Guest Chris Bruce, Co-founder and Managing Director of Thomsons and HR Portfolio Investor, discusses the evolution of HR over the last 20 years.
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Nate Randall: Thanks for joining today, Chris.
Chris Bruce: Delighted for you and I to be catching up again.
Nate Randall: Yeah. I've always enjoyed our chats. I thought you could start by maybe going over your journey, sort of the summary of who is Chris Bruce if you will?
Chris Bruce: Wow. Okay, so I was really, really lucky that back in 2000, we had the dot-com boom. And as part of the dot-com boom, I worked as an employee benefits consultant. It was okay for someone who was 26, to be seen to be setting up and creating a business.
Chris Bruce: So, myself and another guy called Michael Whitfield set up what was, we originally called The Benefit Express, but very quickly changed the name to Thomsons Online Benefits because it sounded a lot more solid as a name, as we then had the dot-com crash.
Chris Bruce: And then, I've had quite a journey with Thomsons over the last, what is now 19 years. As we started off in the UK by creating a different approach to the way that employee benefits could be managed, designed, and communicated.
Chris Bruce: We then took that to become a global model around 2003. And by 2007, we were starting to grow more, and we were setting up stuff in Singapore to expand across Asia.
Chris Bruce: Then by 2010-2012, the majority of our focus as a company was on the global, so providing our technology, Darwin, to global organizations to manage their benefits on a global level, and to have a consistency of approach in the way that they were communicating to their employees.
Chris Bruce: Then with much excitement, we sold the business to Mercer in December 2016. That was a huge thing for us, actually enormous thing for us. By this point, the company had grown to about 550 employees, and we were live in about 80 countries around the world, with incredible organizations using our software.
Chris Bruce: It was coming together, all with technology expertise of Thomsons, with a global organization like Mercer, with their depth, and breadth, and strength of their relationships.
Chris Bruce: So, the two in a half years since selling the company, I'm still very, very involved with Mercer as an organization and with Thomsons. I'm really excited about what we're doing and how we'll take the market forward.
Chris Bruce: And then, in addition, I am investing to HR Tech Startups with my Co-Founder Michael. So, I feel like I have the best of both worlds, between being part of a transforming industry, and being part of transforming a company like Mercer, while also being super close to HR Tech trends, and how they're changing, and just exciting when you get to being involved with people who are creating something from nothing.
Nate Randall: Yeah, it's interesting coming full-circle.
Chris Bruce: Yeah.
Nate Randall: You were a startup in 2000, when the majority of VC's in Silicon Valley and large investment hadn't really caught on to the HR space. Now, you're there for people like you. What was that start up experience like, in the environment that it was then, drastically different than today?
Chris Bruce: Well, I look back at those days, and compare it to now, and think how much easier people have got it now.
Nate Randall: Yeah.
Chris Bruce: Because back in 2000, HR Tech didn't really exist, in the way that it does today. There's no better way of expressing it, then to think of what it's like when we turn up to these HR Tech exhibitions now, and there are huge, enormous, impressive booths. It takes you hours to walk around just the exhibition stands. Whereas back then, the HR tech scene was very, very small.
Nate Randall: Yeah.
Chris Bruce: And, also back then, companies didn't feel confident really in doing something with organizations who were necessarily new, and the Internet was new, and so they didn't feel confident with their employee data being online. Those are the things that we now just take for granted, as just being not a problem.
Nate Randall: I'd like to talk a little bit about that, innovation and adopting new solutions in HR. That's always been a struggle. Now we have, as you alluded to, many, many new companies in the HR Tech space.
Chris Bruce: Yeah.
Nate Randall: But still, it's a stretch for some HR people to get out there and try something that hasn't been tried before. How important is it to our space, the future of HR, and really the future of employment in our country, to give new companies a chance to be heard, tested in the market, create that HR honest feedback loop so that they can make better products? What is that importance? And maybe talk me through how a company should think about working with a new solution provider.
Chris Bruce: It's a great question. It's something that I actually ... About four weeks ago, I was presenting at a conference. I said, "My big ask from this is that you guys, as an HR audience, appreciate that you have an enormous responsibility for the future of our space, and the future of the companies that have tried to do something different within our space.
Chris Bruce: And so, please, please be supportive to these companies because they are all trying to do something new. They are led by people who are hugely passionate about their products, and have huge belief in their products and solutions."
Chris Bruce: But the reality is unless they're testing them in real organizations, then they will never find out whether that product actually works, and they won't have the opportunity to get great feedback from the market about how they need to change their product and tweak it.
