhering to a deferential culture (where women tend to play a submissive role), proud of its history and traditions (I strongly recommend visiting the royal palaces in Seoul such as Gyeongbokgung Palace pictured here), Korea's modern culture punches above its weight. Korean filmmakers have made a name for themselves on the map of world cinema: A recent Korean movie I enjoyed is The King's Case Note, part-historical drama (set in the Joseon era), part-thriller (Sherlock and Watson -style), part-comedy. What has become known as K-pop is now all the rage: Is there anybody on planet Earth who is not familiar with the the catchy tune of Park Jae-san "Psy" 's Gangnam Style? The song takes its name from the trendy Gangnam neighborhood, south of the Han River where yours truly stayed at the Sheraton (loved the beautiful Joseon-era chests of drawers on display on every floor.)

Although Korean script is traditionally based on Chinese ("Hanja" script) , the most common script ("Hangul") is alphabet-based  with characters representing vowels and consonants, and written left to right. Many Koreans write in mixed script, meaning that your global HRIS will need to cater to both.  Note that "Korea" is the Western name: Koreans refer to their country by a different name, which itself differs whether you are in the North or the South. Land of the Morning Calm is an old nickname for the country.

Food and Coffee
Unlike the Japanese and Chinese, Koreans love their cuisine quite spicy with side dish kimchee having pride of place at any Korean meal. I was surprised when I visited a friend to see that most Korean apartments come with a kimchee fridge, specially designed to ensure the delicacy is kept in optimal temperature. The coffee addict that I am was more than exhilarated to discover the pervasive café culture. I am hardly exaggerating when I say that at every other street you cross in Seoul, you'll find a coffee place, most belonging to Korean franchises with names such as A Twosome Place, Angel in Us Coffee (sic), Tous les Jours, Paris Baguette, Hollys Coffee, Tom N Toms coffee (I cringe at the missing apostrophe for the latter two).

Overall, I enjoyed my Korean experience tremendously (pace the dreadful traffic jams.) I would gladly come back, hopefully flying airline other than Korea Air: Despite the constant bowing by the pretty all-female crew, I found the experience quite underwhelming. The business class on the Airbus A380 is inferior to the one on Air France and, of course, nothing to be compared with best-in-class Emirates.

NOTE: All pictures taken by the consultant/blogger and remain the property of Ahmed Limam who is hereby asserting his copyright.

(This is the latest in a series of wide-ranging articles focusing on a single country. Previous posts:

July 2017: Romania: Between HR technology and childhood memories
July 2016: Middle Kingdom: Musings on Chinese HR, technology and the country
Nov. 2014: Of Switzerland, the country, its HR practice and technology landscape
June 2013: Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space 
Dec. 2012: My 20-Year Affair with Spain  - with more than 10,000 views it is one of my most popular articles
Aug. 2011: Brazil Rising: Thoughts on HR, technology and an emerging giant )

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Gartner's HR Magic Quadrant: A (Strong) Rebuttal


For someone whose HR technology career includes a couple of years as an analyst with a Gartner-like outfit (Paris-based CXP), I keep an eye out for what Gartner, IDC, Forrester and a flurry of new analyst entrants produce. Apart from some comments in LinkedIn discussions, I hadn't dedicated a full post on these research firms. Gartner's latest Magic Quadrant dedicated to cloud HR gives me the opportunity to share some inconvenient truths (some of which I already aired in my book, High-Tech Planet : Secrets of an IT Road Warrior.)
There is a lot in the report that I agree with because it is simply common sense or knowledge, just like if Gartner were to state that water boils at 100° C I would agree with that. But that doesn't mean that I do not disagree with a lot, too. And there are quite a few findings that are misleading, inaccurate, odd if not altogether bizarre. And some astonishing omissions.

Methodology-wise, Gartner is guilty of equating mid-market size in the US with Europe. As anybody who has done any market research would know, SMBs tend to be larger in the US vs Europe. The cloud definition misses out completely the private-cloud variant (Oracle recently renamed theirs Cloud @ Customer - which I always found an oxymoron.)

Speaking of Oracle, one can only wonder that it is put so close behind SAP SuccessFactors (SF) when all empirical research shows it should be closer to Ultimate which, in many respects, should rate higher than Oracle, anyway. Gartner then commits the unforgivable crime of belting out features like a good parrot without discussing their value. Why? Oracle Work-Like Solutions is a good example of vaporware, nobody’s interested in it but because Oracle stresses it in its Analyst Day presentations Gartner dutifully presents it too. Why can't Gartner be honest and tell us that customers licensing it (never mind actually using it) are few and far between?  Because  Gartner takes money from vendors, so it is not free to write what it wants.

Putting SAP ahead of Workday on …Vision? Is Gartner deranged? Who in their right mind can countenance such an absurd claim: Workday with its single line of code, true SaaS offering, revolutionary UI, workflow, reporting, same-platform payroll, pionnering Community. And SAP is ahead? With SF? Completely silly.

SF Employee Central (EC)  figures are not accurate: As usual with these mainstream analysts, such figures are accepted from the vendor's mouth, lock, stock and barrel - not verified. I am on record for being very critical with vendor-provided figures, but Gartner considers them like Holy Writ. Also, to mention "EC payroll" is, again, just parroting the vendor with no critical thinking: There is no such think as EC Payroll but good old SAP Payroll, just like there is no such thing as Oracle HCM Cloud but just  a rebranding of  Fusion, which is available on-premise as well. I can understand the vendor trying to mislead the customer, but the analyst doing it, too? How shameful! Gartner clearly makes a lot of money from SAP and Oracle, and being in their pay it has to put lipstick on their pigs.

Very odd to see Talentia and Ramco which I NEVER ran into in any bid having pride of place (well, sort of) in this report. Just because you need to put a logo on your fancy diagram, doesn't mean that you should make up analysis. Ramco has no meaningful presence in either the US or Europe, which represent the lion's share of the global HRIS market. Shouldn't be there...yet!

Same thing with Kronos whose only claim to HRIS fame is that it is the Time Management leader (I positively hate the term “WFM”), but it doesn’t have the footprint to be considered  a suite. Where is its global HR Admin (or Core HR)? And yet Gartner says it is one of its criteria, as it should be. Cornerstone has much stronger credentials to feature in the report than Kronos since it has a (light) Core HR offering. And yet the Santa Monica-based vendor is nowhere to be seen. As glaring omissions go, this one is simply bizarre.

Meta4? The zombie vendor? If you consider Meta4 as a cloud vendor just because its offering can be hosted, then why not have PeopleSoft? It can also be hosted, and is as much on life support as Meta4 is. But Gartner takes money from vendors, so it is not free to write what it wants. The shared vs public cloud is not as meaningful as the private cloud (Cloud  @ Customer as Oracle calls it) which doesn’t even get a mention. I wonder why. And of course, as is usual with those pseudo-independent analysts, many figures are given, not verified. Very sad when analysts become an extension of vendors’ marketing departments.

Echo-chamber mentality
Mind you, there are times when a vendor dares produce a truly independent analysis. A couple of years ago Forrester wrote about the low customer uptake of Oracle Fusion. The vendor immediately retaliated by cutting all funding. Since then Forrester has been toing the line. As with Gartner, you can't bite the hand that feeds you. Forrester's latest report is a case in point where it becomes almost indistinguishable from Gartner's. Lesson learned, you might (and can) say.

Along with many others, I have been demanding of Gartner & Co to commit not to take any paid assignment from vendors and avoid making money from them. But they refuse to put an end to this inherent conflict of interest and therefore lose in credibility and ability to produce unbiased analysis. It is a disservice to user organizations to make them believe otherwise. 

Another weakness of this type of analyst reports, is that since most of these analysts have NEVER implemented an HRIS, they completely ignore the issues related with implementation. What’s the point of selecting the best HRIS in the world if you can’t find resources to implement it? Or they are too expensive? Or the methodology is fuzzy? Or the SI ecosystem is half-baked? Or building reports or maintaining workflows is too  cumbersome? Or if change management leads to customer rejection? Nothing whatsoever in the Gartner report. This is like recommending a car based on several great features, but forgetting to ask the prospective buyer whether they can drive. Largely pointless.  I checked the LinkedIn profiles of the analysts involved in the report: the "stars" (Hanscombe, Lougee, Poitevin) and most of the others have ZERO to little cloud implementation experience. And yet here they are pontificating about something they have limited knowledge of. How reassuring.

