(Photo by Nd3000/iStock by Getty Images)

What is this engineer doing in the HR department? For Tiffani Murray, it was a natural progression, but in the beginning it was an unusual one. After graduating with an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a computer science degree from Spelman College, Murray started her career in IT consulting in 2004. But she often found herself working on “people projects,” and soon transitioned from client-facing work to building an internal learning-management system. Murray didn't know it at the time, but she was an early pioneer in an emerging corporate career: HR tech leader.

“No one was even calling it HR technology back then,” said Murray. Yet a couple of trends were converging in Corporate America: a growing understanding that people are the most valuable assets to an organization (see: the Great Resignation), and that technology would become central to business operations. “Those two things inevitably merged,” said Murray, and she was standing at the intersection, forging a new career path.

This year Murray joined LinkedIn, where she is senior manager of HR tech partners, focused on long-term strategy, which she calls the HR-tech roadmap. “It used to be that IT would sometimes make decisions in a silo, and then HR would have to adjust,” she explains. “What you’re finding now is HR wants a seat at that table and a seat in those decisions, and so you’ll see a lot of HR tech professionals like myself sitting in the HR organizations.”

Murray’s team roams across the many disciplines of HR: operations, talent acquisition, total rewards, learning and development, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Her role could be described as the chief librarian of the HR tech stack, maintaining the catalog by sourcing, evaluating, maintaining, and expanding the tech tools most valuable to the organization. Her tech background gives her credibility in both HR and IT, as does the fact that this is her sole charge. “The role that I'm in now exists in other organizations, but it's usually part of someone's other role,” she said. “The new part of this role is that it allows me to be truly more on the strategic standpoint.”

Tiffani Murray, senior manager of HR tech partners at LinkedIn (Photo courtesy of Tiffani Murray)

Strategy has become more important in a marketplace with an explosion of new offerings in the realm of HR tech. WorkTech, which advises HR leaders, estimates that global venture-capital investment in HR tech has totaled $28.4 billion since 2017, with the pace increasing each year. The move to distributed work during the pandemic was a catalyst. “Covid really amplified things,” WorkTech founder George LaRocque told Human Resource Executive. “We’re seeing a lot of replacement of systems, a lot of new technologies, new products hitting the market, and a lot of investment coming into this space.”

While tech has been showing up in HR for a long time, the role of HR leaders in choosing it was largely passive, said Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a company that uses behavioral learning and analytics to improve workplace culture. The old paradigm, in which HR was prescribed tools without consideration for long-term strategy, created waste and resentment, she recalls. “Ten years ago, some of the more interesting applications were driven by the CFO,” she said. “I remember having conversations then, asking ‘Why did we buy this?’ and the HR stakeholder would get frustrated and shrug their shoulders and say, ‘I had no power.’”

An Expanding HR Team Requires an Expanding IT Team

The context for the HR tech boom is the increasingly influential role of HR in Corporate America, driven in part by trends including the racial-justice movement driving the importance of DEI, the sudden surge in hybrid work arrangements, and the Great Resignation, in which millions are leaving their jobs “in search of more money, more flexibility, and more happiness,” as NPR succinctly put it.

To keep up with rapid evolutions in the workplace, as well as rising worker expectations, corporations have increasingly turned to their HR leaders for direction. “HR teams have suddenly become first responders in the last two years for their organizations, because it literally came down to employee safety,” said Madhu Chamarty, co-founder and CEO at BeyondHQ, a company that helps businesses plan and scale distributed workforces. HR leaders have increasingly turned to technology for solutions, which affirms their reliance on their tech-savvy colleagues. “I think it is happening and it totally makes sense,” said Yancey. “I think it will be commonplace in the next year or two.”

The focus on HR tech is permanent. “Ninety-seven percent of companies said tech plays a critical role in making them future-ready,” said Ben Eubanks, chief research officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory, citing his firm’s studies. And according to a study by the Sierra-Cedar consulting firm, “organizations that conduct enterprise workforce planning are 50% more likely to leverage their HR technology environments to inform business strategy and influence workforce decisions.”