Chris Bruce: So, I think there is a huge responsibility to the HR community to be trying out new products. But I also think that there is a responsibility to the HR community when they're trying out products, to understand and recognize that they're dealing with startup organizations. And as they're startup organizations, they're not going to work with you in the way that the larger more established organizations can. Try not to swamp them, and be understanding of them, and the way that they are going to work with you.
Nate Randall: I've always thought that there is an excitement and there is a real advantage in being one of the early adopters. And one of the biggest advantages I found, is you really get to have a hand in and craft the product, which then becomes pretty specific to your organization.
Chris Bruce: Yeah. Today, as you're talking, I'm thinking back at, probably the dozen companies over the years that took a chance with us, and they didn't need to. But they took a chance with us and took a risk with us, to actually see whether we had something.
Chris Bruce: Those are the organizations, that as I look back at how we ended up achieving what we achieved, I'm just incredibly grateful for them, for giving us a chance, and for being supportive, giving us feedback, and understanding that we were learning as we were working with them. Without any shadow of a doubt, we wouldn't be here today, if it wasn't for those organizations. Therefore, I can't thank them enough.
Chris Bruce: And, absolutely, my loyalty to those organizations, and the loyalty of our organization to them because of them taking risks at a pivotal stage is enormous.
Chris Bruce: But also, you're actually right. We would develop our product more to meet their needs because they, at that point, meant so much to us. Not that we don't try to meet the needs of all of our clients, of course. But that particular point, you are super focused on delivering to that organization, and having them as a referenceable client.
Nate Randall: Yeah, and you think about impact, you guys are now servicing, I think I read over one million employees and families. So, by default, those dozen or so HR leaders, who became champions of your cause, have an enormous impact on many, many, many people's lives, who are now using this product for the better.
Nate Randall: I just think there is a way to have impact beyond your 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 200,000, 50 employees, whatever the number is. And this is one of the great ways, is helping craft products and supporting new solutions.
Chris Bruce: Yeah, that's right. And actually, we're getting very, very close now to actually supporting three million lives on software Darwin.
Nate Randall: Wow.
Chris Bruce: And that's growing at a great rate, both for global organizations, and also for national organizations as well.
Chris Bruce: But you're absolutely right, you said to me, our dream wouldn't have come true if it wasn't for those organizations that really helped us. So, my advice to people who are actually in the HR Tech startup world is, it's so important to have clients and companies want to work with you. But it's also really important to make sure that you're both in agreement about what working together means.
Chris Bruce: What I mean by that is if you are looking to work with an HR Tech Startup, appreciate that they're not suddenly your HR Tech Development Company, just there to develop to your whim. But actually, support them to help to create a great product.
Nate Randall: What's your experience in going through the process with a company that wants to support you, but making sure that you are setting clear expectations so that you're not overextending yourself as a start-up?
Chris Bruce: Yeah. It's funny. I was actually ... I was with a team within Mercer last week in New York, and we were talking about exactly this, for a product that is being developed by Mercer. But I have this conversation lots with different people, which is, first of all with your customers, you've got to be really clear about what the vision of the product is, the end-state of it. But then you have to recognize that it's going to take a while before you can actually deliver on that vision.
Chris Bruce: And so, as a relatively young company, what you need to be thinking about is actually how do I just prove this particular part of the product, to prove that we've actually got something here? And actually then agreeing on what that prove point is with all of your various stakeholders, so your clients, your investors, your employees, your developers, and all then, focusing on that goal is really, really important. Because it's very, very easy to get distracted and to be pulled into multiple different directions, but if you're aligned on what the goal is, just for this first-stage, then it enables you then to build and develop from there.
Nate Randall: I've noticed that HR sometimes tends to overanalyze, and overthink things, and create solutions, or plan out solutions that are huge impacts in projects. My advice is always just, take a bite of something small. Try something. There's nothing wrong with pilots. There's nothing wrong with giving things a chance and learning from it because it's not going to be, no matter how well you plan the communications, and the implementation, and everything else, it's never going to be exactly what you think, so you need to be able to pivot anyway.
Chris Bruce: Yeah, don't try and eat the elephant.
Nate Randall: Right.
Chris Bruce: Another big shift that you and I have seen over the years is, more of an understanding around the use of agile techniques, not just for development but actually agile techniques within business. So, just doing something, having a short-term goal is heading in the right direction with, as you just put it, with the ability to pivot, and to pivot based on what you've learned in that particular sprint or that bit of work you've just done.
Nate Randall: Yeah. And the requirements for an HR person to have success have changed pretty drastically over both of our careers. It used to be that success was sort of, nothing happened that day. There were no negative-
Chris Bruce: There were no fires.
