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HRExaminer Radio: Episode #172: Naomi Bloom

On July 11, 2016, in HRExaminer Radio, by John Sumser

HRExaminer Radio

HRExaminer Radio is a weekly show devoted to HR Technology airing live on Wednesdays and Fridays at 7AM Pacific.

HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Naomi Bloom, Managing Partner, Bloom & Wallace
Episode: 172
Air Date: April 27, 2016

 

Ms. Bloom is one of the most renowned consultants, influencers, and thought leaders in the HR technology industry. Naomi has advised many large corporate clients on their HRM and HR technology strategies and consulted with three generations of HRM software vendors and outsourcing providers on everything from business strategy to product/service design. Today, Naomi acts as a strategic advisor and mentor to selected organizations and projects which advance the state of enterprise class HR technology and its global adoption.

Ms. Bloom built and maintained the only vendor-neutral HRM object model and implied application architecture “starter kit,” which she licensed and consulted on across the industry. Her work in this area has made a significant contribution to many of today’s best SaaS HRMS and talent management applications as well as to the expertise of today’s best HRMS/TM product strategy and development teams. For her outstanding work and contributions to the industry, Ms. Bloom received IHRIM’s Summit Award in 1995 and, in 2015, a Lifetime Achievement Award from HRN, the organization which produced HR Tech World.

Ms. Bloom is well-published, including on her blog at www.InFullBloom.us, and a much-sought-after speaker for her thought leadership, presentation effectiveness, clarity of vision, and humorous delivery. She is also one of the most followed HR influencers @InFullBloomUS. Naomi holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her MBA from Boston University where she is also a Fellow of the Human Resource Policy Institute at Boston University’s Graduate School of Management.

Audio MP3

 

 

Transcript

 
Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser. Today we’re coming to you from beautiful downtown Sebastopol, California, the first city colonized by the Russians in the United States. Today we’re going to be talking with Naomi Bloom, who is … Her title might be managing partner of Bloom , Wallace, but she is the conscience and the voice of responsible software development in the HR technology industry. Naomi, how are you this morning?

 

Naomi Bloom: I’m terrific. Good morning.

 

John Sumser: Yes. I’m so grateful that you’ve decided to come and have this conversation. I’m really looking forward to it. Would you take a moment and introduce yourself?

 

Naomi Bloom: Absolutely. Whenever I’m asked, “What is it you do,” I find it extremely difficult to answer that question. It becomes a little bit like the 4 questions at Passover, where you give a different kind of answer to each of the questioners, depending on what their perspective is, through what lens are they asking you that question. The simple answer is I design software. I am probably the oldest living software designer in the HR tech space, but that’s a very simplistic answer, because so much of what I do and have been doing over the last 20 or 30 years is trying to steer the direction of HR technology toward what we really need in HR and away from some of the practices of the past which were interesting but not particularly useful.

 

John Sumser: Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about that? What are the things you’re driving towards?

 

Naomi Bloom: Okay. If I could backtrack for a moment, it’ll make it more clear, because I come to this. I started my career in what is affectionately known as the Summer of Love. Actually, the ’60s were pretty cool, but we won’t go there today. It was 1967. I had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I had a job, brand new job, as a programmer trainee, didn’t know quite what that was, neither did anybody else, but at a large insurance company. Some interesting data points. Women who made up 50% of my programmer training class were being paid $137 a week. The male class members were being paid $152 a week. When I asked about the reason for that difference after discovering that difference, I was told it was because the guys would need to support family, and all I was going to do was get pregnant, have babies, and get off the career track. By the way, that’s what I was actually told, so those kinds of words were uttered by personnel people in that era. Pretty scary.

 

John Sumser: Yes.

 

Naomi Bloom: I talk to my young female colleagues today, and they can’t even imagine that world, but that was the way it was 50 years ago next year.

 

John Sumser: 50 years [crosstalk 00:03:44] …

 

Naomi Bloom: Having started in programming, I quickly discovered that I had an annoying habit, which was not going to lend itself to being a developer for the rest of my career. I asked too many damn questions. Why, why, why, why, why? Why do you do it that way? Why do you want it that way? Why is that process needed? Why do we have to have 14 approvals, et cetera, et cetera? I questioned everything, sort of a Naomi as a permanent 2 year old. The very qualities that were my biggest liability in those early years, early years in which I got fired, early years in which my constant questioning got me sidetracked into projects nobody wanted, but those behaviors, turns out if you’re a systems analyst, they’re tremendous assets. I quickly got off the direct programming path, became more of an analyst, project manager, management consultant, et cetera, and really pursued that over the next … really the next 20 years of my career.

