The Freshteam Leadership Series is excited to present a session with Tracie Sponenberg, Chief People Officer of the Granite Group, a fast-growing family-owned business, one of the top 40 plumbing, heating, and PVA wholesale distributors in the United States. 

In this session titled ‘Going Paperless: HR Tech Tips, Tricks, and Pitfalls to Avoid for Your Small HR Department’, Tracie talks about her own experiences of creating an amazing transformation from a compliance-driven organization to a people-driven organization. Fortunately for Tracie, she had all the backing required from the management team as Granite Group’s culture has always believed in the ‘People First’ policy.

Besides addressing the concern of getting buy-in from your management team, Tracie also talks about:

  • HR Tech and its evolution
  • Latest tech tools and trends
  • Granite Group’s HR Tech journey
  • Challenges of sourcing HR Tech
  • Pitfalls to avoid while sourcing HR Tech
  • Tips for sourcing HR Tech
  • Negotiating
  • Of working with contracts, vendors, and brokers
  • HR Tech resources
Read on to know the main takeaways from the session:

What is HR Tech?


Clear Company groups HR Tech into three categories: HRIS (Human Resource Information Systems), HCM (Human Capital Management), and HRM (Human Resource Management). If you have HR Tech in your organization, you probably started with HRMS - payroll, time, and labor. 

Eventually, you would want to get into the other two categories (HRIS and HRM) because they will help you and your people bring your company forward. Most importantly, they’re going to help you save time and energy and focus on the things that matter.

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The evolution of HR Tech

Modern HR tech started in the 1990s with automating forms. The applicant tracking systems followed, Taleo making the first appearance. You had more HRIS systems coming in, and Google changed the world in the late 1990s. Then, you started to see more Integrated Talent Management tools with SuccessFactors and Oracle and Cornerstone, which are still around today. 

After this, the world of cloud emerged with the likes of Workdays and Oracles entering the scene. Currently, companies are more focused on talent and employee experience. There are players like ServiceNow that can offer a bit of everything. Slack has been around for a while but got deep into the game in 2019.

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This employee experience equation graphic is from Forbes. If you got into HR, you did it because of the people. Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact we’re doing what we’re doing for our people.

It would be best to keep that employee experience equation, which is culture plus technology plus physical space equals the employee experience, in mind in everything you do. Now, given what we went through in 2020 and given where we are right now in 2021, that physical space may look quite a bit different from it did.

So, that may mean that your culture changes - that first part of the experience, your technology changes, that may mean that things change to keep that employee experience positive.

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HR Tools you might need


HR technologist is a great place to look for tech information. These are the tools you need in 2020, but you probably don’t need all of them. You probably need some of them but may need to plug in more as your company grows.


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Current HR Tech Trends


So, this came from the Motley Fool. In this, Tracie is not a fan of trends because she thinks those apply to something that will disappear, but she retained the title as these are pretty relevant to the present context.

Employee Wellness is not a trend. It would help if you cared about your people’s mental, physical, financial, social, and spiritual (which could mean friends, family, community, and religious) well-being. You want to look at the overall well-being. 

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Remote working is not going away, and the companies that were slow to adopt this were left behind.

Gig economy and contractors: Many organizations probably don’t hire people that work 40 hours a week from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday currently. It probably looks quite a bit different as more and more organizations hire people doing project work. With that, they have a pool of essentially good workers who are former managers and retired people who come in and help them out from time to time. That’s something that a lot of us couldn’t have conceived of even a few years ago.

Virtual onboarding: You need to be doing onboarding virtually because we don’t know what the future will hold. This is helpful if you look at hiring people and opening up your geographic area to hire. 

The focus on retraining and upskilling has sharpened, given all the changes in the economy due to the pandemic.

Way back, when it was payroll, the HR teams just cared about paying people. That was what HR did - pay people, hand them their checks, and that was it. And then, we started developing performance review forms, checklists, safety forms, and a form for everything. 

Far too late in her career, Tracie realized she was a paper pusher. And that she was a tactical HR person who was chasing people down to sign forms, and over time, she did change. And that’s something that all HR folks need to do.

