”If you hear block-chain in HR, then it´s probably just a sales pitch”

Interview with Fredrik Niemelä

By: Björn Elowson, December 5th 2019

Fredrik Niemelä (Lead Tech Advisor at JobAgent) has a long and proven track record in development of IT in HR. He is one of the few that built Spotify from the ground and was hired as Product Development Director after PhD studies at KTH in Stockholm. He has also been the architect behind Assessios assessment platform Ascend and even created a Chinese equivalent to the dating app Tinder. Since a couple of years back he lives and works in Texas US and advices JobAgent with architecture and strategic technical decisions. In the beginning of October, he visited the world’s largest conference in HR, namely the HR-Tech in Las Vegas. In this interview you will hear his take on everything from chatbots, AI, block-chain, candidate experience and if JobAgent´s sharing service is unique or not.

HR-Tech in Las Vegas is the world’s largest conference in technology related to HR. With over 500 exhibitors it´s known as “the industry´s annual meeting” with everything from big global enterprises to small fast start-ups. 

Fredrik, how has HR-Tech changed during the last couple of years?

–  I would say that I have experienced a very positive development in HR-Tech. Let´s look at the assessment companies for instance. For a couple of years back there were some vendors with more than doubtful assessments. Imagine personality-type kind of tests, with colors and other nonsense. They were there at the same time as really good assessment company’s whit some real science also was there, competing of the same audience. Last year the nonsense companies were fewer and this year – I would say that no assessment company were present that didn´t had some good science baking them up. That is a very good development indeed!

The market is asking for more science and research, would that be correct?

–  Yes, obviously science sells and research and good data doesn’t struck people as boring but rather as a hygiene factor. You can see that the exhibitors are more knowledgeable and that might be an effect of what the costumers asks for. Unfortunately, it has taken some time for good assessment companies to come to a situation where they can offer their tests online and “as a service”. I mean the first ones that entered the stage was all of those Facebook-tests like “Which Harry Potter figure are you?”. Really good assessment companies have been present for a long time but they were pretty slow in their marketing. That might have led to pretty damaging consequences that is still present.


How do you mean? What kind of negative consequences?

 – Well the biggest critique against assessments comes from candidates alone. This is reasonable since no one has actually explained what they are measuring and what they are not measuring. If the first assessments were based on Harry Potter and then comes the psychologists with their assessments – which they also call personality tests. Well obviously,, there will be skepticism. It took an incredibly long time for companies with good research to cut through the noise, because the nonsense companies managed to “own” the concept of personality tests first.


OK, so more research and science seem to be a trend. What about other trends?

–  Speed and candidate experience, that´s definitely trends that we see today. Speed and candidate experience or rather candidate friendliness so that people won’t drop out of the processes is something that I saw from multiple exhibitors. Many companies pitch about the time in the process, or how easy it is to apply and the minimum amount of time you need to spend as a candidate. What struck me was that at HR-Tech a lot of companies seem see chatbots as the solution for speeding up the process and to make it more candidate friendly.

So chatbots is the new thing when it comes to candidate experience?

–  I definitely don’t think that it´s the solution for the entire challenge when it comes to candidate experience. Of course, it does speed up the process since you can ask your bot about practical stuff and get answers immediately. As a candidate the process will seem faster and hassle-free because you don´t have to wait and you don’t have to send emails or call someone.

Being more fun for the candidate however, well I would doubt that, but of course that´s just my own opinion. But I mean the essence of candidate experience is about being cared about, I should be seen as an individual and not just be someone in large group of applicants. I think that is the main thing about candidate experience and a chatbot doesn’t solve that.


How about other buzzwords like AI, is that over?

–  No definitely not! Last year at HR-Tech there was so much buzz around AI and this year as well. But I do see the start of the same scientific trend here too. Previously when I have asked companies at HR-Tech about their AI I usually got answers like “The data comes in here and on the other side you get help with your decisions”. And when I asked “sure, but how?!”, the answer was something cryptic about a black box filled with data or “we cannot tell you since it´s confidential”.

Some companies did say more or less the same thing this year but a lot of the answers I got was really good. On the other hand, AI is a complex matter and it can be challenging to explain it even if it does work. As a rule of thumbs, you could say that – If you can´t explain how your AI works, the risk if pretty high that it actually doesn’t work.  


Ok, the last buzzword – block-chain, what do you say about that?

–  A couple of years ago there was so much talk about how to use block-chain in different HR-processes. Almost all of those discussions have gone silent and today you rarely hear anything about it. If you would hear block-chain in HR, it´s probably just a sales pitch.  


I don´t really follow, why would block-chain be difficult in HR?

 – In HR, people have for some time been hoping and waiting for like a verified version of LinkedIn. Imagine a copy of LinkedIn but were you could guarantee that the information is true and correct. You might then think that block-chain would solve that since the information is secure, verified and cannot be changed. But is it really verified? How do we verify it? “Who watches the watchmen?”. That part seems to be left out in the HR-applications of block-chain that I´ve seen so far. Another question is GDPR. A user that all of a sudden wants to delete his/her data can´t do that because it´s in a block-chain. I wouldn’t be so sure that the EU-legislators would agree to “since you went along with having your data in a block-chain you cannot delete it”. But I guess we will see what will happen, however – I wouldn’t want to be the first one with introducing block-chain in GDPR-land.


How about JobAgent, we are building a sharing service in recruitment, is there anything equivalent out there on the big global scene in HR-tech?

–  Well JobAgent address two challenges, “How can I find the best candidates to hire?” and “How do we help the candidate in the best possible way there is?”. The first question about “How do I find the best fit to hire?” – that´s nothing new. Multiple companies say that they have the best candidates or large databases filled with applicants and so on. But the other question; “How do we help the candidate in the best possible way there is?” – that is unique! There´s few companies and solutions that actually focus that much on the candidate experience as JobAgent does, and more specifically does it in a different way. Usually when people talk about candidate experience they still do it from a recruiter perspective.

They talk about the speed of the process and how to minimize drop outs etc. But honestly, what´s the fastest way of answering a test for instance? That you’ve already done it off course and have the results saved. JobAgent is turning the recruitment processes upside down and let the candidates decide who they would like to share their results with and how it should be searchable and that is new. So, the pitch holds up but it´s important to point out that the platform is being build based on the candidate perspective. The candidate is the one who decides and can share the data on his/her terms. From my observations at HR-Tech there is no one else that does this. 


Ok, thank you Fredrik! If I´m going to summarize all of this you could say that: Science and research is much more on the agenda today than before. Chatbots are on the move as an answer to candidate experience but it´s rather a way of solving practical questions than actually being candidate centric. You can also say that the scientific trend has entered the AI-space with more companies being able to explain how the AI really works. So, all in all: More transparency and higher demands that the stuff being offered actually works.

–  Yes that´s a good way of putting it. I´m also very fond of science and good data so if this trend stays, well that would be good for everyone!


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