Standards Usher in a New Era for HR Technology

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Standards Usher in a New Era for HR Technology

Standards organizations have toiled away for years, even decades in some cases, creating standard schemas to improve the interoperability of HR and related systems.  Countless hours of collaboration have resulted in a rich set of standards that have been leveraged by contributing and non-contributing organizations alike to reduce development cost, time to market, and ability to participate in a rich ecosystem of vendors that serve every aspect of the employee lifecycle.  Standards from the HR Open Standards Consortium are one shining example.

Now, with a blockchain network coming soon to an HR application near you, there’s an opportunity for these standards to facilitate a transition to a blockchain-based world.  In fact, if there’s to be any hope of rapid adoption, I believe there’ll be an urgent need for the emergent blockchain networks and their related componentry (API’s, agents, wallets, etc.) to support existing standards.

There are several proposed use cases for blockchain for HR but for the purposes of this discussion I’ll focus on what is considered to be the primary use case: managing and sharing credentials of an individual participant in the labour economy.  The participant may be a learner, a candidate, an employee, a contractor, a retired person, or any combination thereof.  Credentials may be formal or informal education, corporate-based learning, work experience, licenses, or certifications, to name the major ones.

When we talk about credential-related standards for HR blockchain networks, there are several layers to consider.  I have found it useful to think about three of these layers using a train analogy, where the blockchain network itself is the network of rail lines and the engines are the various applications that are pulling boxcars full of data.

The Boxcar

There seems to be a general consensus that the blockchain-ish layer that describes how things are securely packaged up to be moved around in a blockchain network is well-defined and that standard schema is courtesy of volunteers participating in a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) workgroup.  You may remember the W3C from standards such as “HTML” and well, many other things that make the Internet work with the millions of disparate hardware, operating systems, applications, etc.

Think of this layer as the boxcar:  the design and pitch of the wheels, the dimensions of the freight container, the couplings for joining to other boxcars, and the engine.  Basically, what your boxcar needs to conform to in order to properly move along on the rails.

It would seem pretty safe that if you’re going to launch a blockchain network to serve the credential-verifying needs of HR, you should strongly consider the W3C Verifiable Credential (VC) schema and probably nothing else.  Ultimately, conformance to the W3C VC standard is going to allow for interoperability within a network as well as between emergent blockchain networks.  The boxcars will technically be able to travel on each other's rails although, as in the real-life example, the economic model of inter-network transport is subject to negotiation between the network operators.  Clearly, technical congruence is a necessary condition prior to any business arrangement between parties.  Network interoperability is a big deal because there are several vendors and consortia building networks but at the end of the day, an individual (learner, candidate, employee, all-of-the-above) really could care less what an organization’s underlying system/vendor/network is.  War for talent, anyone?

Boxes in the Boxcar

In this layer, we can use the existing standards schemas so that participants in the blockchain networks can know what to expect to receive.  Not all the boxes in the boxcar will be the exact same shape and size and that’s ok.  There’s some variety and at the end of the day, you can put in the boxcar whatever will fit and then ship it from point A to point B.  However, when the boxcar reaches its destination, it’s easier and more efficient if the receiver knows what they’re looking at and has the equipment for unloading the boxes, pallets, or whatever.  If 55-gallon drums show up that they’ve never seen before, things might get awkward.

Unfortunately, there’s no single global standard for all employee lifecycle data nor will there be.  Ever.  Ok, never say “ever”.  But having worked on standards, I can assure you that it is hard.  Not really that technically difficult but a “herd the cats”, drive consensus, include-everyone’s-special-interest kind of hard.  Did I mention time-consuming?

The good news is that the standards creation process started many years ago so much of that time has already passed.  Some of the usual suspects that should be considered as possible good fits for standards in this layer are:

Coordinating discussion and effort around the use and synergies of credentials standards in this layer is the T3 Innovation Network.  With representation from over 500 organizations, it has created the Learner Employer Record (LER) Resource Hub that acts as a lightning rod of sorts for interest and activity related to comprehensive and transparent learner records.  The intention is that this new type of record will make it more efficient for job seekers to present their credentials to employers and for employers to use them in sourcing, recruiting, and hiring processes.  Naturally, the T3 Innovation Network has an interest in the emergence of blockchain networks and unsurprisingly, its LER Wrapper and Wallet specification has effectively adopted the W3C VC standard in combination with several of the aforementioned standards.

If the blockchain networks are going to drive adoption and get to a critical mass of participants needed to drive a network effect, they’re going to have to support standards that are already well-developed and are in use by thousands of the organizations they would like to participate in their networks.  Hopefully, blockchain network participants already support some of the standards and the networks support some of the standards in use by the participants.  That would be ideal and of course, the more overlap in those supported standards, the better for the evolution of the blockchain networks.

Stuff in the Boxes

I believe this is the toughest and most difficult layer of the standards puzzle.  You can pack stuff in a standard box, put it in the boxcar and move it around the country on the rail network.  But when the final recipient opens the box, what’s the stuff inside?  If they ordered a wrench, is it metric, imperial, or neither?

If we think of the recipient as a recruiter, for example, they will be presented with whatever data has made the long electronic journey from its source to their screen.  Maybe it’s an education credential such as a degree.  What’s that you say, an “MBA”?  Is that the same as a “Master of Business Administration”?  Sure it is, but that’s an easy one.  Imagine all the different degrees out there and their synonyms.  And that’s just degrees.  Multiply by a few thousand and you might get to the right order of magnitude for the number of microcredentials out there.  

Even though figuring out that an MBA and Master of Business Administration are the same thing and presenting that to the recruiter in a standard way should be relatively easy, it’s not.  Despite the millions upon millions of dollars invested in HR applications over the decades and the billions spent on them every year, this problem continues to exist in the industry to this day.  Ignoring that for a moment, let’s drill down.  What exactly does an MBA include and is it the same regardless of which university granted it?  Hardly.  And that’s a fairly standard one that most of us probably think we intuitively understand.  Good luck figuring out:  Master of Financial Innovation and Technology (yes, it’s real and you can get one here).

This is a big problem to solve.  The Credential Engine is making a valiant attempt but despite developing a standard schema to describe credentials (CTDL) and a collaborative effort with credential issuers to tackle the over 730,000 credentials in the US alone, it will only provide a solution to one (albeit large and significant) part of the overall data set relevant to HR.

Moving Forward

Standards can play a crucial role in the design, adoption, and ultimately the success of blockchain networks for HR.  Over the past few decades, thousands of person-years have been collectively invested in creating a comprehensive set of standards.  While some of this work is on-going, much of the heavy-lifting has been done and the fruits of this labour are available for the blockchain networks to adopt, thereby saving time and accelerating rollout.  The challenge for the networks is to identify which of the standards are the most appropriate for their goals and, despite any overlap, understanding how they can be used in combination with one another.  Through collaborations fostered by organizations such as the T3 Innovation Network and the Velocity Network Foundation, I believe we’re on track to leverage a lot of the hard work that’s been done by the standards organizations and to breathe new life into their mission of driving industry standards to facilitate interoperability.

This train is about to leave the station!

If you’d like to continue the discussion, please join the Coffee Chat on September 28, 2020 at 11a EDT.  You can sign up here.


Rick Barfoot is an HR technology veteran and former HR Open Standards board member.  He is currently COO of Joynd and chair of the Velocity Network Foundation Standards Committee.  The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect those of Joynd, the Velocity Network Foundation, or the HR Open Standards Consortium.