Nate Randall: No fires. The CEO's spouse didn't call and complain about the medical plan or whatever it is.
Chris Bruce: Yeah.
Nate Randall: And now, you really are challenged to create, to innovate, to manage budgets, to think about finances in a very sophisticated way, to navigate health plans in a way that you never had to before.
Nate Randall: So, that shift has been a struggle for some people. And I see this in large HR departments, where you have a legacy of people who have been there for a while, and the rules have changed for them now. And then you have young folks coming in, who might work there for 24 months, and jump to a new place, and that's the way the world works for them.
Nate Randall: How does this impact the future of HR technology, and what do you see? You've been on the front lines for so long, what are the trends that you see across HR, HR technology?
Chris Bruce: So, without any doubt at all, the role of HR is changing. We hear that and we read about it all the time. We see and read the survey data that talks about what businesses expectations are from the HR function, which is that they want a strategic partner, that fundamentally is going to help them to be more successful.
Chris Bruce: The great thing is HR Tech is becoming a really cool space now. It's a space that people want to and are proud to say that they're part of. I think that wasn't the case 10 years ago. But I think we're just beginning on this journey because more and more organizations are recognizing the real importance of their talent. Not just ... The things that we've just talked about, about recruitment and retention. But actually, we're now really talking about engagement, and we're talking about how teams work together, and we're talking about performance.
Chris Bruce: This an enormous shift in thinking, but more and more data is coming out to say that if you can achieve those three things, then your business is going to be more successful as a consequence. And so, organizations are now having to think very differently to the way that they thought 10 years ago, which was fundamentally about, am I organizing myself correctly? Do I have the tools and the processes in place to deliver on whatever my organizational design is, and how we're going about it?
Chris Bruce: To now, actually, do we have a really clear purpose as an organization? Do we have clear values? Do people know what is expected of them, and how we work really well together? How do we behave when we walk into the office and behave with each other?
Chris Bruce: All of this, there's a recognition that this takes a lot of thinking and a lot of work. That is very, very different to, do we have any payroll errors? Is my health plan working? Which is really exciting.
Nate Randall: Yeah, it is exciting. I think if any HR person who has been around for, let's say 10 plus years, thinks about the roles in the organization, there have been drastic changes in the way you administer plans because of HR Technology.
Nate Randall: So, you know, thinking that things haven't change that much is a fallacy. There's no longer that individual there who processes enrollments from paper. This just doesn't happen generally anymore.
Nate Randall: So, what would you forecast for the future? You're out there now on the other side, making investments if you will, with your partner in the fund, and you're looking at a ton of new opportunities, I'm sure. So, what does the future look like? What types of things are you putting yourself behind?
Chris Bruce: I pinch myself by how lucky I am to have ended up in the HR Tech space, and to have the opportunities that I've got. When we look at the world around us, technology is changing at an unbelievable pace. And the way that technology is changing, is only going to get faster and faster. There's going to be some key things that we're going to see happening over the next few years.
Chris Bruce: We're going to see a lot of administration becoming totally invisible, and obviously, spaces that I come from and know so well around benefits. I really believe benefit administration will become invisible. That is a combination of both automation, within technology products themselves, but also in supply chain integration, as technologies talk to each other a lot more successfully.
Chris Bruce: I think that we are going to see, obviously, data is going to become a much bigger thing. We've just talked about the changing role of HR. It's going to become more important for people to have data, in order to be able to make really smart decisions.
Chris Bruce: And, actually, I think there will be an expectation from the C-Suite, that if you're asking me to make a decision, then make sure that I've got the data on which to base that decision.
Chris Bruce: When I look at, specifically what excites me within the HR Tech space as a consequence, some of the key things are that Culture Tech. I think Culture Tech is now a thing. For me, Culture Tech is technology that helps create a sense of belonging within an organization. It's there to help us to feel recognized, and it helps us to gather the insight on what needs to improve to make us more motivated, engaged, and engaged with the organization.
Chris Bruce: And so to me, this is an area which is going to significantly increase.
Nate Randall: Yeah, just real quick, I love that idea because we've often said for a long time that HR is behind the technology trend, and rightfully so. But you look at the way the Google's, and the Facebook's, and Apple's have used data and other methods to create engagement, and you can very easily crosswalk that to how companies might leverage some of the same sophistication, I guess, to create that culture and engagement. I love that thought.
Chris Bruce: Yeah, it's interesting. There's a book, I don't know if you're familiar with it, it's a guy called Patrick Lencioni. He talks about being two parts of organization.