Check out my analysis done with my own two ten fingers, with no paid assignment accepted from any vendor and you'll see the difference: SOW -  A Comparison of 3 Cloud HR Vendors: SAP, Oracle and Workday.  I firmly believe that there is a lot to be said for critical thinking, lack of bias and independence. 

The blogger/analyst/consultant is continuing his World Localization Tour as part of one of the largest global HRIS projects in the world. After Brazil last week, he is now in Argentina presenting the prototype to HR representatives from several Spanish-speaking countries. NEXT STOPS: France, Spain and Turkey.

NOTE ON BUENOS AIRES: For anybody currently in the Americas' most beautiful capital city, I strongly recommend Fuerza Bruta, a terrific Cirque du Soleil-like  show at the Centro Cultural de Recoleta. And, of course, enjoy the amazing architecture, large avenues (9 de Julio is the world's largest avenue with 18 lanes), numerous parks and the world's best meat. If you are staying near Avenida Corrientes (Buenos Aires' answer to the Big Apple's Time Square) as I am, Chiquilin is a great option. I will later dedicate a full-length post to HR technology in Spanish-speaking Latin America (already done it for Brazil.)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Romania: Between HR technology and childhood memories

The blogger at age 8
wearing a traditional
Romanian costume
Two historic events are taking place in Romania this month. First, King Michael will celebrate the 90th anniversary of his accession to the throne, a record for any monarch in history*. Sure, he lost it 70 years ago, but post-Communist Romania returned, if not his crown, at least his palaces (I am staying just a few blocks from his Bucharest home, Elisabeta Palace), castles (you should visit lovely Peleș Castle) along with full honors and titles (move over, Elizabeth II, your 60 years on the throne are kid's stuff.) The second memorable event is that yours truly is launching from here the first of a worldwide series of HR localization workshops for one of the largest cloud HRIS projects in the world.

Romania has always been close to my heart. That's where my mother's family hails from, and where my Paris-born mother grew up, separated by the Iron Curtain from her Paris-residing mother for 20 years. Amazing at it may sound, between the ages of 2 and 21, my mother never saw her own mother, growing up in the most beautiful region of Romania: Transylvania (known as Ardeal in Romanian.) Dracula's region is indeed not only the most beautiful from a landscape perspective, it is also among the most ethnically diverse areas in Europe: Romanians (the majority) live next to Hungarians and Germans, and almost every town in Transylvania has a Romanian, Hungaria and German name (In another record, Romania recently elected as president a member of the German minority, thus becoming the only country in Europe whose leader comes from a minority group!) Many cities are medieval jewels, in particular what is known as the "Saxon towns."

I spent many a lovely summer in Transylvania in my teen years, enjoying the food (see below), fishing in the Mureș river, trekking through the Carpathian mountains, bonding with the extended Romanian family: cousins galore from Geoagiu de Sus to Teiuș and Alba Iulia, the old capital where 99 years ago the country was reunited, as well as Cluj-Napoca where my mother started university and Bucharest where cousin Felicia lived and where my mother and I  had to hide from the building's Securitate man since we were "foreigners."

Sun of IT rises in the East...and women too!
It is therefore with great pleasure that I always come back to Romania, although now it is more likely to be to Bucharest on business than Transylvania, although the latter's capital, Cluj-Napoca has become a major IT hub, rivaling Bucharest. Many large multinationals are taking advantage of the good infrastructure and education, competitive salaries and tax structure and Romanians' linguistic abilities, to set up engineering and shared service centers. Many of my international clients have consolidated shared HR operations from either Cluj or Bucharest. As an employee, if you have a question about your vacation balance, send an email or pick up the phone and your request is likely to be handled by a Romanian.

An even more remarkable development is that an increasing number of women developers are to be found in Romanian-based IT centers: latest figures show that almost 30% of the tech force in Romania is female. Much higher than in Western Europe or the United States. Communism doesn't have much to recommend it for (my family lost land acquired through hard work when the monarchy was overthrown) but at least it pushed women into science and engineering jobs, resulting  in the amazing stats I just mentioned.

HR in Romania
Although Romanian companies can elicit their share of complex rules (especially when allowances are dependent on absence/time data or extraneous factors such as outside temperature several days in a  row), in comparison with other countries I know well such as France, Italy or Brazil, Romania is a model of simplicity.  For instance, whereas France has a good 20 different types of labor contracts, Romania has, for all intents and purposes, only two: fixed term or unlimited term (permanent.) Temporary employees are not common either, reminiscent of Italy who banned it for so long. But post-Communist Romanian governments have clearly embraced pro-business labor laws, simplifying the tax code (both individual and corporate income tax is a flat 16% rate), getting rid of the quaint labor booklet or cărtea de muncă (similar to Brazil's carteira de trabalho) and overall making life much easier for employers and (some) employees. Although the dreadful and dreaded bureaucracy of old hasn't entirely disappeared, the current situation clearly has nothing to do with the olden days of the command economy.

HRIS vendor market
The Romanian HRIS market can be divided into two groups. Tier-1 vendors cater to the local subsidiaries of multinational groups and large Romanian companies (including utilities such as Romgaz and state agencies such as the Romanian Central Bank). Amazing how history tends to repeat itself, although with a twist: A decade ago I worked on the Oracle localization effort for Romania, leading a workshop in Bucharest; and now here I am running another localization workshop in Bucharest, but this time on the customer side. Tier-1 vendors include the usual suspects we know, with SAP on top (the only one with full localization including payroll) and Workday the #1 cloud HR vendor with limited localization (and the need to improve its Romanian translation).

...and their lei

Tier-2 vendors cater to the other Romanian companies: smaller in size but more numerous. Charisma and Wizrom are top of the pack, with Charisma the payroll vendor used by many multinational subsidiaries.

Culture and the rest
View of Bucharest's Royal Palace from the blogger's
room in the landmark Plaza Athénée hotel
My favorite hotel in Bucharest is the Plaza Athénée (now part of the Hilton hotel chain): in Communist times my mother would book a room there when we visited Bucharest since as a "foreigner" she was not allowed to stay with her cousin (the local authorities in her hometown, though, turned a blind eye - after all, they all went to school with her!) I continue the family tradition in this grand hotel, whose heyday was in the 1930s where glitterati, royalty, diplomats, and spies made of the Paris of the Balkans (as Bucharest was known) their HQ. It faces both Revolution Square (where hated dictator Ceaușescu's fall started) and the Royal Palace. The Old Town and most sights are within walking distance.

Romanian cinema has rapidly become one of the most dynamic in the world winning prizes in major festivals. I strongly recommend   Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, Cristian Mungiu's at times disturbing Behind the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Many of Communist-era movies are forgettable, but I would single out the exceptional World War I drama Forest of the Hanged.

Romanians have produced great writers: Eugen Ionescu wrote Englezește fără profesor ("English Without a Teacher") in Romanian before he moved to Paris, Frenchified his name and wrote a French-language version which became La cantatrice chauve, a masterpiece of absurdist theater and the longest running play in French history (it just celebrated its 60th anniversary, playing every single day in the same tiny theater in the Latin Quarter in Paris). During the 30s, like all Romanian aristocrats, Princess Bibesco had a preference for the French language and wrote what is still amazing prose. Although many other good Romanian writers are only available in Romanian, Mihai Cărtărescu's amazing Nostalgia is available in English and I strongly recommend it. Transylvania-born Herta Müller writes in her native German (although she is fully bilingual), mainly about life in Communist-era Romania: for her efforts, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The blogger, at age 10, with his mother in a
photographer's studio in Aiud, Transylvania

Speaking of languages, Romanian is a linguistic oddity: the only Latin-based language that maintains noun cases lost since Roman times, and with a strong Slavic influence. In other words, if you speak Russian and Italian, Romanian will be easy to learn. My favorite Romanian word? The joyful "lalelele" which means "the tulips."

