· 8 min read · Features

HR technology special 1/7: should HR and IT be friends?


If men are allegedly from Mars and women apparently from Venus, as claimed in the best-selling 1992 book by John Gray, does it follow that HR is from Mercury and IT is from the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.6 million light years away from Earth?

Should we be looking at cosmic scientific analogies when investigating the relationship between IT and HR? HR directors are all about soft skills, aren't they? Surely it is the IT directors that look at the science behind any technology strategy.

Not necessarily.

Stereotypes tossed aside and silos abandoned, IT and HR have been thrown together over recent years in a bid to put in place HR technology strategies for the greater business good.

Martin Sawkins, group HR director at business services group Rentokil Initial, completed a rollout of a cloud-based HR platform from Workday in November 2011, for global HR capabilities, self-service tools and innovation delivery.

This complemented Rentokil Initial's other cloud-based solutions, including: the Google Apps software service for the company's email, intranet, and collaboration toolset; Ariba as its main procurement tool; and Cornerstone OnDemand for global online learning.

At the time, Sawkins described the relationship between HR and technology as vital. He said: "As a large company with a small HR team, it is absolutely imperative that we leverage leading-edge technologies we trust, to provide us with the information we need to do our jobs."

This is an example of a relationship that went right, but in November 2011, when HR magazine reported on the growth of cloud computing within HR, Leighanne Levensaler, VP human capital management strategy at SaaS provider Workday, admitted: "From an IT perspective, HR often falls to the back of the queue. The IT director needs to realise the cloud can add value to their department too. It allows them to focus on their core operating system - and they can stop putting veneers on old software."

Colin Steed, chief executive of Learning and Performance Institute, added that the relationship between HR and IT was what could "make or break" the development of HR technology within business.

Allan Pettman, UK managing director of training provider Global Knowledge, believes that although IT and HR are moving in the same direction to be business-focused, rather than siloed in their own departments, IT professionals have been slower to think strategically, which in turn has had a bearing on HR technology plans, he concedes.

He explains: "The terms and agendas thought of by HR and IT have been different traditionally and they are moving now to be more business-focused. But the issue for IT is its ability to link IT back to business. In HR technology, for example, this could mean HR looking at a strategy for technology and IT looking at compliance and feasibility with back-office systems. IT people are now more business- focused and prepared to work as one with HR."

But it works both ways. HR directors hoping to put in place a cloud-based data platform, a state-of-the-art analytics system or new online learning and recruitment software, will be able to communicate their business case to the board, but might fall down on how to inform IT professionals of the nuts and bolts of what they need.

"If HR approaches IT with a business case for a new system, and the technology department can't make the decision happen, IT will be seen as a department putting blockers in the way for HR - even if there is a tangible business and commercial benefit," says Pettman.

"HR has kept the business cases in its own departments for too long. It is a much more agile world now and when it comes to technology, HRDs should take their hypotheses to IT directors much earlier."

Take the analogy of mergers and acquisitions from an HR perspective. M&A activity is a commercial imperative, but if the people processes are not in place and HR due diligence is not conducted early enough, then the deal can be broken down or eroded over time.

The same could be said of an HR technology strategy. If internal advice from the IT department is not sought at an early stage, the strategy could prove ineffective from implementation stage.

"Relationships between HR and IT are developing, but if I had to be honest, this is not happening quickly enough," says Tracy Martin, senior director of human capital management strategy, Oracle. "Business plans often come to IT too late in the day. This could be because of internal politics or a hidden agenda - but both IT and HR fundamentally want to increase business productivity.

"HRDs can view IT as a hindrance or a process-driven department, but they can't be this narrow in their thinking any more."

By the same token, she adds: "HR directors are becoming more business-savvy and they want to expand their skill sets and this requires conversations between departments. HR directors want information, information is data and nowadays data is technology. So any form of workforce planning requires tech savvy, but HR professionals are not necessarily designed to understand the legal ramifications of IT data."

Kevin Streater is head of 'IT industry engagement' at the Open University, meaning that his role is to promote relationships with IT to other branches of business.

He explains: "Our entire business is about technology and people. The Open University focuses on IT [for course delivery], but people is our business. There is a different focus between these two departments, but they want the same things. The chief information officer is the one who will be responsible for learning delivery to customers, but the HR lines here are completely blurred and HR will take the lead in certain parts. It is about working together."

But he adds: "I work in an environment with HR. It uses a different set of language [from IT]. IT will know how technology is structured and the processes - these terms will often not make sense to HR.

"IT professionals are experienced in developing technology. They just need a 'currency converter', so HR and other departments can understand the value of their resource. This development for IT will allow them to have better recognition in business.

"HR and IT have to manage technological change together. They have to come to the table together with their respective expertise - look at what needs to be achieved from both sides, then work on their own implementations."

