· 8 min read · Features

Technology: Employee self-service - Can HR keep up with the pace of self-service technology?

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All the evidence points to self-service saving time and money yet take-up remains low and the technology is becoming ever more advanced. David Woods looks at why HR is dragging its feet.

Difficult as it is to imagine, when Apple launched the iPod - its first foray into the consumer MP3 market nine years ago - bloggers and analysts alike gave it a distinctly lukewarm reception. One analyst said it lacked the 'richness of Sony's (its rival) product offering', while another called it 'iPoop'. But despite not demonstrating anything technologically new (MP3s had been out for years), it defied the critics, and mass adoption (it is close to selling its 250 millionth unit) followed.

The seemingly fickle nature of why some technology takes off but others do not (despite being superior) will again be in Apple executives' minds as reaction to its next 'third category'

iPad was similarly on the cool side in January. But it is precisely this lack of uptake in the face of all the arguments to the contrary that continue to blight the area of employee self-service. For despite the lure of freeing HR time from administration, 50% of organisations have still not introduced any self-service at all, according to Computers in Personnel.

But this is only half of it. HRDs could soon have another problem on their hands. Against lower than expected take-up (but possibly to encourage more adoption), self-service providers are pressing ahead and finding new ways of expanding self-service usage (see Aviva case study, below). There is a real threat HRDs are failing to keep up with what employee self-service can do.

Back in 2002, Cedar Human Resources (which used to run an annual Self Service/Portal Survey) predicted companies would actually lose competitive advantage by not having some form of self-service. Right up to date, James Ronksley, director at NorthgateArinso, admits not a lot has changed since: "We know a lot of organisations are buying self-service technology. But are they using it and really getting the benefit? Probably not."

The problem is that providers are bringing out third iteration products - going way beyond what self-service was first introduced for. Self-service began with systems where staff could view and update personal information, obtain a P60 or get information on payroll details. The next level allowed them and line managers to submit and sign off expenses, absences and holiday requests. Where the market is moving is in what David Woodward, chief information officer at Ceridian UK, describes as "value added" self-service systems, incorporating online appraisals, flexible benefits platforms, CV checks, interview panels, online recruitment, salary amendments and knowledge sharing. These systems can resemble social networking sites and, in his opinion, offer more than just saving the HR department's administration time. But some providers think HRDs are still five years behind the curve.

Jonathan White, new business sales manager at Sage, says: "Inevitably some organisations hit a glass ceiling with this technology depending on their size and sector. But a finance company where people have a workstation and computer are bound to make more use of the service than a manufacturer where staff are working manually."

New areas into which self-service is moving include training plans and staff surveys (retailer TopShop), expenses management (health group David Lloyd) and even mobile workforce management. On the latter, Cable & Wireless has adopted technology from ClickSoftware, which will allow engineers to remotely accept jobs to visit customers based on the system knowing where they are, and matching skills to the nearest person. But these are the trailblazers, and even getting adoption at level-one self-service is a challenge.

As ever, the same issues of internal management buy-in still seem to dominate. "I have seen organisations where the self-service systems implemented just do not look right," says Woodward. "For all the technological promise, for the implementation to work there needs to be some form of change management programme at a fundamental level. Only then will staff know exactly what is expected of them. In essence, either the technology chosen is not up to the task or too sophisticated - or commitment is lacking."

The reason the technology is moving on, say providers, is because it needs to. According to research compiled by self-service provider Transversal, 84% of HR staff questioned said they struggled to answer staff requests promptly because dealing with their telephone calls got in the way of meeting their objectives. It launched its Ask HR artificial intelligence service so employees can ask questions, and however they are phrased (in theory), can receive an automated response to their query.

It does require some form of HR/line manager buy-in. For the system to work effectively HR staff have to upload information about contracts, absence, company policy and other people-related issues onto the Ask HR platform. Staff can then enter their questions and receive an answer, without having to trawl through their employer handbook or contact HR. If the system does not have the answer to a particular query, the question is forwarded to the HR department, where staff respond in person and then update the system.

Mark White, business development director at Transversal, explains: "In all organisations, HR is under increasing pressure to be efficient and cut costs. The system takes policy documents and puts them into a knowledge base, without any need for intervention from IT departments. We also have evidence showing cost savings as a result."

White seems to agree that HR is not doing a good job of keeping up to date with developments: "It is tempting for HR to have a frequently asked questions PDF on staff intranets, and they believe this is a self-service system. It is not," he says. "Staff still have to read through many pages of text before they get the information they need. In the end some will give up and just phone HR."

He continues: "Our system allows HR to update the knowledge base in real time, as organisational changes are made. It also allows HR to know the sort of questions employees are asking."

Eight years ago a survey from IBM found almost a quarter of HR departments' time was taken up with admin - including answering staff queries. Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest not a lot has changed, but HR practitioners arguably have themselves to blame if they fail to keep up with what self-service can really do for them.

