T@W Weekly: #HRTechConf Edition

Highlights from HR Tech, Facebook, and privacy through obfuscation

The Word: Tech Overload

At an event as big as the HR Technology Conference & Exhibition, it’s always a little bit of choose your own adventure. And in Vegas, the adventures you can choose to get into can get interesting. I spent one night out past ten and my bank account shows I didn’t even gamble a cent. Responsibility has a lot of different looks, especially here.

What I did do is immerse myself in the tech ecosystem. After more than a decade of coming to this particular event, I always get asked, “What did you see that was interesting?”

  1. The AI land grab is on. Seeing, by my count, at least a dozen AI-first startups taking down enormous booths was something else. Working for a marketing agency gives you a unique perspective on this. That’s at least a mid six figure investment, all in, for an event that isn’t known for crushing lead goals. So what’s driving these companies to go for outsized spending? It’s a pretty simple playbook for their VC investors: Get acquired at the highest multiple possible. You do that through high brand awareness and gaining market share. Is that a good strategy for buyers? Are the products any good? Well, there’s a lot of confusion out there that folks like Jeanne Meister, Ben Eubanks, and John Sumser are trying to solve. It’s a start.

  2. More humanity. For me, I was excited to see more talk about humanizing the workplace. It may be just talk at this point for the most part, but technology is only as useful as what it can deliver to humanity and the world. Rethinking awful processes like applying for a job or having a meaningful conversation about performance is actually tough work. We’re all in this together and nobody can do it alone, which is why I think so many companies are talking about their partnership strategy.

  3. External disruption is real. The world is in a little bit of a chaos right now. It’s not often that you see such nervous domestic markets with unemployment at 50-year lows. In lieu of hiring tons of staff, companies are hoping technology investment can help them prepare for a future that might have slower growth than today.

I had so many great formal and informal conversations at HR Tech during my four days there but I missed many more. Let’s connect so we don’t go another year without chatting.

What the Click?

  • What happens when you report sexual harassment to HR? Most of the time, a fat lot of nothing argues Laurie Ruettimann in a recent article on Vox. As we hit two years of #MeToo, one has to wonder whether we’ve actually changed anything. Even the cynic in me hopes we can make better progress.

  • George LaRocque published his quarterly update on HR technology investment. The verdict: Nearly a billion dollars in investment in the quarter, led by Gusto, Checkr and CultureAmp.

  • The Most Inclusive HR Influencer list from Micole Garatti dropped this week, featuring many people I’ve called friends for years and lots of newer faces who are doing their thought sharing thing. Appreciate the shoutout.

  • Saba did a big rebrand and released an ebook on the employee experience which includes, among other people, insights from yours truly. They also sent me some shoes, which have a style that is certainly, uh… unique.

  • HRE columnist Bill Kutik covers the crush of surveys we’re being inundated with and how Qualtrics, now part of SAP, is trying to guide better decisions. It seems like the first step should really be about how much we can learn without asking directly, but that doesn’t sell survey software.

  • In a bit of personal work news, The Starr Conspiracy released our latest brandscape on the work technology market. I was a significant contributor to this work and I was able to present our findings at the HR Technology Partnership Summit before the main event. I’ll also be doing the same at our InfluenceHR event on November 5th in SF.

Facebook Stumbles… Again

This week, in leaked audio of an employee Q&A session, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took on critics, competitors, and control. Of course, the most damaging part of this is where he takes on some of the political proposals that affect big tech companies. On the potential break up of tech giants, he says:

You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies ... if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. ... But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.

As you can imagine, this hasn’t been received very well. Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal is as fresh as ever with the 2020 election looming.

At a public, livestreamed Q&A later this week, Zuckerberg had to say that his company would act neutrally toward Senator Warren. The fact that it needed to be said is disturbing and probably helps make the Senator’s case better than if the Facebook CEO gave a more politically benign answer. The existential crisis isn’t that Facebook could be broken up — it’s that they think the benevolent dictatorship approach to control is an actual legitimate response.

As Facebook tries to move into the workplace, I do wonder how insulated that business is from the scandals that they continue to be a part of. The Slack competitor launched in 2016, at perhaps the worst possible time from a PR perspective, but as of earlier this year, had gained 2M paid users.

T@W Playlist of the Week

After some fairly nice weather in Vegas, we are definitely into the thick of fall here in the Pacific Northwest. Fall Feels from Filtr is on my Friday playlist today.

And Finally… Tracking

Part of data privacy is anonymizing data sets. By making it harder to make connections, including newer techniques like introducing artificial noise to keep private information private, we shouldn’t have as much issue handing over our private information.

Research released this summer highlighted in MIT Technology Review shows just how little that matters.

Researchers from Imperial College London and the University of Louvain have created a machine-learning model that estimates exactly how easy individuals are to reidentify from an anonymized data set. You can check your own score here, by entering your zip code, gender, and date of birth.

On average, in the US, using those three records, you could be correctly located in an “anonymized” database 81% of the time. Given 15 demographic attributes of someone living in Massachusetts, there’s a 99.98% chance you could find that person in any anonymized database.

That’s right, just three pieces of data can be used to guess who you are — even in anonymized data. Get even a few more pieces of data and it can be even more assured you can be found.

As employers deal with data privacy, it’s good to know how little data anonymization does to prevent identification. When your organization hands over the enormous amounts of data it has on employees to insurers or technology companies, you need to be thinking about a data privacy plan that is more than obfuscation.

Cheers, Lance