Chris Bruce: This really resonated with me. He talked about one part of the organization is the health of the organization, and the others being the brains. And so, what he talked about was the multiplier effect you can have between them. So, effectively, you can have an organization that is really well-funded. It's got the best people, it's got great technology, a really clear strategy.
Chris Bruce: And then, you can have an organization that people have got a really clear sense of purpose, that they've got really strong values, they have a strong sense of belonging, they enjoy working with each other.
Chris Bruce: What he then goes on to demonstrate, is the latter organization, an organization that is stronger on the latter, will always outperform the organization that's stronger on the former.
Chris Bruce: But actually, the best performing organizations, are those organizations that have both. And what he then goes on to talk about is the multiplier effect, of actually what can you do if you can really achieve a state whereby the organization does have both? And how can you go about measuring it and actually driving it?
Chris Bruce: That really resonated with me when I think about Culture Tech because I think so many organizations invest so much into the former, so making sure that they have got a strategy, are well-funded, that they've got the right technology, the best people, and all that stuff. But actually, they don't put that much effort, energy, and thought into the latter. So, the C-Suite doesn't spend that much time really thinking about the culture of the organization, and what we do to drive it, and I think that is going to change.
Nate Randall: You and I met when I was working for Tesla.
Chris Bruce: Yes.
Nate Randall: I think they are an exact example of what you're talking about. The culture and the mission was so strong. I mean, to save the planet was the goal here.
Chris Bruce: Yeah.
Nate Randall: Not much money, based on that goal, and being in the auto industry. And so, we didn't have the tools, and the technology, and all of this sort of stuff. It was really bootstrap, and quite frankly, beat the crap out of the other car companies because we had a mission that was so strong, and so clear, and 110% of the people were on board.
Chris Bruce: Yeah. And what you find, is that people will jump from the other auto industries to Tesla, other auto companies to Tesla, but they don't jump from Tesla to another car manufacturer. Because they're part of something, and they want to be part of something.
Chris Bruce: Once you've tasted working for an organization with a strong purpose and strong values, it's very, very difficult to work in an organization that doesn't have a really strong purpose and really strong values.
Nate Randall: That's almost a direct quote of my CHRO at that organization, who said-
Chris Bruce: Is that right?
Nate Randall: Yeah. Who said, "You know, now that you've worked here, you're ruined for working anywhere else."
Chris Bruce: Yeah.
Nate Randall: So, and it's true. Once you find that purpose in your day-to-day, it's really hard to go back to punching the clock somewhere.
Chris Bruce: Yeah. You get an incredible amount of discretionary effort from people within an organization that does have a clear purpose and clear mission because if you buy into the mission, you're willing to stay an extra half an hour, or you're willing to do stuff over the weekend.
Chris Bruce: You have to be careful here because I'm not saying it's the right thing to work longer hours and to work at week end, but it's more that you're happy to do it. You want to do it because you're achieving something, and work actually means something.
Nate Randall: So, we've got Culture Tech that you're excited about. Is there anything else on the front lines here, that you're forecasting for the future?
Chris Bruce: Yeah. I mean, there's a load of stuff. I think that one of the other trends that I'm really interested in is around learning in the flow of work. And why this is so exciting to me, is that I've watched how our research around learning development has changed over the years.
Chris Bruce: As Thomsons, we've conducted research, called the Employee Reward Board for the last 14 years. We ask employees about what's important to them. Over the years, I've seen learning and development grow to become one of the most things to an employer about the organization they're working for.
Chris Bruce: It's particularly important to the younger generation, so particularly the millennial employees. Some would say that now it's one of the key reasons why I want to go work in an organization, is because I want to grow and I want to develop as an individual.
Chris Bruce: But then you look at the flip side, which is you look at the way the companies are actually often delivering this learning to the employees. The two things are so far removed, that the learning is something which is seen as being separate. It's not part of my day-to-day, and it's difficult to access it, and it's boring.
Chris Bruce: And so what's really interesting me is technologies that are on that focused on, how do we actually deliver the right content to an employee at the right time, in a way that's really easy for them to digest?
Chris Bruce: There's more coming out, I've got involved pretty recently that I find fascinating because it's all around actually how does it use AI and machine learning to be able to do exactly that? To give the content to somebody at the point that they actually need it, so that they feel that they are always, always learning, and make the content super relevant and interesting.
Chris Bruce: I think that is another area that is going to grow super, super fast.
Nate Randall: Exciting times indeed.
Chris Bruce: It's really exciting times.
Nate Randall: Thanks for joining today, Chris. I really appreciate your time.
Chris Bruce: An absolute pleasure. You and I have always enjoyed chewing the cud, talking about how this industry is changing so it's great to have the opportunity of doing a podcast together.