 

John Sumser: That’s extraordinary. One of the things that you said there is that one of the necessary skills of a systems analyst, or I would describe that as software designer, is the ability to tell the team that you’re working with that they’re going in the wrong direction and they generally don’t want to hear that. That’s a hard skill to develop, because often as you’re developing that skill, you have to change employers in the process.

 

Naomi Bloom: Absolutely. I was very fortunate, John. I ended up spending 9 years with an incredible consultancy, American Management Systems. I was there during its heyday. It was a refuge for people like me who wanted to change the world, who thought that technology could be used to really innovate, to rethink business. We were ahead of the curve, I think, on that. Actually I would have stayed there much longer, except that as I got into the seventh and eighth and ninth years, I saw them doing more and more government work. I really disliked doing government work. I found the contracting process quite demeaning, and I wanted to move in a more commercial direction, but I was holding down some pretty big dollar business units and they really wanted me to stay doing what I was doing.

 

  I left the firm. In 1987, I founded my solo consulting practice, and I’ve been at it ever since as a solo, focused, to come back to your earlier question, focused really on 2 things. How can we do the people business much better using technology as fully as possible to enable it? What is it about the people business which, if we did it much better, would so drive business outcomes to finally make what was then personnel, what is now HR, to finally make us the driver of results that I’ve always believed us to be?

 

John Sumser: That’s interesting. What are some of the things that you think we could do differently?

 

Naomi Bloom: There’s lots of them. Let me give you a couple of examples. The first is that when I meet an HR person for the first time at a conference, through colleagues, at a social event, whatever, one of the first things I say to them is, “How does your business make money?” If they’re at a public sector organization, “How does your organization achieve its mission?” I 95% of the time get a blank stare, maybe more than 95% of the time. If I ask that question to a CFO, or I ask that question to someone who’s running a line of business, I get an answer.

 

John Sumser: They always know. Right.

 

Naomi Bloom: It may not be the complete answer. It may not be everything under the sun, but it’s an answer. The second question I ask HR people after I get that blank stare is, “If you don’t know how your business makes money, how do you know what you should be doing to help it?” That’s the clincher. When I see, and you see it all the time, when I see an HR organization putting forth its mission, putting forth its strategy, putting forth its multi-year plans, whatever, and you see on the list of things, re-design the benefits plan, engage the workforce, roll out self-service, although I mean God willing it’s been rolled out everywhere, when we see crap like that, and it is crap, you know.

 

John Sumser: What should they be doing?

 

Naomi Bloom: What they should be doing is first of all starting out to find out how we make money. Do we make more money by bringing new products to market faster because our new products are the engine of growth for our company? Do we make money by opening up new geographies for products we already have as well as new products? Do we make money by brilliant marketing that persuades the public to buy stuff they don’t need, okay, and maybe products that don’t even work? Do we make money through financial engineering, by floating bond issues and rolling up in an aggregate consolidation M,A way? How do we make money? That’s the first thing I try to find out when I go in to work with a firm. It’s not like it’s a mystery. There’s 15 or 20 basic ways that organizations make money. Most larger organizations embrace a half dozen of them, maybe more.

 

  Once you figure that out … Let’s just use an example. Let’s say you make money by bringing new products to market as fast as possible, obviously with decent quality, obviously at the right price, but speed matters in your particular industry. If that’s the case, then from an HR perspective, I have to have incentives in place, I have to have hiring policies in place, I have to have learning programs in place that help our designers to design faster, without losing their quality, without losing their price point. I have to have my manufacturing process geared to speed. I’ve got a lot of people-related things I have to do right. Maybe I have to be able to staff up quickly and take advantage of a contingent workforce, because not only do I need to bring things to market faster, but there’s a seasonality to my business.

 

  This is not that hard to figure out. You need sort of an MBA knowledge base, because you got to understand finance, you got to understand that these loans are online and short term, you got to understand marketing and sales and so forth, so you got to have a business background, either acquired in the street or acquired educationally, but then you got to think about it. You got to go out and ask questions. You got to read the annual report. It’s all there. HR people, I believe, have an absolute obligation to be able to answer my first question, how does your firm make money, and my second question, what are you doing to help?

 

John Sumser: What a great message. Now what happens when you tell HR people that?

