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Drivers of SaaS Adoption in HR Differ by Growth Profile

Alex Bakker

What is Happening?

In our 2016 HCM Adoption Survey we examined whether companies are moving their HCM solutions to SaaS / Cloud (they are), and we also looked into what was driving that shift. As we have seen over the last several years, vendors are increasingly shifting focus to their cloud systems, leaving the fate of many on-premises software applications on an inevitable upgrade path. However, many customers aren’t waiting until the last minute – the HCM suite has been a leading category for enterprise SaaS adoption for several years.

Why is it Happening?

Figure 1 shows what companies indicated were their top three drivers for selecting to move their HR systems to SaaS over the next few years.

Reducing TCO easily tops this – which is somewhat intuitive, because HR software tends to have high total costs. Many systems rely on manual workarounds, have high customization costs, and require 3rd party add-on functionality. Downtime, errors, and maintenance also have costs across the organization and tend to be reduced with SaaS applications. Finally, HR apps and data have high compliance and privacy risks. PII laws often protect the data, and legislation on benefits such as the ACA can also impose significant costs on HR processes.

SaaS Adoption

Figure 1: Top 3 Drivers of SaaS Adoption. Source: ISG Inc., 2016 HCM Adoption Survey, Global n = 206.

After that, reduced demand on IT is seen as a major driver for SaaS deployments – both to avoid configuration and deployment delays, but also to reduce reliance on in-house support. This driver is one that we see often in our consulting engagements in addition to HCM systems typically being lower on IT’s priority list after client facing services and other business systems.  It is also closely related to the TCO question as well, since by sourcing HR functions to SaaS providers it also reduces the helpdesk, hosting and applications development and maintenance burden. Finally, while infrastructure costs are rarely the driver of high total cost of HCM systems, the reduction in human costs associated with the shift of on-premises applications to SaaS has follow-on importance to cost reduction.

However, cost management is far from being the complete story here. Figure 2 looks into the drivers across various company growth profiles. In the fastest-growing companies, the shift to SaaS is driven mostly by the need to increase employee engagement, likely focused on retention and fast onboarding needed by companies that are rapidly adding headcount. For those same companies, user experience is also of high importance.

Companies whose business is shrinking/contracting are looking for benefits that immediately enable them to leverage best practices – often a critical area of liability coverage when reducing headcount. After that, they also seem the most critically focused on reducing their need for IT. We see a strong trend that the faster-growing companies are not as worried about the performance of their IT departments. This reflects a dichotomy in IT that shrinking businesses recognize that their IT departments are holding them back, while fast growing companies often are able to grow quickly because their IT delivers above-average capabilities to the business. IT can be the cause of the fast or slow growth, as well as a symptom of either.

SaaS Adoption 

Figure 2: Top 3 Drivers of SaaS Adoption – By Company Growth Profile Source: ISG Inc., 2016 HCM Adoption Survey, Global n = 206.

Market Impact

While cost management remains overall top-of-mind for the majority of companies selecting HR SaaS, these goals are not uniform across all growth profiles. In our experience, the primary benefit that companies receive from SaaS is seldom true reduction of total cost, at least in the short term. While the lack of costly upgrades can have real impact on the long term total cost, we find that in the shorter term, the primary benefits to the organization are softer, e.g., improved agility, faster time to value, easier data integration, and improved employee experience.  These issues still ranked lower in the survey overall than costs, despite showing up often.

We believe that this indicates a mismatch between what customers really need, vs. what SaaS helps them achieve. For example, they want a reduction in cost, but they are more likely to get improved agility. To truly achieve lower total costs, the organization typically needs to look beyond their basic software implementation toward specific processes and operations that can be streamlined to actually reduce overhead and costs. SaaS sets companies up well to have the flexibility to reduce or avoid costs, but it doesn’t necessarily reduce costs by costing less.

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