Now, it’s all about the people. So, in everything you do, especially in HR technology, keep your people in mind.

Granite Group's HR Tech Journey

The Granite Group doesn’t sell granite. It sells toilets - lots of them. Tracie says for the kind of industry they are in, the company was relatively more technologically advanced than its peers. When Tracie started working at the organization around 2016, it was a great place to work, but the managers spent a lot of time on paperwork because their hiring was decentralized.

The management wanted the managers to spend time with their people and have systems that enhanced learning instead of prohibiting it. So, because the company was spending so much time on paperwork, it couldn’t devote time for training.

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Over five years ago, the Granite Group’s challenges included a growing employee and location base from 400 employees across 30 locations, a decentralized hiring system, and a tiny HR department (1 full-time employee and two part-timers). When Tracie walked in for her first day at work at the Granite Group, the onboarding team handed her a 51-page new hire packet to fill in. She says she had to fill in her name at 17 different places.

The person who hired her wanted to make changes in the organization, but the economy was slumping its way out of the recession, and there weren’t enough funds to do so. It took about an hour for Tracie to fill out all the forms, and even then, she says she was pretty fast and that she may have cheated. The HR team was duplicating efforts in a way that was far beyond anything that anyone should have to go to.

Jokes apart, she realized the experience of an employee’s first day at the organization was this: “Welcome to the Granite Group. Fill all these four forms”. That was when she decided that this had to change and walked straight to the CEO to talk to him about it. She worked on proving the RoI (return on interest). Since the Granite Group already believed in the ‘People First’ policy, Tracie did not have to crunch too many numbers that HR leaders typically do in such a scenario.

Tracie got the CEO’s go-ahead pretty much right away.

Despite being in 30 locations, the organization did not have an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). They had some discounts on health insurance but did not have a wellness program. The Granite Group had only just signed up with a vendor for a Learning Management System, but that had to be changed because the employees didn’t understand it, and the teams couldn’t create their own content. Tracie and her team had to have some tough conversations, but there were no two ways about it. In addition, the team also had to replace its performance management system.

Also, one of the strategic goals for the group was to maintain the voluntary turnover rate at 10%.


The teams also had to deal with missing paperwork, lost data/information, inexperienced managers giving out the wrong information because they were not in the HR department and were not familiar with the details or benefits. The managers also did not have access to compensation data or benefits. Each time a manager wanted to know how much an employee was being paid or needed somebody’s address, they had to call the HR department. This erstwhile situation at Granite is still prevalent in a lot of organizations across the world.

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Making a business case for HR Tech buys


Managers are supposed to be working on the business and not on forms. Doing away with paperwork would mean the managers would have more time for strategic initiatives and focus on their teams. The idea was: how could they use technology to serve their teams better for every single process that the Granite Group has?

Tracie visited every single location. She spoke to all the managers and many employees to find out what their pain points were. And Tracie didn’t have to put together as much of the hard data because the organization leads with the “people first” attitude.

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Though Tracie started working on making a change as soon as she stepped in, It took almost a year before the Granite Group made its first change with respect to a technological transformation. It took that much time to figure out how everything worked at the Granite Group, to talk to the employees and managers, and understand which tools to use for which purpose. Tracie also brought together different people from different functions in the company to assess what they liked and what they didn’t and what would work and what wouldn’t.

She wanted to go in and start over but quickly realized that that process wouldn’t work for the type of business the Granite Group was in.


Sourcing HR Tech


If you go to Google and type terms such as “HRIS, LMS, ATS”, the number of results you would get will leave you wondering if the choice of options in front of you is good or bad. Before you source, you must ask yourselves or your teams the questions highlighted in the image on the left.

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Pitfall #1 while sourcing HR Tech

The bright, shiny object syndrome: This is the case where you look at new technology and are enamored by its newness and cool appearances. You need to step back and think carefully about your problem and the whole process of making the shift.

Before the Granite Group sourced, the team looked at their payroll and HRIS systems. The organization had ADP and decided to stay with it to provide a seamless process for the team members. Most of the folks at the Granite Group loved ADP (at that time, they had payroll, HRIS, and Time with ADP). Except for the customer service, everything else worked well with ADP, says Tracie. Due to the issues with customer care, she wanted to start over, but that would mean training people in 30 locations at that time, which wasn’t worth it for a product people loved.