 

Naomi Bloom: When I went solo in ’87, for the first 10 years, I focused very heavily on working with chief HR officers, major corporations. I developed a methodology for doing this type of analysis, and taking them from how do we make money, to what do we need to do, to how can technology help us and so forth. I did a couple of dozen major projects with companies I could name, Bank of America, International Paper, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, lots of big brand companies. I was really fortunate, because I got to pick to some extent my clients. I was a solo. I didn’t have a lot of mouths to feed. I had many more business opportunities, blessings from heaven, than I could possibly have undertaken, so I could be kind of particular in taking on companies where the CHRO was a visionary. However, on more than 1 occasion, probably on almost every project, even if the CHRO was a visionary, there was this whole layer of people who were not, who took 1 look at me and started plotting how quickly could they get rid of me.

 

John Sumser: Yes [crosstalk 00:13:21].

 

Naomi Bloom: Okay? You can see it in their eyes. Oh my God, she’s here. We had some wonderfully successful projects. We had some projects that were viewed as wonderfully successful, but actually went nowhere. We had lots of wonderful strategic planning projects whose recommendations got buried under the passive aggressive middle management kind of behaviors. One of the things that I learned during those 10 years is I have no patience for this stuff. If you really want to get on with it, let’s go. If you don’t, I’m the wrong person.

 

  The other thing I learned was that we were really missing important capabilities when it came to technology enablement. The technology just wasn’t there yet. I switched gears after those 10 years to working very closely with the vendor community to fundamentally change the kinds of software that we were bringing to that market, in hopes that the software could do more of what was needed since we were lacking, in many cases, lacking in the HR area the vision, the drive, the capability to do some of what was needed.

 

John Sumser: You’ve been kind of a tireless advocate for a level of purity in SaaS implementations as a result of that. How is that going? Do you think that your vision of SaaS, which I would say you have been relentless about, has it come to fruition? Are we in good enough shape to move beyond the is or isn’t it SaaS question?

 

Naomi Bloom: What’s been very interesting, John, around this particular question is that it’s not just about relentless pursuit of purity in SaaS. I’ve been a relentless pursuer of language precision from my earliest career days. Maybe it’s the English major in me. Maybe it’s the physics minor in me. If you call it a rose, it ought to be a rose, not a dandelion. Not that dandelions can’t be beautiful, but we shouldn’t have the same word being used to mean multiple things. That is a huge problem in the world of HR, and it’s a huge problem in the world of IT. In IT early days, we sort of did it deliberately, because if you are a priestess or a priest in the holy temple of computers, and that’s … Remember those big glass rooms?

 

John Sumser: Yes.

 

Naomi Bloom: Where we kept the holy of holies?

 

John Sumser: Yes.

 

Naomi Bloom: If you’re conjuring up a religion, then being suitably vague in the terminology so that the laypeople can’t possibly catch on is a business decision. It’s a strategy. Today technology is ubiquitous. Everybody is involved with technology. It’s long past time for marketing people to be able to obfuscate and call everything by whatever term they like. This came to light, this exact problem came to light, in about 1987 when PeopleSoft came to market with this thing called client server. No one in our industry, no one in the business application software industry, HR or otherwise, had marketed something as a client server. PeopleSoft gave it a very specific definition. As soon as they showed real momentum, every other vendor of mainframe-based application software declared that what they had was client server. It didn’t matter what they had.

 

  That is exactly what has happened more recently, starting in 2005, 2006, when Workday came to market, declared what they had to be SaaS. Everybody took whatever they had and called it SaaS. More recently, they call whatever they’ve got cloud. What I argue for is not that you should or should not have SaaS, you should or should not have cloud, people will make their own choices, but that you should have a precise vocabulary for describing things, so that the customer who thinks they’re buying a Jaguar does not get delivered a Miata at the same price. I drive a Miata. I love my Miata, but I know what it is and it ain’t a Jaguar.

 

John Sumser: Right. Right. It’s an interesting problem, because what would be required to flesh that out all the way is a universe of analysts who had enough independence to be able to say, “This is this and that is that.” I have been trying to make a living doing that for a long time, and it’s quite challenging to get to the place where you can be cleanly independent or at least have your biases well-observed. It’s largely because I think HR is a staff function, and there’s no R,D investment outside of the R,D investment that vendors make. That whole evolution of technology inside of a commercial framework works against the idea of language standardization [crosstalk 00:19:45].