Given the pace of growth of HR technology, Christian Horne, HR operations director for Diageo Western Europe, even goes as far as to say: "The role technology plays is growing in all our lives, so maybe a chief talent and technology officer is the future of HR." But he adds: "Even the idea of this scares me, which I take to be a very good sign."

But is this vision something that could be realised in the short term?

Oracle's Martin thinks so. "The idea of a chief talent and technology officer implies a much more holistic approach to data. It would allow HR to have a finger on the pulse. And this role could potentially come from either HR or IT. There are HR people out there bringing much more social media into how they do their jobs and there are IT people leading the talent agenda in their organisations and developing processes to help employees get on board."

Richard Nott, website director at IT recruiter CW Jobs, agrees. "Some IT people will always be happy bashing out coding, but a new generation of IT professional is emerging, with excellent commercial skills and emotional intelligence. Organisations are much more fluid, so these people are working across businesses. They would be well placed to build a technology strategy around HR, but they need to be able to have personal relationships with the business, be concerned about the business at large and have a bird's eye view of what's going on."

Drug and alcohol treatment charity Addaction is one of the eight employers shortlisted for an HR Excellence Award for the most innovative use of technology. Its HR director, Guy Pink, admits technology is not one of his areas of strength, giving more responsibility to the IT department.

He explains: "At Addaction, our IT sits under our finance director, who has the responsibility of pulling together the management information.

"HR needs to know what it wants from IT systems and IT should be able to deliver these requirements."

But he adds: "There is therefore no need for IT to sit under HR. It reminds me of the old argument of whether HR is part of the board or not. The relevance is not where this sits, but what this technology adds to the quality of services delivered and alignment with the organisation's business strategy. Use the management information wisely and it will add to your effectiveness. But, no, I don't think IT should sit with HR."

Robert Bolton, a partner at KPMG Management Consulting, has noted the emergence of a potentially startling trend. "I dare say an IT director will have sound advice for strategy, but with employers starting to move away from ERP [enterprise resource planning] software towards the cloud and less need for support with servers and networks, HR directors seem to be dealing with cloud strategy themselves.

"My understanding is that in ongoing configuration of cloud computing - for example, business acquisitions and businesses expanding into Europe - it is the HR function that will most likely own the development of the people technology and not IT. There have only been a handful of early examples of businesses doing this, but I think it is best this role resides in HR."

Either way, a sea-change is under way for the relationship between HR and IT. The question that remains is: which department will be the one to lead the charge?

Open University aims to make IT professionals more business centric

While IT continues to interact with the rest of the business, it has created a need for IT professionals to develop a more 'rounded' set of business competencies.

Last month, a collaboration between the Open University and Global Knowledge, an IT and business skills training provider, launched a postgraduate certificate (PGC) for IT service managers, challenging them to assess how they apply what they learn in the workplace.

The certificate has been designed to connect IT staff development on broader business objectives, and individuals, who receive a transferable academic qualification that recognises experience in a way that demonstrates capability in the workplace.

The launch follows research from e-skills UK, the Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology, finding professional IT skills would be the most pressing learning need in the IT industry over the next decade. The report estimates that of the additional IT skills required by UK plc up to 2020, 40% will be in service management.

Kevin Streater, head of IT industry engagement at the Open University, explains: "Despite it being the skills set IT employers demand most of all, service management has for many years been one of the least covered topics in higher education.

"At the same time, industry certificates don't always convince employers of their successful application. By combining an existing training infrastructure with an independent and robust academic pathway, the Open University and Global Knowledge are bridging the gap between individuals getting certified and organisations seeing the benefit."

Allan Pettman, UK MD at Global Knowledge, adds: "As the IT industry continues to mature, we need to develop it even further to demonstrate the professionalism in IT service management that is required for broader organisational success. We are enabling employees to demonstrate they can apply what they have learnt in their day-to-day role and the tangible difference it has made to their organisation. They also get a more transferable qualification within a recognisable academic framework that proves their capability to existing and prospective employers."

Ben Clacy, chief executive of the IT Service Management Forum, says: "The 100,000 IT service managers (ITSMs) working in the UK today are integral to the success of their organisation, with the resource and responsibility to strategically embed technology to best achieve business objectives.

"This is a huge change in role and requires modern ITSMs to be great communicators, people managers and strategic thinkers. This must be reflected in how we develop this and future generations."

The vital statistics

  • 94% of office workers are confident in using technology at work
  • 37% of office workers do not receive regular and appropriate training to help them use available technology
  • 42% say training would help them do their job more effectively
  • 32% of employees say they require access to better technology to do their job more effectively

Source: May 2012 survey of 1,000 office workers by IT recruiter, Modis