2021-08-16 hr examiner photo img lg sap successfactor logo 544x248px.png

Stacy Chapman, Satish Sallakonda, Meg Bear, and Amy Wilson are all long-term players in the HRTech industry. With SAP SuccessFactors’ acquisition of SwoopTalent, they are joined together as a supergroup. The acquisition suggests that SuccessFacors is about to approach the market in a powerfully different way.

SuccessFactors’ CEO, Jill Popelka, is rapidly assembling the industry’s deepest bench of forward-looking enterprise HCM pros. Years in the industry make you either locked into a static view of the market and its core values or uniquely suited to imagine and execute breakthrough ideas. Popelka’s team is definitely the latter.

At SwoopTalent, Chapman and Sallakonda have built incredible tools that do the hard work of orchestrating, cleaning, and assembling disparate data sets into an aggregate that can be treated as a single pool. The technology is the sort of complex execution that makes users’ lives easier and the data more useful.

That’s worth unbundling.

We are awash in data. Anything that doesn’t produce a data stream is an anomaly. If you think your workspace is cluttered with stuff you are not sure what do with, imagine the operations function at the nexus of enterprise data flows.

It’s the wild, wild west.

While voluminous and there are attempts at effective organization, the reality is that most data might as well be completely unstructured. There are few standards for file names, field names, field content, or even the need for fields. Data may well be the new oil. But we have few technologies to extract it. Our enterprises sit on vast treasures of data with limited ability to actually make it useful.

Although there are some Natural Language Processing projects that claim to extract meaning from unstructured data, they are usually limited to the sort of info you find in open ended survey questions. There, the answers may be unstructured but the source, location, field limits, and quantities are easily knowable.

Most data is significantly more ambiguous and fluid than that.

One of the most interesting bits of tech at SwoopTalent makes it possible to marry radically different data sets while the machine figures out which fields mean the same thing. By examining the behavior of the data, SwoopTalent makes it possible to merge complex data sets without the usual labor intensive data integration process.

Most data integration involves humans painstakingly examining, matching, and reconciling data elements with differing names but essentially the same content. That’s hours and hours of studying all the fields in multiple databases to understand which names probably apply to the same underlying data. It’s mind-numbing work done by data scientists and analytics professionals. “Data science is 90% data cleaning and 10% science.” The work is grueling and error prone.

Automating that process is one of SwoopTalent’s core superpowers. To prove its value, the company built a small business managing and extracting data for recruiting uses. This is an exploding field with a dozen or more well-funded players that hope to offer the holy grail of sourcing—people discovery.

So, why would that matter to SuccessFactors?

For starters, the SuccessFactors team is very clear that they did not buy the recruiting business. They bought the intellectual property and hired the team. The goal is to embed SwoopTalent’s tech, experience, and capabilities deeply into their infrastructure.

In a session for analysts in advance of the announcement, Meg Bear offered generalities about the first integration, saying SuccessFactors will introduce an Opportunity Marketplace late this year. My sense is that this is a way to inventory and offer a variety of stretch assignments and development opportunities to people within the enterprise.

The problem with any such endeavor is the same problem companies have with any sort of workforce planning or development project. The employee profile section of a company’s HRIS is usually a ghost town. Maybe 20% of employees take the time to complete a profile.

The average tenure of an employee is roughly three years. It’s easier to get a promotion or raise by moving to another company. These facts make it hard for an employee to see the value of completing an adequate profile.

Worse still, the introspection required to complete a profile is terribly difficult to muster when you are paid to be action oriented and tactical. Shifting into an introspective mindset is the first hurdle in any job transition and people usually try to avoid it.

Without a good, detailed understanding of the potential candidates for a stretch assignment or new challenge, first level supervisors are put in a ridiculous position. They get asked to evaluate potential workers without enough useful data. That’s why talent marketplaces are largely unsuccessful. The person who has to take the risk (the new supervisor) has limited information with which to assess the risk.

So, my view is that the first deployment of SwoopTalent technology in SuccessFactors will be to assemble employee profiles from external data sources. Employees leave breadcrumbs all over the internet about their interests, accomplishments, aspirations, and passions. With a solid emphasis on employee control/privacy, SuccessFactors will begin to help them build out their profiles.

Currently, the competitors at the enterprise levels are busily building theoretical models of skills and assigning them to employees based on job descriptions. The fascination with skills mining depends on the efficacy of job descriptions and job ads. Yet, everyone knows that the job description rarely matches the actual job.

As Yogi Berra said, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” In the absence of significant upfront value for the employee, those systems will not produce a level of value adequate to drive adoption.

Still, I am excited about this acquisition.

A typical enterprise HR Department uses more than 300 different bits of software. Once the early employee profile work is begun, my bet is that the SwoopTalent tech will be applied to the integration of all of those disparate data structures. That unlocks the real promise of People Analytics in a way that will distinguish SuccessFactors from the rest of the pack.

In other words, the acquisition boils down to a deep commitment by SuccessFactors to make incorporating external data an easy and automated part of being a customer. I would never have expected this kind of breakthrough thinking to emerge from SAP, partly because I’m just beginning to see the potential power of a team of accomplished HCM wizards. I am delighted and intrigued. It’s going to be fun to watch this roll out.

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