Understanding the Benefits Broker Role in a new HR Ecosystem

This was written for Employee Benefit Adviser Magazine. The link to the article on their blog is here.

When the iPhone first came out in 2007 there were no apps other than what Apple provided; no third-party products like phone covers, car chargers, headsets, or wireless speakers. If you dropped the phone and broke the glass you couldn’t take it to the local mall to have it repaired.

Here we are nine years later and there are over 1.5 million apps. There are add-on products sold online, in pharmacies, convenient stores, airports, and all kinds of other retail stores, that make the phone more useful. If you wanted to write an app for the iPhone there are skilled programmers available around the world. And if you dropped your phone there is some person at the local mall who could fix it.

The majority of these products and services are not provided by Apple. They are provided by some person or company that one day made a decision to capitalize on the success of Apple and build something that users of Apple products would value.

According to the Financial Times, “technology ecosystems are product platforms defined by core components made by the platform owner and complemented by applications made by autonomous companies in the periphery…the core firm’s product has important but limited value when used alone but substantially increases in value when used with the complementary applications.”

In the HR/Benefits technology world the same rules apply. There is a core product and there are periphery products and services. A core product with an advanced ecosystem will have much more value. If you are an advisor in the benefits business it is important to know which products are core and which are periphery. If you are providing services it would be important to know how your service fits into the HR/Benefits tech ecosystem.

Many benefits brokers are not recognizing these HR technology ecosystems. Many think the benefits technology vendor they have chosen is its own ecosystem or the center of the clients HR world. At one time people thought the Earth was the center of our solar system too. This belief caused many problems with keeping the calendar, sailors navigating at sea, and keeping track of Holidays.

Thinking that benefits technology is the center of the HR Ecosystem also results in problems. Benefits aren’t easily administered or communicated. Systems delivered by brokers often aren’t easy to use or have issues with “integration”.

Working in a vacuum delivering siloed software creates the problem.

The HR technology market is in the midst of big changes. The market leading vendors are making efforts to grow their ecosystems to create more value for employers and employees while also creating space between themselves and those that want to take their business.

If you are a benefits broker it will be important to recognize this market change. You need to make decisions as to who you think the winners and losers are going to be. You would need to think about how what you do will fit into these HR ecosystems. This could impact everything from the products one sells, advice one gives, and the services one provides. Private Exchanges, benefits administration and communication are all impacted by how the HR ecosystem evolves and how these products/services fit in.

When it comes to benefits technology I always remind brokers that it is important to understand the tools of one’s profession. Understanding how technology impacts the benefits business does not make someone a technologist. It makes someone a better broker.

HR Technology is going through an evolution much like the cell phone business except we are 7 years behind. A few years from now there may be fewer vendors with much bigger ecosystems.

Providing some product or service that enhances the value of the right core HR technology solutions is an opportunity that can become very lucrative. At a minimum understanding the “tools of one’s trade” is a requirement to simply being a better benefits advisor. Either way, pay attention, because the HR/Benefits technology world is about to change.

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