Mercer's Continuing Software Evolution

Mercer, one of the best, big HR consultancies, continues to expand its software and intellectual property footprint. This week they hosted an analyst event and showcased a number of products for relocation, rewards and many other solutions.
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor on

Mercer Assessment

Mercer, part of Marsh & McLennan, is a blue-chip, top-drawer HR consultancy that also happens to have a material amount of intellectual property (IP), thought leadership and software.  Like any good consultancy, Mercer probably can find a way to solve most big firms' touchiest HR issues.

When consulting and software are part of the same firm, there is often an evolution that will occur. I personally saw this earlier in my own career when I was a partner at one of the world’s largest consultancies. Consultancies often develop software applications as a by-product of client work. In fact, many of the software applications may have been jointly developed and materially funded by a client. When a client has this sort of influence, they can also dictate what platform, deployment method, hardware, etc. the solution will utilize. Before long, a consultancy can find itself with a large portfolio of products, each with its own unique technology underpinnings and marketing challenges. As long as the consultancy permits local offices and its local executives to cut these deals, the proliferation of non-standard solutions will continue.

This non-integrated approach to software development is opportunistic and short-term. A software company  has a different focus than a consultancy as it is trying to maximize the re-use of its intellectual property. Software firms create suites of integrated applications built on a common platform and sell the suite (and not just individual products) to its customers. Consultancies sell services and the odd software solution. The two businesses couldn’t be more dissimilar.

There’s a moment when a service firm realizes it is making a growing amount of revenue and profits from its IP-based software solutions. And, when it does, it starts to change.

Mercer’s changing today.  Mercer's technology suite is now starting to come together. The company has recently coalesced its diverse development groups into a single organization.  The company is now moving to two common architectures: a .Net architecture for many applications and a MicroStrategy platform for their more analytic intensive applications. The company is also working on bringing single sign-on capabilities to its numerous products. All of these are good moves.

Mercer has even more IP assets in its benchmarks, survey data, thought leadership and guidance. At their analyst event this week, I was given a couple of country specific briefing books of theirs. One contained excellent HR benchmarking and productivity data for China and another contained a different mix of benchmarks for the U.S.  The firm also has a wealth of real estate, cultural and other information to help companies and executives with geographic relocation.

Mercer spent a fair bit of time demonstrating how some of this knowledge capital is made available via online sites, tools and guides. I find this information particularly valuable for many mid-to-large firms as I routinely encounter companies that now want to become more global and/or want to promulgate a “one-firm” concept in their company.

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The one-firm concept is easy to explain and is more important than ever to companies that want to create products (or deliver services) in a consistent manner worldwide. Unfortunately, a firm with a long-standing legacy of standalone, country-specific plants and operations probably never created any global leaders. How can you have a global operating committee when no one has ever worked at any other facility in any other country than the one that hired them? Ex-pat assignments help but it takes time to develop the talent that is both successful and possesses a global mindset/sensibility.  Some of Mercer’s tools take the risk out of these transitions (but neither Mercer nor other consultancies are able to un-do decades of non-global HR practices completely).

I’ve done an ex-pat gig and I’ve sent people on them as well. I didn’t have the resources Mercer makes available today and I wish I had.

Looking ahead, I believe Mercer must:

  • Create a compelling vision and roadmap for its technology - I sense they’re working on more than they shared with us but much of what we heard seemed like state of the industry stuff not the stuff of gee-whiz innovation. For example, the analytics story we all heard was mostly about static ERP/HR/Talent Management data. While the company spoke about big data, the biggest dataset I heard discussed was only 100 million records. However, in a one-on-one conversation with a Mercer executive, I learned more about the team working on analytics. These people have software, not consulting, backgrounds. I learned that the execs really do understand where they must push the analytics envelope and how they were developing use cases beyond search & discover big data apps. This exec discussed how they were going beyond data correlations to finding actual causal relationships (replete with control group testing and more).  So, do I believe they possess the horsepower to get the job done? Yes. But their communication and marketing of the vision and tech roadmap needs some polishing.
  • Create a rapid development/rapid retirement capability in its applications - The tech space is evolving very quickly and some Mercer offerings, like the Career Framework, simply take too  long to complete. That offering, one Mercer exec stated, takes a client 2-3 years to complete and must be frequently updated.
  • Develop the full B2C product vision – Mercer has a solution, TalentSIM, that it is making available to workers anywhere who will pay a nominal sum to find out the answer to one question: “Am I ready to be a manager?”. If you are, great – employers should find that attractive. If you aren’t, Mercer makes American Management Association training available  to help you close any skill gaps.  But, given the company’s past success selling B2B solutions to large global employers, I wonder if Mercer has really thought through how to market a consumer product and what is needed to get mind share with workers long-term.
  • Fix their demonstrations/messaging – For an analyst event, I would have expected crisper discussion around business challenges facing the client’s executive team not just the CHRO. How Mercer states a business problem is clearly more HR-centric than business centric.
  • Make social a real part of their solutions, especially analytics – Social or collaboration popped up several times but neither really exists in any meaningful way in the products we saw. Mercer’s got to get something going here fast.

Bottom line:  Big companies have always loved Mercer and will likely find the IP-rich apps and content to be very attractive still. Mercer’s making some of the right moves in coalescing its development efforts into a single team and fewer architectures. The messaging still needs work but that’s a very curable matter.


Disclosure: Mercer provided airfare and a hotel night for this analyst event.

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