However, the folks at the Granite Group did not like the Performance and Learning Management Systems that they were using about five years ago. At that time, the organization was using Cornerstone, which is a great company and a product, according to Tracie. But, they realized they needed a full-time administrator to use that product, and they couldn’t find one. They moved ADP for Performance Management, which they used for about five years before moving to Bridge.

Soon, the Granite Group also started to digitize their new hire paperwork, which helped save time for the entire company. Here are some tips by Tracie for sourcing HR Tech:

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Sources to browse HR Tech options

There are quite a few vendors, such as HiveTech HR (Workforce acquired it in 2020), offering paid services to help source and select technology. (Pssst: Tracie has a few other recommendations. Look her up on LinkedIn and ping her for more information :-) ).

Here’s a free source that allows you to find and select vendors in the HR Tech, Wellness, and Benefits Space: And Tracie’s favorite recommendation is: Select Software Reviews provides unbiased recommendations on different software categories. In full disclosure, Tracie is part of their Expert Council, which is not paid for or rewarded in any way. It also provides short whiteboard videos and articles to help you, deep dive into any software category you can imagine.

Tracie’s biggest tip for sourcing HR technology is: going old school, which means talking to your friends, colleagues, and new connections. It helps to expand your networks in the HR communities, and talking to them will help you provide more information than you possibly need.


Join Facebook groups (it’s not just for family and friends - it’s great for business, too), Clubhouse talks, and Twitter chats. Tracie has participated and co-led some conversations in HR social hour (#HRSocialHour) and HR for all (#HRforAll) on Twitter. Once things open up, she says going to expositions and HR events is one of the best ways to understand the options for HR tech. It would be a great idea to attend some of the conferences and events conducted virtually due to the pandemic. The vendors themselves are a tremendous and free source of information — as long as you remember, they’re trying to sell you something.

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As mentioned earlier, one must start with the problems they need to solve before putting any technology in place. Though the Granite Group did not use a request for proposal (RFP), it’s a good recommendation and a more formalized process to identify an organization’s needs. Besides identifying the problems they were trying to solve, the Granite Group also made a list of questions and answered them to narrow down their priorities. 

While implementing their Learning Management System, they came across two options: a dominant player and a new brand, almost a startup. The implementation time for the former was about 16 weeks, whereas it was less than two weeks for the latter. 

The dominant company required a lot of training, whereas the new brand demanded just an hour’s training for the administrators and none for the users. Tracie suggests that one should thoroughly research such details before picking a piece of software.


Selecting HR Tech


Sourcing is more complex than selecting a piece of software during your tech shopping spree. Tracie quotes SHRM on tips to choose the right technology vendor for your organization:

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While attending some tech conferences, Tracie learned some things she hadn’t thought much about or incorporated into her strategies while undertaking a technological transformation for her organization. One of them was that technology should match your organizational culture. She came across a communication and rewards platform. She loved it, but they didn’t go beyond the discovery phase and continued looking for something better suitable for them.

The reason? The Granite Group employees are predominantly blue-collar workers, and it would have been challenging to get them to download another app to communicate.

Another thing Tracie learned was to look at your existing technology. It may turn out to be that your organization may have some features that you’re paying for but not using. It’s essential to call your rep to understand the technology in use and cut out the features that your organization does not require. If necessary, you need to know what technology you have, what you’re buying, and how it will play with the other systems.

If you do not get the answers from your vendors for specific questions, turn those into negotiating leverage. For instance, if you want a new background check system that integrates with your HRIS, but that’s not possible, then you can negotiate. You could ask the vendors to knock off the prices for not integrating a particular system into your existing software - a point that many HR leaders miss.

It helps to look at the reputation of the vendors you’re engaging with. Their likability plays a significant role. Look at the tenure of employees and reps of the vendor on LinkedIn. Representatives have many choices, and if they’re there for a long time, that speaks a lot.