HR’s Growing Role in Business Strategy

As employers compete in a red-hot labor market, HR functions are under increasing pressure to streamline and improve the employee experience, from hiring to retention. As a result, HR is shedding its cost-center label. “Operational roles like real estate were often seen as cost centers, not as profit drivers or productivity drivers,” said Chamarty. “But certainly in the last two years, HR–or people operations more broadly–has become a source of productivity beyond just being first responders. They’ve become a source of competitive advantage.”

Employee learning and development is an area in which corporations will particularly depend on HR tech. An estimated 58% of the workforce will need new skills to do their jobs successfully, but according to research from Lighthouse Research & Advisory, 60% of workers say they have to acquire new job skills on their own. With these gaps looming, upskilling and reskilling are top priorities for 68% of HR leaders this year, according to research by Garner.

Without the appropriate tech tools, LinkedIn’s Murray said, the HR department can’t fulfill strategic expectations. “We need technology in there to make things more efficient, to help the employee population, to attract and retain talent, even for diversity and inclusion initiatives. It’s very critical now because you’re seeing the Great Resignation. People are like, ‘I can go somewhere and work in my own way and in my own space.’ Technology is just not going to stop being a part of that.”

The New Burden of Responsibility

Choosing the tech applications to grapple with these challenges is a consequential responsibility for HR leaders. “I know that HR departments struggle with this,” wrote HR industry analyst Josh Bersin in a recent post on his firm’s website about companies trying to navigate the ballooning HR tech market. “Where do we put our employee portal? How will we deploy integrated communications to all our stakeholders? Where do we build the new onboarding or leadership solution? I was on the phone with a client last week who told me, ‘We have BetterUp, Bravely, Harvard ManageMentor, and Korn Ferry assessments–how do we build an integrated leadership experience?’ This type of conversation is happening all the time.”

One risk ahead is the possibility of building an HR tech stack that’s so bulky it gets in its own way. Forty-three percent of workers believe they spend too much time switching between work apps, a source of friction that affects productivity. A superabundance of tools can come at the cost of clarity. “We have a more muddy picture of what's happening, because we have this in ten different places,” said Eubanks.

“The HR tech stack, I believe, is experiencing massive change, everything from remote culture applications to workforce planning 2.0,” said Chamarty. “All of these are opportunities for innovation, and the new chief HR officer–or the new CHRO 2.0–they need to understand all these implications.”

Does this mean that placing a tech lead in HR is the perfect solution? Not necessarily, says Mitchell Klaif, former SVP and CIO of WarnerMedia and now an IT consultant. Klaif believes companies standing up mini-IT departments across the enterprise are getting into what he calls “rogue IT,” which can create data security and governance issues.

“I’m not a fan of decentralizing IT, I’m a fan of partnering,” he told From Day One. Klaif believes there is strength in the partnership between a functional HR professional and a technical IT professional. “I’m a huge supporter of HR having a person who is between HR and IT, and I think they should be in HR. I don't think they should be information technology professionals. I think they should be HR professionals with a strong functional technology background.”

The New HR Career Paths

In the not-so-distant future, HR roles will become even more specialized, research suggests. In a widely noted Harvard Business Review article published last year, authors Jeanne C. Meister of Future Workplace and Robert H. Brown of the Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant Technology Solutions, forecast 21 HR jobs of the future. Tech-reliant roles include “future of work leader,” “algorithm bias officer” and “chatbot coach.” Of the 21, the writers predict half will be heavily tech-centric.

So is tech the way into the HR department of the future? Chamarty, who is an engineer, echoes Klaif in the sense that tech skills still come second to people skills. What’s important, Chamarty said, is this: “Do you understand people? Do you understand culture? Do you understand what drivers get people motivated to work and produce for themselves and for the company? I would propose you study organizational psychology or even geopolitics, for instance. That will give you the basis to deal with large groups of people, changing business dynamics, the concept of risk, and embracing change.”

“Finding HR tech professionals is just difficult,” said LinkedIn’s Murray, who is hiring. “It's not needle-in-a-haystack difficult, but it is challenging because it’s a newer career path.” Right now, the talent she’s finding largely falls into either HR or tech and needs training in one direction or another. Still, lack of tech background is not a dealbreaker, she said. “Someone who has a strategic understanding of HR but has an appetite and an understanding and acumen for technology is important.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.