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Todd Maddox Ph.D.’s Top Four Scientific Observations on HR Tech 2018

HR Tech gets bigger and bigger every year. HR Tech 2018 was no exception. It broke all of the previous records. More importantly, the quality of the offerings, presentations and savvy of the clients continues to grow. I had a great time at HR Tech 2018, and I am already looking forward to 2019.

It took some time to dig out from three days away from my desk, and more time to let my thoughts coalesce, but I am now ready to provide my insights on the event.

As a psychological and brain scientist with 25 years of basic science research under my belt, and a particular interest in personality, motivation, learning, and all things data, I resonate with events like HR Tech because my passion is all things “people’. I find topics such as recruitment, interviewing, learning and development, leadership, succession planning, and talent management in general fascinating. Although I am sure others who attended HR Tech will highlight different topics, and acknowledging that I was only able to speak in detail with a dozen or so vendors, here are my Top Four Scientific Observations.

The Impact of Science Continues to Grow

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: Cornerstone, IBM, Infor, LTG, PeopleFluent, Phenom People, Saba, Skillsoft/Sumtotal, TalentQuest, Workday

I am happy to say that I see a growing interest in the importance of science, not only in vendors but also in their potential customers. Whether talent science, learning science, or data science, the methodology called “science” is growing in HR. Importantly, this is not just being used as a buzzword. In hiring and recruitment, the science of assessment is central. Combine assessment with “big data” and amazing recruitment offerings follow. In Learning and Development, tools and technologies are being built that battle against the brain’s natural tendency to forget and focus on presenting information within the attention span of the learner. These include microlearning, spaced training and testing. In talent management, the science of personality is growing in importance. Personality is directly related to motivation and incentivization and all three are being leveraged. The science of data and the use of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to garner actionable insights continues to grow in its use and sophistication.

From a psychological and brain science perspective, we still have a long way to go, and we need to do a better job of mapping tools onto tasks but progress is being made and vendors are listening to their clients.

The Growing Importance of People Skills and Leadership Training

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: LeadX, LTG, PeopleFluent, Saba, Skillsoft/Sumtotal, TalentQuest

I have written extensively on the difference between hard skills and people (aka soft) skills, the psychological processes and brain systems relevant to each, and the fact that very different tools are needed. At times, I have felt like people hear, but are not listening. The tide is turning. More and more HR professionals (vendors and customers) are embracing the importance of people skills. Whether it is growing concerns with automation, the extensive data suggesting that diversity increased revenue and workplace harmony, the #metoo movement, or more likely the combination of all three, HR is embracing the need for effective people skills training in organizations large and small. This is not just about compliance and box checking, but a recognition that people skills are critical in the workplace.

The growing emphasis on leadership training is also exciting, and people skills are central to this mission. I visited numerous vendors from small, innovative startups to much larger companies who are working to tackle the leadership development problem head-on. Although more work is needed, some of these offerings are truly remarkable.

I should also note that some vendors are developing leadership training programs focused on developing Leadership in Women. For those of you who have read the likes of “Lean In”, you know the challenges facing women in the corporate world, especially leadership. Offerings targeted to these specific problems are welcome.

The Growing Recognition of the Value of Personality

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: IBM, Infor, PeopleFluent, Phenom People, LeadX, TalentQuest

As I alluded to earlier, the science of personality is growing in its relevance and sophistication in HR. I have conducted a number of studies of my own and show convincingly that personality is critical and affects many aspects of HR including team dynamics, learning and development, effective management, and succession planning to name a few. The number of vendors embracing the importance of personality is growing and the quality of some of the offerings are truly amazing. Personality assessment blends psychology and data science and can offer insights that are immediately actionable and can make the difference between workplaces that are high in engagement, satisfaction, and retention, and those that are weak on these same metrics. With the constant battle to find, develop, nurture and retain the right employees, factors such as personality will continue to grow in value.

There is still room for improvement and some intersections that the majority of HR vendors are not seeing, such as the intersection between personality, motivation, learning and incentivization, but I expect that those will come with time.

Virtual Reality Has Arrived

Relevant Vendors That I Spoke With: STRIVR, SumTotal, TalentQuest

For the past several years, I have been following the emergence of the immersive technology of virtual reality. My interest in this technology comes from my interest in Learning and Development. From a brain science perspective, it is clear that this technology is highly effective at engaging learning centers in the brain. Until recently, technological issues and equipment costs constrained virtual realities commercial use. For example, a year or so ago, a good virtual reality system cost several $1000 and required a laptop, and a tethered cable connected to the head mounted display. Recently, Oculus release the Go which is a stand-alone head-mounted display that costs under $300. A game changer!

Although the number of virtual reality offerings at HR Tech is still relatively small, the buzz around this technology is growing exponentially, and some key players are driving engagement. In addition, the quality of the offerings that are out there is impressive. These tools will be invaluable for collaboration and training. I am very excited to see this sector grow in 2019, and I fully expect the number of offerings at HR Tech 2019 to be significantly higher.


It is an exciting time for HR. That was clearly reflected in the enthusiasm, innovation and quality of the offerings at HR Tech 2018. Skills that have often been given lip service (e.g., people skills) are getting the attention that they deserve. Constructs that derive directly from people, such as personality, are being leveraged for good. New, and exciting technologies such as virtual reality are being introduced for more than gaming. And all of these are being built on a solid foundation of data and science. The future is bright for HR and HR Tech.

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