HR-Tech column: Why it is worth asking | staff

Many people find it difficult to admit that they have not understood something. We should look all the more at those who are not afraid to ask questions – especially if they are in public or have corporate responsibility. Because following up is a sign of wisdom, says our columnist Thomas Otter.

Regardless of personal political convictions, one can admire Angela Merkel’s ability to meet. Be it in dealing with politicians, flood victims or as in

Video with startup founders. Merkel does something that is not easy for everyone: she asks in order to understand. Tennis legend Roger Federer does a similar thing

in an interview, when he doesn’t understand an English proverb. Both appearances are admirable in their own right.

It’s okay to ask

In either case, Merkel and Federer are not afraid to admit that they don’t understand a term or phrase. Both interrupted the moderator and asked for an explanation. Usually we expect the most powerful person on stage or in the room to know all the answers. But it shows strength when they admit they don’t. Your admission or confusion sends a very powerful message to everyone else in the audience or at the meeting. It’s okay not to understand everything. That creates psychological security.

Jargon is sometimes useful, but often confusing

Today you will be bombarded with new phrases and terms at HR-Tech. I’ve spent almost 30 years in this field and regularly get confused about how vendors position products and talk about what their software does. Jargon is sometimes a useful abbreviation, but it is often used for confusion. The next time you’re in a meeting with a vendor and hear a term that you don’t quite understand, stop them and ask them to explain.

Providing explanations when asked expresses competence

Two things can happen, both of which are useful. Ideally, the provider explains briefly and precisely what he means. It shows the competence of the provider and helps him to level the presentation. You’ll also learn a new acronym or concept. Alternatively, the provider will give you a vague, incoherent answer. That means that he doesn’t understand the topic either and only uses catchphrases. Both outcomes will help you make better decisions.

It is especially important to ask yourself such questions when looking at new technology. If at times it seems too good to be true, ask more questions. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physics lecturers, best described it: “But the problem you see when you ask why something is happening, how a person answers, why something is happening?”

Keep asking until you are really satisfied and understand.

Sample questions in the area of ​​HR tech

Applied to HR tech, here are some sample questions that might help you understand better:

  • What is the difference between machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI)?
  • They say your product is AI-led. What does that mean?
  • They say your product is unbiased. How do you do it? Who is checking this?
  • You mention that your product is GDPR compliant. As?
  • What is seamless integration?
  • What does an API actually do?
  • What is a microservice?
  • How to build “Mobile First”
  • What do you mean by cloud native?
  • What do you mean by agile?
  • And my favorite: what is transformation?

About twelve years ago I worked for the research company Gartner. I have been to a number of meetings with a very experienced analyst. I was surprised and confused that she asked the same question in almost every meeting. I asked her afterwards, “The CEO answered this question in our first meeting, how come you keep asking it?” She replied, “I’ll keep asking the same question until I get a consistent, easy-to-understand answer from everyone I ask.”

She was wise.

Thomas Otter is founder of

Otter Advisory and advises large and small companies, investors and HR tech providers. Previously, he led product management at SAP Success Factors and was Research Vice President at Gartner for HR Tech. The interaction between HR and technology fascinates, disillusioned and inspires him again and again.


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