 

Naomi Bloom: I think that’s an important point, and John, I’ll say something else. I think that in order for there to be greater scrutiny in this area, we would need an objective analyst community who saw it as in their interest to be more precise, but we would also need an analyst community with sufficient technical knowledge to understand the important differences.

 

John Sumser: Oh, that. Yes.

 

Naomi Bloom: That small detail.

 

John Sumser: Yes [crosstalk 00:20:16]. Go on.

 

Naomi Bloom: I was just going to say, I was just at an excellent, a very well-run, vendor analyst day, very productive, lots of good information shared, very competent vendor. As I looked around the room, knowing the makeup of the people in the room, there were a handful of people that would actually understand the nuances of some of the discussion, where we were looking at exactly what is the vendor saying, exactly what is the vendor delivering. There were a lot of people in that room who wouldn’t have a clue, and yet they’d be analysts.

 

John Sumser: Being an analyst is an easy thing to do. All you have to do is say, “I’m an analyst.”

 

Naomi Bloom: Exactly.

 

John Sumser: That appears to be the fundamental criteria for participation and the idea … You know I spent much of my early career learning how to code and learning how to run complex software development projects. That’s not a criteria. Being an extrovert who can communicate in writing seems to be more of a criteria than actual technical [preparations 00:21:31].

 

Naomi Bloom: John, I am very much aware that I am at late career stage, and that I’ve had the luxury for many years now of doing as I please, taking the clients that interest me, working on projects that I think matter, writing about whatever I want to write about, because I haven’t been very dependent on revenue generation which is an amazing luxury. I look around at my colleagues, and look, they’re trying to earn a living. There’s a lot of very good people in the influencer analyst space. A lot of their revenue stream does come from vendors, and pissing off the vendors is perhaps not their best move, so I totally get that. My message is for the end users, for the customers.

 

  I tell them the same thing that I recently told a young relative who was about to buy an engagement ring for his fiancee or his soon-to-be fiancee. He knew nothing about diamonds. He was about to make the biggest purchase a young man makes. I said to him, “Diamonds are a blind item. There’s no way a layman can look at a diamond and know what the heck they’re looking at. Yes, you can learn a bit about them and learn about color and clarity and cut and so forth, and that’ll at least give you a working vocabulary, but in the end, you are going to be 100% dependent on the person who sells it to you, on their integrity.”

 

John Sumser: Yup.

 

Naomi Bloom: Software is a little bit like that. You look at the user experience. Hey, that looks swell. Boy, that’s got a lot of features I like. Oh, it’s mobile. It has analytics. It’s social. What more can I want? The layperson doesn’t have the ability to look behind the mirror. You need a trusted advisor who can.

 

John Sumser: That’s wonderful. You hinted at some things. We were going to talk a little bit about the so-called gig economy. You’ve hinted at some of the things that make being an independent attractive, freedom to do what you want to do, and if you’re fortunate enough, the luxury of not having to pay too much attention to revenue. What are your thoughts about the evolving contingent workforce economy? Is that something real?

 

Naomi Bloom: I think that we’ve all been responsible for our careers for at least the last 30 years, that prior to that there was this perhaps unwritten but very real contract. I went to work for a large corporation as a programmer trainee. Had I chosen to stay there and keep my head down and do my job and not bother anybody, I’d still probably be there. It was lifetime employment. The employer provided you with the career path, the learning, the promotional opportunities. They told you when you were ready for your next position. It was very much the employer taking responsibility for your career, not to mention for your benefits, for your pension, for a lot of good stuff.

 

  That was deader than a door knob 10, 15 years into my work life. Ever since then, whether we are legally an employee by the laws of the country in which we’re working, or we are self-employed, again subject to the laws of the country we’re working in, we are all 100% responsible for our careers. If we happen to be working for a period of time for a benevolent dictator employer who thinks they should give us a little training, take the training and love every minute of it, but don’t get blindsided into thinking that you somehow are no longer responsible, not just for your career, but for your retirement savings, for your health care, for your wellness. For everything else, you are totally responsible.

 

  Unfortunately, we have generations of people who are not prepared to be responsible. They didn’t get any education that taught them how to plan for their retirement. I’m talking about education through high school. No one taught them how to go out and find a position or find a project, find the next project, find the third project, how to market themselves, how to build a brand. These are really important life skills, as important as brushing your teeth every day.