Last but not least, Romanian food has to be sampled: often hearty, it relies on local produce, has some similarities to dishes found elsewhere in the Balkans. Many meats are served with mămăligă, similar to the Italian polenta, a type of mashed corn. I cannot eat eggplant purée, sarmale (meat in vine leaves)  and ardei copți (roast red peppers) without thinking fondly of my childhood summers where we grew those vegetables in the garden (water came from...a well! it was cold, clean  and delicious). Sweet cozonac and ișler (the latter, a Transylvanian specialty that reminds me of the Latin American alfajor)),especially when served with a shot of vişinată should round off your evening brilliantly. 

*King Michael holds another record: He is one of the  few monarchs in history to have both preceded and succeeded his father on the throne.

Next destination after Bucharest: Casablanca, Morocco. 

(This is the latest in a series of wide-ranging articles focusing on a single country. Previous posts:

July 2016: Middle Kingdom: Musings on Chinese HR, technology and the country
Nov. 2014: Of Switzerland, the country, its HR practice and technology landscape
June 2013: Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space 
Dec. 2012: My 20-Year Affair with Spain  - with more than 10,000 views it is one of my most popular articles
Aug. 2011: Brazil Rising: Thoughts on HR, technology and an emerging giant )

NOTE: All pictures are by/from the blogger and therefore copyrighted.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The French presidential election: Going blank

Facing off for the top prize
So, here we are, just a few days' away from the runoff election that will decide who will be the most powerful man in the Western world. Yes, I mean it: the French president has more powers than his American counterpart who has to deal with Congress, a more often-than-not independent judiciary and a highly decentralized country where most decisions affecting people's lives are made by mayors or governors rather than by the Federal government. And other European leaders tend to be heads of government, sharing power with a head of state (elected or hereditary, depending on the case). As one of the major candidates reminded the nation in his campaign (see below), we live under a presidential monarchic who, apart from being elected, maintains most of the power and trappings of the "kings who built France," as the phrase goes (Les rois qui ont fait la France).

And, for once, the finalists are as different as can be, with two radically different views of what ails France and how the country should be run. After many decades of pretending otherwise, voters have finally realized that there is no difference between the mainstream parties and gave the Socialists and their partner-in-crime the Gaullists what Churchill called "the order of the boot". Something I have been calling for in as far back as 2011, when I wrote in a post subtitled "Democracy 2.0" that throughout the Western world whether you pick Party A or Party B makes no difference. They are just the two faces of the same coin, the establishment party. Or, to quote my beloved Gore Vidal, they are just the two wings of the single party.

Let me give you my two cents on the four candidates who made this campaign by being within a whisker of each other in both polls and actual election results, before I share with you my vote - and why.

François Fillon, a.k.a The Crook, had what was  undoubtedly the best program, and it certainly wasn't the most popular one as it offered the French some belt-tightening ahead. The only issue with it, were actually two, both related to how credible its plan is: First, when Fillon was in charge for five years, why didn't he implement  it? What guarantees do we have that once in charge he will deliver on his promises? Remember that when a private business makes false claims on its products, it can be penalized and fined; not so with politicians, who can promise you the moon and the stars and, once elected, do the opposite and still keep their seat. Second, the little credibility Fillon had disappeared with the financial scandal he got engulfed in. French voters can tell a liar and crook when they see one, and rewarded his campaign with the dubious distinction of  being the one which, in a 60-year period of time, managed to get a Conservative candidate disqualified for the runoff. If there is a dustbin of history for politicians, Fillon is heading straight for it.

The Gang of Four that made history

Marine Le Pen, a.k.a. The Loony or The Fruitcake (have your pick), has the silliest of all manifestos, basically based on hatred: of Arabs, Muslims, immigrants, Europe, the euro. Anything that can be offered to the people's anger as the source of their miseries, you'll find it in Ms Le Pen's bag. French politicians have been doing this for centuries: It used to be the Jews (in the Middle Ages) and Huguenots (in the 16th and 17th centuries). Nihil novi sub sole, as ancient Romans used to say (in their times, Christians were the scapegoats - food for thought.) Her success resides only on two facts: Her denunciation of the elite's abject failure in running the country (which hardly anybody can dispute) and that, having never been elected to office, she can claim the benefit of the doubt. Apart from that, her program of Fortress France does not make any sense at all.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a.k.a. The Commie (or Bolshie.) His sharp tongue, quick wit, consistent philosophy, grasp of details, brilliant, inventive campaign (those videos, holograms and the cruise on the Ile-de-France canals!) made him my favorite. He is the only one of all candidates, who realized that the corrupt leaders we got and their ineffective policies couldn't be separated from the sick political system we have. I fully agree with his calls for revamped political institutions, which he calls the 6th Republic, and many of its tenets such as the ability to recall all politicians. Is it normal that we  have to put up with a deeply unpopular and incompetent president as Hollande for so long? Is it normal that neither you and  I can decide on our compensation or rules governing most of our career, but politicians can? Is it normal that when we commit a felony or crime we go to court (and jail if found guilty) like everybody else, but not politicians who have their own court (Cour de justice de la  République) who rarely finds politicians guilty: and small wonder - its membership is largely made up of...fellow politicians! And even when they do find them guilty, they make the bizarre ruling that no punishment should be meted as we saw with the recent Christine Lagarde trial. Mélenchon is right to say that the system is rotten at the core and propose to do something about it, beyond the mere superficial slaps on the wrist for wayward politicians. I also fully support his call to move to real environmentally friendly policies, not the vague lip service most other politicians adopt.

However, on the economic front, I deeply disagree with Mélenchon. We already have the highest tax burden of the developed group of nations. If that could have translated in higher growth and more employment, we would have seen it. And I feel very uncomfortable with his anti-"rich" rhetoric. What is wrong with being rich, if you've earned it through your hard work - or inherited it? Unless the rich have gotten there through fraud and murder, confiscating their wealth strikes me as deeply unfair and demotivating for society at large.

Emmanuel Macron, a.k.a The Dapper (or the Charmer). Let's give credit where credit is due: His is the most amazing political career France has ever seen, and few countries can boast a novice with no experience of running a campaign, no party, no funds, coming from nowhere and about to win the ultimate prize. For sheer audacity, vision, and management skill, one has to acknowledge his amazing talents and wonder what he could do for the country if he continued to evince the same skills once in office. For a while, he was my favorite. Even when I couldn't completely shake off a feeling that he may just be a manipulator, who saw an opportunity and seized it. (Even then, still a brilliant one.) However, as  I shared several times with my old friend, C.T.H., a member of his campaign team, as soon as Macron put meat on the bone of his program, that's when he lost me. Freeing 80% of French households of the Taxe d'habitation (a kind of property tax) is typical of the worst of the French political-administrative establishment. First of all, that's a local tax, so what is he doing, apart from being generous with other people's money? And then, the lucky ones aren't exactly exempt from this tax, it's the central government that pays it to cities and towns on  their behalf, but should the rate go up, then you will still be liable for it. Again, what's the point  of putting in place such a complicated scheme when the objective, increasing people's purchasing power, could be done via levers the central government controls such as VAT, income rebates or credits. A bad idea, to be jettisoned immediately, as the idea to increase the CSG-based social security taxes, another tax created in the 1990s: then with a 1.1% rate, it currently stands at 15;5% and he wants to increase it? Wasn't he supposed to be a liberal (in the European sense?) As for his non-reform of the net-worth tax (ISF), it is absurd to remove most assets from it, except the one that affects most people who don't make money out of it: homeowners.

Worse, unlike Mélenchon, he seems to be very happy to keep the political system as it  is. Maybe just tinker a little bit here and there ("moralisation de la vie publique"), but over all, let's not rock the boat. Which rekindles my suspicion that Macron may just be all PR and marketing, all fluff, with some Conservative economic policies, some left-wing social policies,  all repackaged by a nice smile and endearing family life. But still a politician bent on grabbing power. And his will to rule by decree is alarming - this is the "presidential monarch" Mélenchon is right to denounce.

