Whose Tech is it Anyway? Why there’s (mostly) No Such Thing as HR Tech

Max Brawer
6 min readJan 19, 2022

Update: sheetswizard.com is now live! If you love HR Tech and building your own tools, you will love the products & educational resources I am adding there, check them out!

The greatest trick HR Systems ever pulled was convincing the world they existed…

It seems like every day a I hear someone replaced expensive software with Notion or Airtable

I confess that I am having a bit of an existential professional crisis.

One best summarized as “what even is HR?” The distinction between internal admin roles at a company are tenuously held together by spreadsheets and sociology. Worked at a bank before and your headcount sheet has $ signs in it? Finance. Same sheet has tenure? HR. Employee experience issue incorporates a computer or device? IT. Diversity data is about the audience? Marketing. Diversity data is about the employees? HR. And so on.

This confusion is felt most clearly through our software and business process. A “database” or “CRUD” (Create, Read, Update, Delete) app or whatever you want to call it fulfills a few simple, abstract needs:

  • I have a database (i.e., big rectangles of information)
  • I want different users to see information that applies to them as appropriate
  • Users can read info about the data and make certain types of valid changes to update the data. Sometimes they can create new records
  • All the changes are stored in a centralized place
  • Events, such as a record change, can trigger cool logic

This concept, geekily called CRUD, describes at least 50%+ of the tools we use by so many marketing-driven names to fill so many marketing-driven needs…

I googled “CRUD” to make sure my argument wasn’t nonsense and I feel good about these top questions.

…which is what gets so costly and frustrating in the HR tech world. Are you updating performance review values from “Meets Expectations” to “Exceeds”? That’s a performance review tool for talent teams. Changing a salary from 50k to 60k? A compensation tool for comp teams. You get the idea. Tech co’s slice these up into “modules” or “solutions” and divide and conquer, selling your team one a piece until you have little cash on hand and lots of internal strife.

Different people on the same team bought licenses to two products that do the same thing? Straight to jail.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! Then comes the capitalism coup de grace, in walks a vendor to tell you that for one hundred thousand dollars, you can integrate all of those tools together in one place and visualize them with some dorky inflexible pie chart.

To briefly validate this claim, consider my earlier post about building a CRUD web app in Google Sheets and Apps Script. Consider that I’ve taken the same code, modified the UI a bit, and made a promotions app, a compensation adjustment app, a Workday change form, a headcount planning app, an anniversaries & birthday app, a student info system (info is info, but those are “for schools”), and a lunch-ordering tool. Once you go down the rabbit hole, most business apps are just the same basic 1's and 0's. So,

Whose tech is it anyway?

I am not naïve to how things got this way. Whenever I get frustrated with a 25 year old piece of software I have to use, I am reminded of what a much-more-tenured mentor once explained: “software was made to solve a certain problem as it existed at a certain time”. Not long ago, we didn’t all have basic tech skills, there was no cloud and files were local, servers weren’t cheap and plentiful, major UI libraries like React hadn’t created global expectations for using a tool with no instruction needed. So, what can you do?

One Path: Use a tool that was made for 2022.

There are a few folks who have figured out some new rules of HR (but really enterprise) tech: Rule #1: make the employee the customer. I get that in 2005, an HR Info System was for a small audience of HR folks to manage records. In 2022, company information is shared by the employee and the employer. ChartHop is a great example, specifically defining its value with “Unlike legacy People Analytics solutions, ChartHop is designed to be used by the whole organization”. The same org chart used for intense planning is used by every teammate who wants to make an all-hands slide and every person who wants to know their team.

Rule #2: admin is HR and HR is admin. You’ve heard this one plenty in this post, so instead of listening to me, listen to what only Rippling seems to get: why buy a legacy HR system and a legacy payroll system and an IT ticketing system and hire 5 professionals to integrate them all for cohesion when could just build a usable database for everyone? Ever since seeing their demo, I’ve been having trouble continuing my current path of filling gaps in the old-school stuff (please send motivation).

Another Path: Build the workflow yourself (or with no-code).

Remember the text I screenshot that kicked off this whole article? More and more frequently, I learn about the front of the adoption curve by hearing how smaller businesses that use Airtable, Notion and the like (vs. entrenched big-enterprise software) to do…everything. As stated earlier, if you can build the pieces of any workflow yourself, you don’t need something specialized. If you make an ATS in Notion, freely available software, does it matter what your team or company is? No. This is likely why Sam Parr & Shaan Puri put Airtable, Notion & Zapier on their “12 startups that can make you a millionaire” list. And if the tools can do anything, then what the heck is HR Tech?

Well, on the other hand, some things truly are HR Tech:

The stuff we got into above describes how creating and reading data can masquerade as an HR-specific process when it doesn’t need to be. On the flipside, there are some tools that deal exclusively with the experience of being a human and employee at a company that are tailor-made with an understanding of how HR people (really Admin people) work.

For example, a survey tool is just a web form, capturing and then displaying data. However, CultureAmp has an example of a truly HR tech feature. It understands that an exit survey and an exit interview are two components of the same data point, as shown by fielding the survey NOT-anonymously and creating a custom PDF template for the interview to take notes before completing the comprehensive record.

From Cultureamp.com

Another true HR topic is Diversity and Inclusion, and a true HR tool is Progressary, which can “prove the impact of your DEI strategy with data”. This to me is the next level for an HR leader. Design a DEI program, input the ways in which it was implemented, and hold yourself accountable for actual results across the hierarchy of departments.

From Progressary.com

Similarly, Textio and Datapeople can help you make a great job posting that are inclusive in their language and drive the maximum number and diversity of applicants. That is solving an HR problem with HR expertise.

And as one final (but not exhaustive) example, there are tools that can finally measure work, getting all up in our meetings and emails and helping us understand our own communication and inclusivity. Cultivate has long been doing this with text, and the pandemic has finally allowed audio transcribers like Lex to capture meeting audio and deploy machine learning models tuned to pick up on behaviors that makes us feel we belong. Now that’s a far cry from CRUD.

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Hopefully this helps you think critically about what tools you use in your trade and we can break ties with the old and usher in the new. I don’t have all the answers here and would love to know what you think. Am I overgeneralizing? Is there a tool that excites you about the future? Maybe no jargon, like CRUD or Admin or Enterprise or HR, is quite right.

Maybe we just call them “Work Tools”.

Opinions are the author’s own and not those of any employer. PS: I am gearing up to teach a course on People Analytics to help others break into this world and grow — please fill out this form to show initial interest: https://bit.ly/learnpeopleanalytics

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Max Brawer

People Tech & Analytics leader @ Level, formerly Twitch, BuzzFeed, Google, Nielsen | Try his apps @ sheetswizard.com