 

John Sumser: And more important than learning how to take a test well, which is … If you’ll excuse me for lumping the University of Pennsylvania into this pile, but what the big universities really teach people how to do is take tests well.

 

Naomi Bloom: I couldn’t disagree with you more for the time that I was there. I don’t know what the situation is today.

 

John Sumser: Yup. Yup.

 

Naomi Bloom: [crosstalk 00:27:01]. I actually came out of there with an incredible education, one that I continue to use every day.

 

John Sumser: The ’60s were a different time. I got an incredible education the hard way, and noticed that a lot of the people who are really unprepared are the most educated. If you’re not educated and you have to make your living in a hardscrabble, blue collar environment as the jobs are contracting, you’re actually much more agile than somebody who went through 16 grades of school and thinks the rest of life is another exercise in grades of school.

 

Naomi Bloom: John, at the risk of being disrespectful, I think there are highly unprepared to cope with life blue collar folks, and I think there are highly unprepared to cope with life highly educated folks. I think that one’s ability to cope has more to do with early childhood experiences than the particular socioeconomic pile that you happen to live in.

 

John Sumser: That’s a really interesting perspective, and that’s hardly disrespectful. It’s a wonderful counterpoint.

 

Naomi Bloom: One thing that I wanted to be sure and touch on, because it’s been a driving force in my professional life but also in my personal life, for those of your listeners who are not Jewish and that’s probably most of them, there is a central value in Judaism called tikkun olam, to fix the world. It is central to our belief system that we must leave the world a better place than we found it. Now, as a small individual, nobody from nowhere, you’re not going to solve world hunger, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference.

 

  For me, designing and building and hoping to inspire and bring to market and encourage people to buy software that improves the world of work and workers has really been my small way of living up to that value. When a teacher of mine in junior high said, “Naomi, you’d rather be right than president,” which is an old-fashioned way of saying, “Sit down and shut up,” they were right and I didn’t understand it at the time. I do think it is more important to get something meaningful and valuable done, however small, than it is to be rich or famous or important.

 

John Sumser: I couldn’t agree with you more, couldn’t agree with you more. That’s a great place to notice that we are exhausting our half an hour. Is there something that I should have asked you that we didn’t get the chance to talk about?

 

Naomi Bloom: No. Fortunately, you didn’t ask me about height or weight, so that was good.

 

John Sumser: Yes. Yes, I don’t think anybody in the audience realizes that you’re 7 feet tall, but now that I’ve let the cat out of the bag …

 

Naomi Bloom: Were I 7 feet tall, I would be rather slender.

 

John Sumser: You would be complaining about leg room in airlines.

 

Naomi Bloom: Exactly. Exactly.

 

John Sumser: If it’s not one thing, it’s another. How about a couple of takeaways? What would you like somebody to remember from this conversation?

 

Naomi Bloom: I’d like folks to remember that no matter where they are in their personal and professional life, that they are responsible for its direction, its execution, and its outcome. There’s lots of things we cannot control. Lots of things happen to us that are not of our making, good and bad, but in the end, there’s us. I think that’s an important takeaway.

 

  Then the second important takeaway is, in 1967, women were explicitly paid less money than men, substantially less money than men, educated women doing precisely the same work. The excuse given was that men would have to support a family. Here we are, nearly 50 years later, we still know that there are tremendous differences in gender compensation, gender opportunity, and it’s a great disappointment to me that after 50 years, we have not fixed this.

 

John Sumser: Me too. Take just a moment and re-introduce yourself, and tell people how to get a hold of you if they’d like to follow up.

 

Naomi Bloom: Sure. Naomi Bloom, kibitzer at the margin of HR and HR technology and all things in-between. I’m easily reached via my blog which is infullbloom.us, infullbloom.us. You can follow me on Twitter, @infullbloomus, no dot. If you would like to reach me directly, my email address is naomibloom@mindspring.com.

 

John Sumser: Thanks so much. It’s been great of you to do this, Naomi. We’ve been talking with Naomi Bloom, who is probably without question the single most influential player in the HR technology industry over the last 30 years in spite of her modesty. It’s been an amazing conversation. I want to thank you for listening in today and thank Naomi again for showing up and being clear and value-laden in her conversation.

 

Naomi Bloom: John, thank you so much for having me and I’ll look forward to our next chat.

 

John Sumser: Yeah. Thanks Naomi. You’ve been listening to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser. Have a great day and thanks for tuning in. Bye bye.

 
End transcript

 

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