I’ll admit, I’m a Google Earth junkie.  When I was a kid I could sit and stare at a globe for an hour, wondering what those places looked like.  Now I can sit and stare at Google Earth, and zoom in and not only find out what those places looked like, but whether they have Starbucks there, and I can spend many hours doing this. 

Google Earth is a great example of a Rich Internet Application, or RIA, because it provides a thin window of an application running on your local machine, and talks to Google’s servers over the Internet to extract data from some massive “Earth” database.  If you’ve been following this series of blogs, you know that I’ve characterized Web 2.0 more as an era than a single event, with certain enabling or maturing technologies bringing about the possibility of Web 2.0 apps, like Google Earth.  The enabling technologies for RIAs are maturing web styling (new versions of HTML, CSS, etc.), and Ajax.

Ajax used to be an acronym for Asynchronous Javascript and XML.  It’s basically a technique for web applications to communicate with a backend server (by running a script) without requiring a complete refresh of the web page (like used to be the standard in the early days of the Web).  The result is a great deal more functional interactivity between the user, through the web application, to the back office (think of the Google Earth communicating with that huge geographic database).  Since scripting can be in any language, and the data package doesn’t necessarily have to be in XML, programmers have taken to the name “Ajax” over the misnomer acronym “AJAX”.

RIA’s, fueled by Ajax, are now more the norm for web applications (vs. web sites, the term I reserve for our marketing billboards on the Web) than standard applications.  I can’t imagine my online HRMS or SFA applications without a rich user experience, and I attribute the explosion of certain popular sites like Facebook as much to the depth of their user experience as to their functionality.  Case in point: Google Earth; what makes it that much more functional than the more conventional Google Maps, if not the rich interface?

Human Resources managers are beginning to see a wave of both new HR-related applications utilizing basic RIA functionality, plus they are beginning to see a new generation of workers accustomed to RIAs (and perhaps not even familiar with the previous generation of web applications).  Upgrades of existing HRMS systems promise both framework implementations (.Net and J2EE) and richer user experiences.  What does all this mean?  If an HRMS platform is not “RIA” centric, and they don’t have immediate plans to go “RIA”, should you switch?  What is the value of delivering RIA functionality in HR, such as employee communications portals and self-service apps, to the new generation of workers?

The value of RIAs, I think, comes down to two reasons to embrace them.  First, and most importantly, RIAs are a great way of deploying user functionality to interact with a large data store that is too large to distribute (and maintain on a distributed basis).  While there are quite a few operational applications where this might be beneficial, within the realm of HR this value might be limited to larger companies and employee communications functions, and talent managers who collect a lot of data on a lot of candidates. 

The second benefit of RIAs in HR is to make more practical–and useful–certain functionality that by nature is interactive.  Quickly keying large volumes of data, for example, has always been a challenge in web applications.  Someone used to their “10 key” and flying through reams of paper would wince in pain if they had to lift their hands to manipulate a mouse.  An RIA can solve this problem, and new generations of payroll systems might be a boon for the payroll department that has, until now, been stuck on green screens.  Also, specialized clients (like the Google Earth client) can break the bounds of their browser to provide even further specialized functionality (are you doing any recruiting in Second Life?)

In both cases, the real underlying value is saving time.  Employees will embrace RIA’s in HR because they’re quicker and more efficient.

Up next in my blog series: Web 2.0 and on-demand applications.