Look at the culture of the vendor to dig into that. How do they treat their people? If they treat their people well, then that’s a huge point ticked off in your vendor screening checklist. Tracie says that if she goes on Glassdoor and sees a 2.2 rating for a technology vendor, she will probably move on because she doesn’t want to do business with a company that doesn’t treat its employees well.

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Pitfall #2 while sourcing HR Tech


Be wary of references. No vendor will give you a bad reference. You can ask the vendor the following question: “Give me somebody who’s with you, somebody who’s thinking about coming to you, and give me somebody who left”. Not everybody will do that, but that’s a better way of dealing with references. Visit the social media channels and crowdsource references. You may have a lot of vendors reaching out, but you need to cut through the noise.

Tracie says everything is negotiable, and that this is something that a lot of people miss out on. When Tracie first started at the Granite Group, there was a product that her predecessor and somebody else who was there for a short time had signed on to, which was not a culture fit for their organization. It was probably better suited for a larger organization, and even as they grew, it didn’t work out well.

So, Tracie tried negotiating with the sales folks and adding a contract, but both options didn’t work out. So, she emailed the CEO of the large organization, and though she didn’t get back, her assistant helped her through the process, and they could negotiate a solution that worked for both of them. You won’t know until you ask. Tracie says there’s almost always some negotiating leverage there in one way, shape, or form.

While getting buy-in from the C-suite or the management team, remember that:

Pitfall #3 while sourcing HR Tech

The third pitfall is counterintuitive. It is YOU - unless you educate yourself on the HR Tech basics. Tracie found herself to be one of those who weren’t aware of the basics of technology. Still, she has realized that technology will help you create the best possible employee experience and propel your company forward from her journey. 

For much of her career, Tracie was a department of one, and she pretty much just plugged things into the system, filled out forms, did data entry, among other things such as hiring. But she says she never took the time to learn. She says she was like so many other people in HR who thought that they didn’t have the time to learn when ironically, that time you take to learn is the one thing you need to get yourself more time.

The big thing about technology is that it will give you more time to do the things that matter. To cut a long story short, about eight years ago, Tracie had a whole personal transformation that changed the way she looked at the world and the way she looked at business. 

She says she started looking at things as more opportunities than roadblocks and started to change her outlook. She began by educating herself and surrounding herself with people who could help fill in her gaps in areas where she wasn’t strong.  

Tracie still does not consider herself an HR tech expert, but she says she doesn’t have to because she knows where to go for the answers. She adds that she knows enough to understand what her company and the employees need. It was one challenging journey, but worth it, she says. And, on a parallel, If the Granite Group had not undergone the technological transformation several years ago, the organization would have been in a very different situation during the pandemic.

Hidden money in your contracts

While looking at all the existing technologies at the Granite Group, Tracie did one more thing: go through all the contracts, not just tech ones, to look for hidden items they weren’t using.

The organization had a costly, standalone employee assistance program (EAP). But they also had one embedded in their benefits plan. They ended up moving away from the very expensive program and found an EAP within one of their plans that suited their needs, which saved lots of money for them. For any plan, remember to negotiate and renegotiate.

Watch out for the contracts that automatically renew. Many tech vendors may want you to sign three-year contracts, which may be good for you. However, if you aren’t sure about some software, consider taking up a one-year contract. It may cost you a bit more, but it may be worth it in the end as it would give you room to wiggle out later if necessary.


Working with Brokers


This is another option you can choose while sourcing and selecting HR technology. If you have a benefits broker, check if they have a technology resource on staff. You could ask your broker to help source and select health adjacent tech software such as wellness or regular HR tech. Tracie has worked with both vendors and brokers who help source and choose from both categories. They can help take off quite a bit from your plate.

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If you know any particular software through a friend, you could send it to the brokers and get them to vet it. This would be useful not only for you but for their current and potential clients as well. Sometimes, your broker can function as an extension of your HR department.

The above is only a part of the sub-topics Tracie has covered in the session. Strongly urge you to watch the video (chapters are provided) for more real-life examples and a bunch of Tracie’s favorite HR Tech tools, resources, and conferences. You can also download the entire presentation for free by entering your name, designation, company, and email address!