Le protest vote
Based on this, I just can't bring myself to vote for Macron. And I won't cast a negative vote: voting for him, to block the Loony. Since neither of the two has managed to convince me, then I'm voting blank. I do hope that Macron will prove my concerns wrong, and manage to fix some of the country's most serious issues. If  he does, then in five years' time, I will be more than glad to vote for him. As for Blondie, I do hope that they commit her either to an institution or behind bars: either way we'll be free of that nightmare. Until 2022 when, should Macron fail, then the National Front could finally grab the elusive prize it has been after for several decades. After all, that's a French political tradition: Fight long enough, and you end up in the Elysée Palace.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Cooking the books: How Oracle inflates cloud revenue figures and what it means for you

The truth will always out
Technology firms have never been stranger to hyperbole, whether discussing the alleged value their products bring, customer numbers or the size of their business. As I described in my book, High-Tech Planet: Secrets of an IT Road Warrior, being creative with facts is par for the course for most of them. However,  those vendors scrambling frantically to move from a legacy on-premise business to the brave new world of cloud-based systems, find themselves so desperate that creativity with reality takes on new forms.

Oracle, though by no stretch of the imagination the only offender, is doubtlessly the worst one. This is compounded by the fact that it came late and reluctantly to the cloud (watch this video of Oracle's boss Larry Ellison pooh-poohing the cloud). After its on-premise succession product Fusion failed to gain much traction and its Sun hardware acquisition turned out to be in the words of former Oracle Über -VP of Sales, Keith Block, " a dud", Oracle and Larry Ellison (the two are interchangeable) had no other choice but to go down the cloud route.

Unfortunately the software industry, among others, is known for its first-mover advantage meaning that by the time Oracle decided to do something about (in) the cloud, many of its customers had already defected to Salesforce (for CRM) and Workday (for HR.) Resorting to its good old ways, Ellison didn't hesitate to predict quite outlandishly that his company would bury Workday. Post-truth statements and alternative facts didn't premiere with the Trump administration; Oracle had started the ball rolling earlier. However, since "facts are stubborn" as Lenin said, Oracle felt it had to go one step further: falsify its cloud revenue figures.

Last June, a courageous Oracle employee, Svetlana Blackburn, a finance manager, came forward denouncing Oracle for pressuring her to inflate cloud sales figures (here's another report by Reuters). The various tricks used by a vendor trying to inflate its cloud figures include, but are not limited to, the following :

  • Lump on-premise and cloud figures together and then pretend it's all cloud
  • Give huge credit to customers moving their on-premise license value to the cloud and consider it as booked cloud sales
  • Give a cloud product for free and then extrapolate its sales value to other modules
  • Sell a cloud subscription for a pilot population but book it as if it were for the whole company headcount.
Of course, Oracle immediately fired the whistleblower claiming she was being terminated for low performance. Yeah, right! Ms. Blackburn went to court, Oracle stood its ground saying it had done nothing wrong until last week it capitulated by offering an out-of court settlement. As we all know, nobody offers a settlement unless they have done something wrong. Oracle hoped to put behind it the embarrassing scandal and avoid more damaging revelations to come forward.

What does this mean for you?

As a customer, you need to get a sense of how serious an offering is, what its long-term prospects are and how likely that a sizable customer base will ensure that continuing investment in the platform is assured. Most of the clients I work with and who include Oracle Fusion in the evaluation, end up not shortlisting it for various reasons including fuzzy economics and product strategy. 

As an employee/candidate, especially from the sales function, you need guarantees that your employer will not fiddle sales figures with the aim to shortchange you. Interestingly, the same week that it was confirmed that Oracle indeed forges its cloud sales figures (last week), the company was on the receiving end of a $150 million class-action lawsuit by sales employees complaining about the company's efforts to avoid paying them their commissions.

Finally, as an investor you want to ensure that your investment dollars are well used and that you are not throwing good money after bad*.  Interestingly, too, when the whistleblower revealed Oracle's accounting shenanigans last June, a group of investors launched another lawsuit against Oracle. And for the past (rolling) year, as the below graph shows, Oracle's stock has been languishing whereas its pure, native cloud competitors' has shot up by 40 to 50%. 

A tale of two vendor types: native and adopted cloud

In summary, we  can see that Oracle's desperate behavior, far from helping it, is making matters worse: customers are not joining in droves, cloud sales remain stubbornly a tiny fraction of its overall revenue, in spite of all the figure massaging, and the stock price evolution reflects that situation. Until and  unless Oracle makes some serious changes to its product strategy/sales approach, and culture, it is no rocket science to see what the end game is likely to be: increasing irrelevance. 

Losing steam

*The blogger's clients include not only end-user organizations evaluating/selecting/ implementing/expanding new HRIS systems, but also investors requesting analysis as to HR system vendors' market potential.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Cornerstone, the newest kid on the global HRIS block

Entering the global HRIS fray
In August 2015 I wrote a post predicting that Cornerstone would have no choice but enter the global HRIS space with a core HR (or HR Admin) offering which I called Cornerstone HR. A couple of months later, at its annual event the company did indeed announce such an offering, calling it Link (here's the post)

A couple of weeks ago, at the annual event held in London, Cornerstone announced a more beefed up version of Link which it now calls ...Cornerstone HR! Since I have the prior claim on the brand name, I facetiously asked CEO Adam Miller for copyright royalties, which drew laughter from the analyst audience gathered at the Hilton Metropole.

So, it is now clear that there is a new player in the game, rattling the global HRIS apple cart. Cornerstone will now start receiving more HRIS RFPs (vs pure learning or talent based ones) and you can expect an increasing number of companies, especially from its installed base to acquire Cornerstone HR. It is more likely that initially there will be more Cornerstone customers, especially those who have never had a global HRIS system in place, that will move up the value chain with Cornerstone HR. But I also expect  net new customers to go down the same road sooner rather than later.

However, for Cornerstone to live up to expectations, reach functional parity with its major competitors and make a success of this new strategy it needs to:
  • Have a strong product management team that understands global HR admin requirements 
  • Rewrite some parts of the underlying data model to move to a person model rather than a user one
  • Beef up substantially several parts of the offering where it lags behind its competitors (see examples in the below graph).
  • Include unique differentiators, maybe on budgeting and planning or around the integration with learning

 A global HRIS star is born ...
but still needs to complete its homework

With this homework done (not an easy feat - just look how long SuccessFactors struggled with Employee Central and it's still WIP), the three global HRIS musketeers will now become four, a development I always felt the market needed. And, remember, in the Alexandre Dumas novel, the three musketeers were actually four. Can you name them? (Don't cheat - I'm providing you with the names below)*

A big question, which corporate buyers may want to ponder, though, is: will this development stabilize Cornerstone as the second independent, pure HR vendor (after Workday)? Or will it make it even more attractive to predators? Rumors have been swirling around that an acquirer was in the wings, ready to pounce. Let's hope that the fourth musketeer remains independent for the benefits of the HR community and the spirit of healthy competition.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

(The blogger is having a tropical Christmas this year before heading back to the Northern Hemisphere)

NOTE: Data in this post are the intellectual property of Ahmed Limam and cannot be reproduced without prior written consent

*Porthos, Athos, Aramis and, of course, D'Artagnan.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Viadeo's demise: Chronicle of a death foretold

In a  recent op-ed on the current French president's disastrous term and abysmal approval ratings (4%, if you can believe it), the New York Times refers to the hapless François Hollande as the living dead: who continues to be politically alive although he has actually died. The same can be said of another French institution, this time in the technology space: business social media Viadeo which had aimed at revolutionizing many aspects of HR.

For most global users of professional social media, there seems to be only one name: LinkedIn (although Facebook is bound to become a formidable competitor as it announced this week it was entering the job postings business.) But in many countries there are local players that cater to the requirements of a niche market. Xing is popular in German-speaking countries, Weibo in China and, for a while, French-based Viadeo looked promising. Unfortunately for  the latter, who was created in 2005, the same year as Workday, its trajectory has been the exact opposite of the HR-cum-finance SaaS vendor: whereas the Pleasanton-based company has gone from strength to strength,  the Paris-based company has seen its prospects get dimmer and dimmer, especially in the past few years to the point that last week it requested to be de-listed in an attempt to stop its stock price's free fall.

Sad as it may be, this has come to no surprise to me. For quite a while now I have been advising investors to stay clear of this stock. Several of those who followed my advice sent me last week email messages telling me my advisory fee was money well spent, while others may rue the day they decided to take the risk.

