Five years – not a particularly long period of time for most of us, but in the world of start-ups, it can feel like a lifetime. And the HR Start-up Award has certainly witnessed plenty of HR trends and innovations since its launch five years ago by the hkp/// group and the German Federal Association of HR Managers (BPM). In this interview, hkp/// group Managing Partner Michael H. Kramarsch, initiator of the sought after innovation award together with TUI HR Director Elke Eller, looks back and explains what makes HR start-ups so special – and why it is particularly important to focus in on innovations during times of economic crisis.

Mr. Kramarsch, first of all, congratulations on five years of the HR Start-up Award. How would you summarize this year’s award event, which of course took place in very unusual circumstances?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
I’d like to begin with a heartfelt thank you to the Federal Association of HR Managers and its president, judging panel member Inga Dransfeld-Haase. It was a courageous decision, and the right one, to not only choose a virtual format for the HR Management Conference, during which the award is presented, but to also allow it to physically go ahead with strict hygiene measures in place and a greatly reduced audience. I really enjoyed being able to experience the finalists’ pitches live, together with my colleagues on the judging panel. This year’s HR Start-up Award has once again been a showcase for digital innovations that have what it takes to shape work processes within HR and the future of work in general.

What solutions were on show this year?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
Three start-ups from the areas of recruiting, HR organization and learning pitched their products. Jobpal presented their developed recruitment chatbots that enable companies to respond quickly to questions from potential candidates. Danielle Software showcased a tool designed to facilitate agile HR organization in smaller and medium-sized companies. And Userlane presented a software navigation tool that makes it easier for employees to adapt to new software. The audience voted for Danielle Software and Userlane, i.e. a digital support tool for HR organization and a software navigation tool, but when it comes down to it, all three are winners really. They asserted themselves against 40 submissions and presented real innovations.

What do you mean by “real innovations”?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
In the sense that they potentially offer real added value for HR organization within companies. Let’s take a closer look at the finalists. Jobpal decided, against all odds, to build their own Natural Language Processing engine, or NLP for short, with a clear focus on recruitment. They didn't let the big players intimate them. Their language engine is now leading the way in the field of recruitment. And if candidates can ask a chatbot specific questions, regardless of time or location, and the chatbot is able to provide answers around the clock that are equally specific, then that is a clear step forward in recruiting communication. And onto the winners: If an IT solution, as is the case with Danielle Software, helps SMEs to digitalize rigid, costly and paper-heavy HR processes and consequently makes them more efficient and employee-friendly, this provides real added value and further paves the way towards creating a uniform European HR process platform. And, in terms of Userlane, a navigation tool that supports me directly when I’m using software and helps me with a solution to a specific problem or task, is also an asset for companies going through digital transformation – especially when you consider the frequency of software releases. So, by real innovation I mean solutions like these: tools that have the potential to actually make the lives of HR managers and employees easier – and not just in theory.

You not only promote start-ups through this award but are also involved with start-ups yourself. What is it that interests you personally about young tech companies in the area of HR management?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
On the one hand, I’m genuinely fascinated by entrepreneurship and respect it. Entrepreneurial spirit, combined with technical innovation, appeals to me a lot as ultimately it’s technology that is significantly changing the way we live and work together and which makes something like the New Work concept possible in the first place. It is the start-ups that have written and continue to write the history of digitalization with their visions and innovations. But not all have managed and will manage to make it from conceptualization to international recognition. However, their ideas often give an indication of what the future might or will hold. And this is doubly interesting within the HR environment. Usually, the solutions developed by HR start-ups not only impact those working within HR as direct users but also have the potential to impact employees in general. As a result, they are the ones actively shaping the work of tomorrow!

Given the global economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, won't it be very difficult for start-ups to convince other companies of their innovations?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
Corona is leaving its mark on all businesses and is presenting a monumental challenge. But of course, young enterprises that are perhaps looking for fresh capital for the next round of financing as well as for customers, have it anything but easy. And many don’t survive long enough for state subsidies to take effect. So, what has always been the case is all the more important today. Start-ups must offer real added value and right now that lies in making processes leaner, more efficient and more effective, which in turn conserves resources, both financial and in terms of personnel. In the good old days, it might have been possible to score with tools that had a stylish design and enabled only minimal progress. However, today’s start-ups need to offer a clearly presented leap in innovation that enables companies using their products to save on costs, time or personnel.

So, it is more important than ever before to pitch using hard data. Can HR start-ups that manage to do this potentially also contribute to overcoming the current crisis?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
I don’t want to put pressure on start-ups by labeling them as “crisis savers”. Stand-alone start-ups that don’t have a corporation backing them wouldn’t be able to meet that expectation. However, HR start-ups do have the potential to make companies, their HR management, and the services they provide for employees more profitable. And anything that helps companies to be more profitable also contributes to overcoming the current crisis.

Do companies actually have the time for innovation right now?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
To answer this, I’d like to call for a greater willingness to experiment. Major companies should initiate experiments, try things out, learn and discard when needed. If every B2B start-up has to go through the corporate mill in terms of IT, compliance, business need etc, there is little left at the end of it all. But start-ups must also be measured by the feasibility of their ideas, even in the context of large organizations. The “Jugend forscht” initiative (Germany’s STEM prize for talented young achievers) can be appealing but is only of limited use in a B2B context – so start-ups also need a greater understanding of requirements on the “other side”. Incidentally, the joint study “HR Start-ups auf dem Prüfstand” (HR Start-ups put to the test), published this year by Wiesbaden Business School and Personalmagazin in collaboration with the hkp/// group, provides insights into mutual expectations.

So, companies need to make time for start-ups, even during a crisis.
Michael H. Kramarsch:
Making time for innovations is essential. Those who don’t do so are gambling with their future. Of course, securing liquidity is the first step in crisis management - and that is definitely a challenge. But if you focus solely on this and don’t also keep an eye on what start-ups offer, don’t think about how your company can survive on the market once the crisis is over, you will be overtaken by competitors who have thought ahead. In this respect, all companies need to ask themselves how the current crisis will affect their business model in the short, medium and long term and then position themselves accordingly – on an internal and external level. HR management-oriented start-ups can play an important role here.

Mr. Kramarsch, what have you been particularly impressed by during the HR Start-up Award’s five years of activity?
Michael H. Kramarsch:
In addition to the passion, the inventiveness and the professionalism of the award’s founders, it’s that sheer feeling of having your finger on the pulse of HR innovation – of witnessing up close the areas where that pulse beats faster. I started this award together with former BPM President and now TUI HR Director Elke Eller to provide a platform for developments in HR management, to understand these and to bring together HR experts and innovators. And in all modesty, we have made that happen. Five years of the HR Start-up Award tell the story of increasingly diverse innovations – from a wealth of recruiting solutions to innovations in areas such as wellbeing, learning, people analytics and many, many more. The winners from the five years of the HR Start-up Award read like a Who’s Who of the German HR start-up scene. These include Tandemploy, Humanoo, Everskill, Vote2Work and the current winners, Danielle Software and Userlane. For five years now, the award has been showing me how vibrant HR innovation is and what a huge contribution it can potentially make to our working world – it continues to deeply impress me.

Mr. Kramarsch, thank you for the interview.

Author Michael H. Kramarsch

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