So, what went wrong with Viadeo? Why couldn't it follow in the footsteps of highly successful French unicorns such as Criteo (Disclosure: a former HRIS client) and Blablacar? The reason can be found in several mistakes Viadeo made.

First, it never managed to provide the depth of functionality that LinkedIn does. Viadeo was for a while not more than an online Rolodex  with basic messaging and job features. And it had the gall to try and charge you when LinkedIn would get you like-for-like features for free.

Second and worse, although the two  companies were established within a couple of years from each other, Viadeo thought LinkedIn would remain US-centric and that Viadeo could be its European version and even compete globally. Unfortunately most initial Viadeo users, including yours truly, quickly realized that the same people who were on Viadeo were also on LinkedIn. So why duplicate the effort?  A choice had to be made. If you work in international settings many of your contacts will be  on LinkedIn only, That simple observation signed the death knell for Viadeo in my opinion. I left it and never looked back.
The giant and the dwarf

Early this year I conducted a workshop for the localization of a global HRIS with a client based in France and when discussing employee records and associated data, somebody mentioned Viadeo as a social media that maybe should be tracked because many employees are typically French and use it to the exclusion of others. However, they couldn't give me an exact figure on how many users were exclusive Viadeo users. Knowing that most global HRIS vendors wouldn't have Viadeo as part of their standard offering I was reluctant to include it. But, at the same time, I didn't want to ignore what could be a legitimate request. So, I took a quick poll around the room. The 35 people in the workshop were all French, based in France, belonged to the various group entities. "How many have a Viadeo account?", I asked. Only two raised their hands,and one then added, 'But I haven't updated mine in years." "How many have a LinkedIn account?" All raised their hands. That sealed the fate of having Viadeo in the French localization of the global HRIS project.

Third, LinkedIn became global so much faster and signed up so many users that Viadeo soon faced the network issue that any competitor of a social media is well aware of: if everybody is on LinkedIn, why bother  about Viadeo?

Tongue tied
Viadeo could then have positioned itself with brilliant functionality (which it doesn't have - I did an in-depth analysis for my investor clients: it can at best be described as adequate). And God knows that the heavy user of LinkedIn I am (especially in the HR Technology Group discussions) can point to many shortcomings of LinkedIn that Viadeo could have capitalized on by bringing better features. But it seems that Viadeo has no sense of what competitive intelligence is.

Viadeo could then have tried to expand in some large markets outside the US to become a credible alternative to LinkedIn. Here again, total failure. To mention just two BRICS countries, it had to pull out of China ignominiously and, as for Brazil, its branding was a total disaster. Couldn't all the money they raised from investors be used on some marketing studies that would have told them that Viadeo sounds in Brazilian Portuguese like the  local word for "faggot" and that few, if any, Brazilian professionals would boast of being on "Viado"?

The business model between the various professional social media is also revealing: LinkedIn relies more on advertising, whereas Viadeo has a complex subscription model. Now, who in their right mind would pay, even if a few dollars, for what can be found largely for free and better somewhere else?

In 2013, less than a decade after it was established, Viadeo was surpassed on its own turf by LinkedIn. Instead of being a wake-up call to its management, they continued with their usual mix of hubris, delusion and denial, dreaming that Viadeo could oppose the laws of gravity until Doomsday. Well, Doomsday has arrived.

Put all of this together and you quickly realize that investing funds in Viadeo was throwing good money after bad, and for a company or a professional user, a complete waste of time. One more technology company to go join My Space, Netscape, Orkut* and soon Yahoo in the cemetery of deluded, badly managed, acquired or failed software/internet companies.
Sic transit gloria mundi

*Just a few years ago, Orkut was all the rage in Brazil before everybody migrated to Facebook. Many people don't even remember it once existed

NOTE: Although the analysis in this post shares some of the findings presented to investor clients, it remains the intellectual property of Ahmed Limam and as such cannot be reproduced in any form without  his written permission)

(The blogger/consultant/advisor is currently attending Cornerstone Convergence 2016 in London)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Middle Kingdom: Musings on Chinese HR, technology and the country

The Oriental Pearl Tower  seen from the Bund.
As spectacular as un-Chinese since, unlike Muslim
minarets and Gothic cathedrals, Chinese palaces, pagodas
and pavilions have traditionally been low-rise affairs
Surprising as it may seem for the globe-trotter I am, until this week I had never set foot in China. Although I had worked on many global projects which involved rolling out an HR system for a Chinese workforce the opportunity never arose for me to visit the ancient land known to Marco Polo as Cathay* (the name is still used by one of the most successful airlines in the world, based out of Hong Kong.)

It was therefore with great trepidation that I boarded the world's largest aircraft, the Airbus A380, for the longest trip east that I had ever taken in order to spend most of the week in Shanghai with the local subsidiary of a multinational client. This was a unique opportunity to gather business requirements face to face with HR users in their local environment, something only imperfectly done in virtual meetings, on the phone or by email.

You soon realize that if in China rules and laws may not be voted on by a democratically elected parliament, but rather handed down by the omnipotent Communist Party, they are adhered to ferociously, as I was reminded when, during one of the workshops I led, I suggested we shorten the lunch break from one hour to 45 minutes. The reaction was a categorical NO. Labor laws are labor laws: one hour's break for lunch is one hour. Can't say I was shocked since that is exactly the same rule as in France (but outside the rest period, the Chinese workforce is a hard working one and I was impressed by the quality and dedication they bring to the task.) Actually, many other aspects of China's labor laws seem to be directly inspired from France's: such as the 1-2% of a company's payroll which must be set aside for the worker union to spend on employee benefits. But then French laws are at times very socialistic, if not outright Communist (ever wondered why the Labor Code in France is a little red book?)

Replica of Xi'an Terracotta Army
soldier, gifted to the blogger
by the Chinese delegation to the
UN World Tourism Organization where
he worked in the 1990s

A rapidly changing country
As everybody knows, China has managed to bring hundreds of millions of people into middle-class wealth faster than any other country on earth: in the past 25 years income per person has risen 13 times, whereas in the rest of the world the figure is barely 3 times. I see on Shanghai overcrowded roads more SUVs  than anywhere else but the US. Beijing has more billionaires than New York.  If there ever was a national success story it is China. And yet serious problems are looming: it is still an autocratic country, unemployment is rising, especially in the poorer rural areas in the country's western half, inflation is high (Shanghai home prices rose by 20% last year), the population is greying fast as a result of the one-child policy aiming at reining in demographic pressure, pollution shows its ugly face in many places with foul air a constant irritant. Some un-Chinese traits such as individualism and Western-style consumerism are on the rise in this increasingly unequal People's Republic. (I always marvel at Chinese tourists who buy designer bags at Paris upscale department stores for a price that is higher than many workers back home make in a year)

Now, to the topic at hand, requirements to manage a Chinese workforce as part of a global HRIS. In some aspects HR law and  practice in China may be complex, even cumbersome (but is there a place  where that is not the case?) However, in many other aspects it is quite simple and even free-market based, reminiscent of the practice in the (income-tax free) Persian Gulf states. For instance, in Europe and America, there is a quite clear-cut distinction between permanent employees and contractors, HR processes apply fully to the first, not to the second. In China, there are no contractors: everybody is a permanent employee. There are also no part-time workers. In other countries, some employees may work only 30% of the normal schedule, and in some cases be paid differently, all depending on labor agreements and regulations. In China, if you're going to work for a company, you work full time. Otherwise, go somewhere else. And no labor agreements either, which makes it much easier to set up compensation plans and eligibility rules
Art Deco glory.
East meets West at the spendid
waterfront neighborhood known
as the Bund

Over lunch, when the Head of HR asked me why there were so many strikes in France (yes, that national trait has made it to the other end of the world) I replied, "For the usual reason: to get more money." She looked very surprised: "Really? But if they want more money and they are not getting it from their current employer, why don't they just move to another better-paying company?" Admirable logic, which makes sense in a fast-growing, emerging market like China, but, alas, does not apply in sclerotic European countries like France.

Language-wise (you may want to brush up on my 5 pillars of "glocalization") if you're going to roll out a global HRIS in China, make sure all self service features are available in Mandarin. Otherwise, the system won't be used. Many HR power users, even if working for a multinational company, will struggle with English, so having the whole system in Mandarin is a must.

Workflows with different levels of approvals is also a must-have in a country where deference to senior management is part and parcel of the culture. Electronic notifications have made great progress in the Middle Kingdom but some document still need to be printed out for signature and be handed out to the relevant recipient. If you ever wondered why China is referred to as the Middle Kingdom it's simply the name in Chinese: The first character for the name is a horizontal rectangle cut in half by a vertical stroke, meaning, you've guessed, Middle. Like all great societies, China sees itself as the center of the universe. Can't blame them; after all, they are the most populous nation on earth, soon to be the richest, and the one with the longest continuous civilization in the world.

It's all about Human Resources

HR rules and HR Departments are nothing new in this country. The US only got its Civil Service with its grades and steps and examinations at the end of the 19th century, but the Chinese Ming dynasty, which ruled the country until 1644, already had a Department of Personnel with a nine-grade bureaucracy and legendary examinations one had to sit for and pass before being entitled to a position. Modern China is simply the heir to a long, centuries-old  tradition.

Among the various HR domains and processes, time recording can be quite complex in many Chinese companies, especially manufacturing now that China has become the world's factory. However, soaring taxes, transportation and energy costs means that China's labor force is no longer as cheap as it was. China will increasingly have to move up the value chain, which explains the strong emphasis on training, competencies, learning and development, and executive assessment. Again, nothing surprising in this ancient Confucian culture where learning values  are rated very high.
The blogger ready to board the Shanghai
MagLev Train. At an average speed of 300 km/186 m
per hour, with a peak speed of 430 km/237 m per hour,
it is the world's fastest train.  It is also the only one that runs on
magnetic-levitation technology.  Whether it is profitable
remains to be seen as it is pricey and covers a short distance
(in a highly congested area, though)

Payroll, is of course, highly regulated like everywhere else, but China is far from being the worst offenders. And there are limits to nannying employees: for instance, salary advances, which in some countries are mandatory if requested by the employee, simply don't exist in China You are paid for the work done, not the promise of it. For any help, go to your family, is the message in a culture where family bonds are stronger than in the West, but weaker than in Mao's times (In China people don't resort to banks for their savings needs but rather to the family or peer-to-peer networks.)

Absence management is also complex, and China is rather unique in that it distinguishes between absence types mandated by law and  those awarded by a company as a benefit for a differentiated treatment. The former  have to be taken during the take period, and if the employee leaves before its end they are compensated; whereas the latter, if not taken, are lost and are not compensated. And just as part-time employees are unusual, taking an unpaid leave or a sabbatical is unheard of for most people. Note the existence of many recruiting and training agencies (such as Zhaopin or 51job.)

Benefits involve many players: government, worker union and employer. Noteworthy that if some benefits (such as birthday allowance) are not provided by the worker union then the employer will play the substitute role and provide them.

In a  country where education has long been seen as a passport  to success, small wonder that competency frameworks, training agencies and learning models are all the rage. Many companies would finance employee degrees in exchange for a guaranteed stay with the company (similar to tuition reimbursement by US companies.) For some useful training (such as languages), private enrollment would also be refunded by the employer if the employee brings evidence of the certification thus earned.

China's HRIS vendors hold their own
To meet the HRIS needs of Chinese companies, whether domestic or subsidiaries of multinationals, the array of providers is quite large. SAP's market share is largely around its on-premise offering, and Oracle's is based on PeopleSoft. Cloud vendors are represented by Workday, a distant third but growing fastest. Kronos is well-entrenched when it comes to time management. Unsurprisingly for such a highly patriotic, even nationalistic, country, Chinese vendors have, together, a majority market share. They include household names in China such as Beisen, the undisputed talent company, and other vendors such as Neusoft (or even micro-blogging firm Weibo) covering various HR processes, when not the whole gamut of functions.

The biggest challenge facing homegrown vendors is how to go global, not an easy task when some tools which we take for granted are not available in China. First-come visitors to China may be surprised, even shocked, to find that social media and internet tools like Facebook and Google are banned (unless you, or your company, are lucky to have your own VPN.) In the West, and even the rest of the world, so much HR work, actually so much business work, involves using these platforms that you may be thrown offbalance when you realize you cannot keep up with your friends (on Facebook), get your email (on Gmail), check a video on YouTube, or plan an itinerary on Google Maps. Surprisingly and erratically WhatsApp, despite being a Facebook product, is allowed to operate in China. The Chinese make do with local variants such as Baidu, Weibo or WeChat (which is integrated with LinkedIn.).

The Chinese are a justifiably proud nation, but also a pragmatic one. They will find ways to live up to their full potential and be a full member of the global business community, something they've longed for and craved for a long time.Needless to say that this post only covers the People's Republic of China (PRC) aka Mainland China. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao are completely different in terms of context, HR maturity and vendor landscape. In due course they will warrant their own blog post.

(The blogger is currently crisscrossing the globe gathering requirements for a multinational company. Next stop: Detroit, USA.)

(This is the latest in a series of wide-ranging articles focusing on a single country. Previous posts:

August 2011: Brazil Rising: Thoughts on HR, technology and an emerging giant 
December 2012: My 20-Year Affair with Spain  - with more than 9,000 views it is one of my most popular blog posts
June 2013: Thoughts on India, its HR/technology space
Nov. 2014: Of Switzerland, the country, its HR practice and technology landscape)

NOTE: All photos are the work of the blogger and copyright applies
From the blogger's library

*I strongly recommend Gary Jennings' superb novel, The Journeyer, about the great man's 13th- century travels throughout a China few  people had ever seen then. 1,000 pages which you can't put down until you reach the end. For anybody wanting to understand China's wrenching changes in a historical perspective, Jonathan Spence's In Search of Modern China is a must-read. Nobel-Prize winner Pearl Buck's novels, set in pre-Communist post-Imperial China,  have a lot to say about the Chinese soul and experience. The movie buff I am relishes Zhang Yimou's movies (especially when the incomparable Gong Li is in them): Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, Red Sorghum and Flying Daggers are favorites. He is also the man behind the highly acclaimed opening and closing ceremonies at Beijing's 2008 Olympics. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

SOW - A Comparison of 3 Global Cloud HR vendors: SAP, Oracle and Workday

The leader, the follower and the laggard
I have been asked for a while to share my system-evaluation and -implementation experience with the community and my readership by comparing the three most frequently shortlisted cloud HR systems: SAP (SuccessFactors), Oracle (Fusion) and Workday. I will from now on refer to them as SOW, to be pronounced either to rhyme with "low" (as in "low adoption") or to sound like a female pig since some of these vendors' features are no better than lipstick on a pig. *

Of apples and oranges
Although there are more than three cloud-based HR vendors, the reason I am limiting myself to the SOW usual suspects is because they are the only ones with a global reach to meet the complex requirements of multinational companies. Despite attempts to the contrary, Ultimate is still a US vendor, Meta4 has all but disappeared, HR Access has been folded into Sopra and Cornerstone has yet to make up its mind whether to develop a full-fledged HR Admin module - and without an HR system of record you cannot have a global HRIS worth its salt. ADP is mainly a payroll outsourcer with multiple products (some in the cloud and covering various HR processes) but not a global HR system of record. Infor has yet to rationalize its product offering à la Fusion and its Lawson offering was never a truly global HRIS. And some of these vendors' "cloud" offerings are really nothing more than a quick repackaging of their old hosting business. So, here we are, stuck with SOW.

This being said, it is worth remembering that to a large extent  we are comparing apples and oranges since there are such key differences between these vendors that some evaluation exercises can turn to the surreal. Oracle, for instance, is mainly a database vendor with a strong anti-cloud history and a PeopleSoft legacy customer base which has yet to endorse Oracle Fusion. SAP, which comes from the application world, has therefore more serious credentials, reinforced by its continuing investment in the SuccessFactors platform. Its main issue is that, in addition to some questionable product decisions, it has yet to articulate a cogent cloud-based ERP strategy.  This is the main reason why I refer to Oracle and SAP (along with some others) as dinosaurs in a popular blog post. Workday, on the other hand, is of course a native cloud vendor which has quickly shot to the top of the league table with an offering, business culture and service quality that the other dinosaurs can only dream of emulating. Yet, Workday is far from perfect and also has some serious issues.

SaaS and cloud
Some companies may not care about the differences between SaaS and cloud, some may even be ignorant of them, but it is good to remind my readership of the meaning of these  two concepts which are often and wrongly used interchangeably. SaaS is the most advanced form of the cloud where all parts of an offering (hardware, database, software) come from a  single vendor. All you the customer need to provide is a browser-toting device (desktop/tablet/smartphone) and you're in business. Workday is thus a true SaaS vendor. SuccessFactors, whose offering relies on some on-premise legacy features which are hosted, is getting there but cannot be considered 100% SaaS. As for Oracle, who first developed its Fusion product as  an on-premise solution, and can deliver it as a hosted system, it is therefore in the cloud but of course not SaaS. So remember this key differentiator: All SaaS systems are by definition cloud-based, but the reverse is not true.

Stats wars
As the community knows, I have zero tolerance for fanciful figures, especially around customer numbers. Some of the fairy tales I hear are so absurd that I am unsure whether to laugh or sob when I hear them. The below scorecards provide a reasonable count of LIVE customers as per each cloud system. If the customer is still on PeopleSoft for HR Admin and has interfaced it to Taleo or some Fusion talent modules, Oracle will refer to this misleadingly as Cloud HCM. I don't. Same thing for SAP: If Employee Central is not implemented, then I do not count SuccessFactors as a reference - it is only a talent project, not a global HR one. Workday is easier since, by definition, their system cannot run without core HR as a foundation (although some customers use a light HR version to start with talent processes such as performance.)

Integrated/interfaced/unified/organic etc.
After phony customer count figures, the biggest source of BS that comes from vendors has to do with how well integrated the offering is. Here misinformation is rife, with Oracle the undisputed leader. Fusion, which can come in different flavors as mentioned earlier (public cloud, private cloud, on-premise - see below) does not necessarily cover all HR processes and most customers prefer to hang on to the legacy core HR. Talent features can come from either Fusion or Taleo. And within Taleo remember that the Learn.com product was built on .NET technology whereas Taleo was built on Java.

SAP SuccessFactors at least developed Employee Central on its own technology stack; however Plateau was not a 100% SaaS offering, and Concur and Fieldglass are based on other technologies. The other SF modules are also on different technologies which means a customer running the whole suite will have different code bases AND versions. (And as for Multiposting, well, nobody knows when/if it will be integrated in SF/EC.) Not pretty, and not full SaaS. And, of course, Employee Central Payroll is anything but an Employee Central payroll.

Workday, on the other hand, as befits a product developed from scratch and organically, has the cleanest data model with all HR processes now available, except Learning. Payroll is largely work in progress, with the last two countries released (UK, France) yet to go live with a customer. I still have my doubts as to the ability of a single global SaaS payroll vendor to deliver the goods in an efficient manner.
I can already hear some jump and say, "Hold on a second. Workday, too, has integrated third-party technologies after acquiring Cape Clear and Identified." Most true, but there is a fundamental difference when you integrate a third-party product as part of your underlying technology and when you do it to cover a specific HR domain. With the latter you find yourself with a different look and feel, different workflows, a different data model. Any HR user who had to struggle with different products would tell you what a nightmare it is.


Oracle Fusion has come a long way from an on-premise, complex-to-implement, functionally limited product with an ugly look and feel (those overloaded screens with horrid blue!), to one that can be deployed in the cloud. To get a sense of Fusion's background, refer to my post "Error 404: Oracle Fusion not found".) Since then, it has made progress (especially on the  UI front when it moved from FusionFX to Skyros), but its two other competitors, both cloud natives, have moved faster and often better. Oracle still misses many key HR domains (see the product scorecard below) and its vision and roadmap at best are fuzzy, at worse don't make any sense: Why waste its time developing unneeded products such as Employee Wellness, Reputation Management, My Volunteering or low-priority ones such as HR Help Desk, and still miss, Tier-1 country localizations or Recruitment on the Fusion platform? The co-existence or hybrid approach is not a meaningful differentiator, but actually a sign of weakness: Missing key bits, Oracle tends to lump everything together and it's up to the customer to make sense of what is what and how to integrate it, not an easy task when Oracle is still not very forthcoming when it comes to its offering, as explained below.

Public Cloud, Private Cloud, and Cloud ServicesThe Taleo product line is a case in point: Officially rebranded as Oracle Talent Cloud (but on their website still referred to as Oracle Taleo Cloud) it is supposed to be the Recruiting offering to be interfaced to Fusion Core HR. However, the overlap issues (Fusion Performance vs Taleo Performance, say, or Fusion Compensation vs Taleo Compensation) has yet to be resolved. Ask the question and  you'll get a mumble from poor sales executives who are none the wiser. Note that Taleo is a hodgepodge of various acquisitions itself: Learn.com (with its scaling issues), Jobpartners, Recruitforce and Vurv, and Wordwide Compensation. (Not to mention that there are two Taleo flavors that go by the Enterprise and Business monikers)Talking about Compensation I find it a pity that Fusion does not allow user-defined logic to go into compensation elements, for instance to add a regional rate to a pay rate and calculate an employee's compensation on that basis.
Fusion, born as an on-premise product, can be hosted in a private cloud (customer's own environment) or shared (public cloud) with different deployment implications.
As if  the (con)Fusion was not enough, you have PeopleSoft Cloud Service which is as far from a SaaS offering as St Petersburg, Florida is from St Petersburg, Russia.
Then there is a host of other products such as Right Now Policy Automation (benefit eligibility), another acquisition, which Oracle throws at befuddled customers.
Making sense of Oracle's offering is clearly not for the faint-hearted.

Great products are built by great people. The converse is also true: Mediocre people build mediocre products. Oracle, with its stifling bureaucracy and awful management, has problems attracting and retaining quality people, especially in the HCM ¨product line. Add to that the fact that in Oracle's highly political culture the technology side has always had the upper hand versus product, and that HCM has always been the Cinderella application, only getting attention when a top leader emerges (first PeopleSoft, and now Workday.) This explains why the company never features in Great Places To Work league tables and has suffered from a steady hemorrhage of its best and brightest from PeopleSoft who have been poached from Workday, leaving a lot of deadwood behind.

An even bigger biggest issue with Oracle is how it (mis)treats its long-suffering customers. Just this week, an old customer, the  French Civil Aviation Authority, who has had enough of Oracle's abusive licensing and audit practices, decided to discontinue the use of all Oracle products. Last year, two other French companies, Carrefour and AFPA, went to court over the same issues and won. In 2014, a survey by the Campaign for Clear Licensing of 100 global Oracle customers found that 92% of them were deeply unhappy with the vendor. In the US, none other than the federal government decided in 2012 to ban Oracle from bidding for its business due to the vendor's questionable sales practices. Well, you get the idea. Unless you evince a particularly strong masochistic streak, selecting Oracle often  means tough times ahead.

On the technology front, Fusion, contrary to the vendor's spin, is not a "fusion" of its portfolio applications, but neither is it exclusively based on its unpopular EBS product line even if it borrows many features from it such as FastFormulas and Flexfields - the latter permeates Fusion even more than with EBS thus allowing good customization possibilities. However, Forms have mercifully been retired in favor of more modern Java and SOA-based technology. Outbound integration is a big headache as is data migration, even from Oracle's legacy systems. It is noteworthy that if many Oracle customers prefer to implement Fusion in the cloud rather than on-premise it is (in addition to the natural preference for the cloud), because, first, the HR Admin part has yet to reach functional parity with PeopleSoft (or Workday) and, second, the technical complexity of doing so is not to be ignored (just the sizing requirements would discourage the best-intentioned customer.)

Although initial pricing can be quite seductive (Oracle heavily discounts Fusion in order to drive up customer adoption, or offers a credit to swap on-premise applications for cloud-based Fusion), the vendor's customer-relations record, as mentioned earlier, is far from reassuring. Also, if you are an-on premise customer and are renewing/extending your license, Oracle will throw a cloud subscription at you included in the package. You might as well take it, even if you are unsure whether you'll actually move to the cloud.

In summary, customers  who already run an Oracle HR application (PeopleSoft, EBS, JDE), have a good rapport with the vendor (admittedly a rare occurrence), negotiate a financially interesting migration, do not need cutting-edge technology or terrific look and feel, and don't mind not being pampered or the complex integration behind products that come from disparate technological stacks, can look at Fusion seriously, especially when taking into account a strong point: its reversibility. Surprising as it may sound, there are still companies out there that are wary of the cloud (after the NSA snooping scandal and the current legal tug-of-war between US authorities and Apple and Microsoft you can't really blame them): With Oracle you can bring your HR system within your corporate firewall without having to switch systems and go through another complex implementation. This advantage comes at a hefty price, though: no single code line for all customers since, depending on what flavor of Fusion customers have, they can stay on their version much longer than public cloud customers. There are therefore multiple versions of Fusion at any given time, which increases the cost of running the product. And, as we all know, the customer always ends up bearing the costs. And if you are a customer who is still on the old look and feel, moving to the new one is not a straightforward process.

The world's largest business-software vendor, and the one with the most localized payrolls, took a leaf from its nemesis Oracle when it went down the acquisition road by acquiring SuccessFactors (SF). However, as I explained in detail in my blog post on their strategy just after the transaction was announced, SAP differs markedly from Oracle: Rather than build from scratch a product for the cloud, in which neither had any experience, SAP decided to continue investing in the SF platform by beefing up its Core HR/HR Admin product a.k.a. Employee Central (EC). Although the latter has grown significantly since its earlier releases, it has yet to catch up to the group's leader, Workday.

One increasingly important strong point of SF is that it belongs to a European vendor. With all the data-privacy issues raised by NSA snooping, many companies (especially European ones) are loath to go with a US-based vendor with a loss-of-data Sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Three weaknesses from SAP SF have yet to be solved:

-SF is still missing a payroll module based on its own platform, and the misleading Employee Central Payroll (in reality a hosted SAP Payroll) is no substitute for a truly integrated offering. SAP brought us the largest number of localized payrolls on earth; Why can't it use that expertise to enhance SF and make it a truly global and comprehensive HR offering? No full-fledged global HR system has come to market without its own payroll, so the jury is still out on whether SAP can be the exception that proves the rule.

- The multiple code lines and releases that make up the SF platform need to converge on a single code line and release based on EC. It is bad product design and worse customer support not to inform a customer that they are not enjoying a critical feature because they are on a older release  as happens with many customers. (Workday would never allow that to happen if only because the window customers have to move from one release to another is expressed in weeks, not months or years as is the case with SAP or Oracle.)

- SAP is also the vendor that brought us the integrated ERP. But it seems that all the strongly vaunted advantages of a single-platform ERP got lost in the move from on-premise to the cloud. All the HANA'ing in the world cannot hide the fact that the company that gave us the on-premise integrated business software is incapable of pulling the same trick in the brave new world of the cloud.

In a recent blog I compared SF's and Workday's pricing so no need for me to repeat myself since that analysis is recent and  therefore up to date. Oracle's talent-retaining issues are not unknown to SAP (I covered it in my recently updated blog post "Could the last executive leaving SAP turn the lights off, please?")

Another issue SAP needs to fix is the implementation methodology. SF came with its own methodology, SAP had another one, and integration partners are at times unaware of which is which. This will hardly help in building confidence in the offering. And the implementation template that SF provides does not list implementation activities in detail so you are often on your own. (Compare that with the fastidiously detailed documents you get from Workday)

Noteworthy is SAP's equivalent to Oracle's co-existence deployment model called here the Talent Hybrid model. The two approaches are not much to write home about since customers have been doing it for a while: Integrating their on-premise HR system of record with cloud-based talent features. Actually, customers started doing it even before SAP and SF found themselves under the same roof.

Who is the most likely customer for SF as a global HRIS? Experience shows that it is mainly SAP's on-premise customers who move to the cloud with it, especially if they are already using SF for their talent needs (in particular Performance or Learning.) However, an increasing number of SAP's on-premise customers include Workday in their cloud evaluation, and a worryingly lengthening list have decided to go with it. SAP, as a vendor, and SF, as a product, need to make themselves more attractive to retain these fickle customers.


The HR thought leader and Wall Street darling has revolutionized the HR technology world (that search-based navigation was truly something out of this world when it first came out) and has just passed $1 billion in revenue (in comparison, Oracle's cloud HR business makes up less than 1% of its total revenue.) Workday also has more customers using it as a cloud-based HR system of record than Oracle and SAP  put together. They say that plagiarism is the best form of flattery; considering how many features of Fusion and SuccessFactors were obviously copied from Workday who premiered them, the newest kid on the block still retains its thought leader's crown.

What is attracting the crowds is a native-cloud product, built with consumer-grade usability, a depth of functionality that only those who built PeopleSoft could engineer, a customer focus and engagement that is still unique in the industry. The latter has made the vendor evolve its approach significantly: For instance, from the four releases a year at the beginning to a more manageable two now. Workday has also listened to customers and forsaken its rigidly neutral system-integrator (SI) approach: it will now recommend a specific SI for a specific project, something that was anathema for so long.

All the oohing and aahing about Workday, most of it well deserved, cannot hide that not everything is hunky-dory in the Pleasanton, CA-based HRIS heaven. You can read my Open Letter to Workday's founders for a discussion of these issues. There are still some surprising holes to plug in the offering such as the production of contracts and offer letters or some workflow limitations (despite the fact that their workflow framework is the best of the three.) So far, Payroll has been limited to North America and no date has been set for the release of the Learning piece. The talent features have been improved significantly, in no small measure through the addition  of a Recruitment module (some integration issues with their Core HR need  to be fixed), but Workday has yet to reach functional parity with SuccessFactors in the talent space.

Reporting is undoubtedly one of Workday's strongest suits. For those who use PeopleSoft, it is such a relief not to need to be a PeopleTools expert to write Workday reports. To a large extent you can even say that Workday is a collection of reports since wherever you are in the system you can pull up the relevant reports many of which are "actionable" to use the hackneyed word. But, careful, user-friendliness here is more for the HR team, not occasional users, and it may be better to restrict the creation of reports to a core reporting team rather than jeopardize consistency by having any/everybody duplicating existing reports.

Customization, or lack thereof, is the hallmark of SaaS systems. Unfortunately, in the  real world companies need a certain amount of customization which will not be lost when upgrading. Squaring the circle, you may think.  Workday's custom objects is a move in the right direction, but it has its limitations: There are only so many custom objects you can have, you cannot use them where you see fit and cannot pull them up necessarily where needed. SuccessFactors, with its Metadata Framework-based extensibility approach (especially in Employee Central), does a better job in that respect and so does Oracle (with Flexfields, as mentioned earlier), as befits a product that is available both on-premise and in the cloud.

Workday's greatest success has probably been that a significant segment of their customers comes from companies that either had a Tier-2 vendor or did not have a single, global HR system of record (they used various payrolls and different talent tools.) When these customers finally get their act together, they tend to look at Workday first, rarely at SAP or Oracle. However, cloud-seeking SAP and Oracle customers will almost always evaluate Workday, even if they don’t systematically select it: that does not bode well for the dinosaurs’ cloud future.


The grading is based on the many RFPs I have worked on and demos I have attended, along with my own knowledge of these products (derived in no small part from my own use of the systems) and feedback from customers other than the ones I have worked for.
The analysis has been done based on three sets of criteria: Vendor, Product and underlying Technology. Where awarding a grade does not make sense (such as pricing: expensive does not in and of itself mean bad, since often quality comes at a premium) I have left the relevant cells colorless. An explanation of most of the grades can be found throughout this blog post, but I have also mentioned them in the scorecards so that the reader can understand why a vendor is getting a YELLOW rather than an AMBER, for instance.

All data and graphs are by Ahmed Limam who is hereby asserting his copyright. They can be referred to with proper copyright and authorship acknowledgement.

*Some of the ideas in this post were first presented in an article I wrote for TechTarget in January 2015.

(In addition to the vendor-specific posts I mention throughout this piece, there are many more I wrote in the past few years focusing on a vendor or a particular issue. The most popular ones can be found in the list provided in the top-right corner and automatically updated based on viewer number. For other posts, you'll have to scroll down and search for them one by one).