COLLEGE STAFF CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF SELF-SERVICE

St Helen's College in Merseyside has had an employee self service system in place for just over a year. Rather than suffering the typical problem of managers and staff not being engaged to use it, its head of HR, John Hays, says he is having to manage expectations as they want to use the system more and more.

The college's self service system includes functions such as being able to make address and personal information amendments, booking annual leave, inputting attendance records, and online qualifications and training updates.

Hays and his team carried out a staff survey 20 months ago where 90% of staff said they would welcome more online self-service. To get buy-in for the system, the HR team rolled out a trial self-service platform to sections of managers. The organisation embarked on a two-week communication exercise to staff and training line managers on the technology.

Hays explains: "It's still early days, but we have already cut all the costs of paper payslips and all the time associated with that. Absence has dropped and I think this might be because employees can see all their sick days shown up in bright red. The system has been really well received."

AVIVA GOES THIRD-GENERATION

Self-service is moving into artificial intelligence. Early adopter Aviva took the decision to launch an automated Ask HR response service for its 23,500 employees back in 2006.

It piloted the scheme in its health division first, rolled it out in the insurance and life departments in June 2007 and finally to staff in the RAC in December 2007. During this time the company kept its HR telephone helpline open one day a week in case staff needed to speak to a member of HR staff directly, but by October 2008 this was closed because it was no longer needed.

Aviva employees type in a question or browse the most frequently asked questions in each of 23 categories, and with the help of the language search engine, suitable answers are brought up instantly from the web-based knowledge base. Any new answers are then added to the knowledge base with new content automatically prioritising itself to make it immediately available to all employees.

Catherine Tausney, head of HR advice services at Aviva, explains: "It didn't feel like a gradual process to us as this was such a big project. If I could go back, the one thing I would do is use more communication, and my advice to others would be to invest heavily in communication and not just explain what a new system is, but why you are doing it."

Prior to the launch of Ask HR, Aviva's HR team was receiving 25,000 calls every week from staff. Tausney explains: "This took time training HR staff on company policy - we were manning the phones all day - but some staff worked shifts and often could not get through. Staff were missing us and were dissatisfied that important questions were not answered. In spite of all these problems, the helpline still took a massive investment in HR people."

Now staff questions are answered quickly - and, if necessary, specialist HR staff are around to answer specific questions, for example, about reward.

Since installing Ask HR, 69% of all HR enquiries are now handled through the system, reducing telephone calls and allowing HR staff to focus on more complex queries. During 2009 more than 202,000 questions were submitted and more than 90% of staff said they were satisfied with the answer they received.

"We are constantly updating the service and responding to staff feedback," adds Tausney. "And we never stop communicating the service because new staff are joining all the time."

WHY USE SELF SERVICE?
Employee self-service provider Cascade asked firms how they had
benefited from having self-service:

Improved efficiencies 69%
Ease of accessibility 69%
Staff empowerment/autonomy 42%
Adaptability 29%
Reduced absenteeism 9%
Improves staff retention 1%
Other 23%%

How many hours across the HR department on average have you saved per
week since implementing employee self-service?

15-20 hours 6%
10-15 hours 14%
20-30 hours 1%
30 hours-plus 5%
Other 21%
0-5 hours 25%
5-10 hours 29%

 COMPANIES REAPING THE BENEFITS

- Dell Computer Corporation saved $2.5 million in the first year of implementation of a fully web-native, self-service system. Today, employees are able to access virtually every HR process via the web and the system has been rolled out to 23 countries throughout the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions

- In 2009 fleet provider Masterlease reported it saved 80% of HR administration time through the launch of a self-service system.

 - International law firm, Eversheds, sought to increase the employee and managers ability to change and improve the data they held whilst at the same time look to reduce the administrative burden by offering a range of services direct.  Working in partnership with HR & payroll outsourcing services provider Ceridian, Eversheds decided to implement a range of self service products including online pay slips, holiday bookings, season ticket loan applications, online training and CPD monitoring for legally qualified staff and the storage of all personal details.
 
During implementation, Eversheds experienced the normal difficulties when engaging employees and managers to ensure uptake of the solution. Most new users of the self service solution tended to question "Isn't this extra workload for me?" and "We have an admin team to do this!" and "The more we do the less we need HR" which was/is definitely not the case.  In order to combat these issues and culture shock, they countered problems through good communication, stakeholder involvement, focus groups and selling the benefits of the system.
 
Following implementation, feedback was fairly positive with the business seeing clear benefits. The opportunity to release more information to employees, managers and partners was significant with managers being able to enter directly sickness and other types of absence, as well as accessing reports on sickness, holidays, staff lists and employment details.
 
The speed of releasing this type of information through self service also improved, freeing up more administration time. Another clear example of benefits to the business is the dramatic improvement of data integrity, with the number of queries around incorrect personal details decreasing substantially and automatic updating of organisational charts to reflect the true stance of the company.
 
Because of these benefits Eversheds are planning to expand the self service capability into more areas of the business in the future. They hope to include a range of transactions which can be initiated by the employee and manager, for example maternity notifications and employee resignations, as well as providing access to the self service product internationally.   This will all need to be communicated effectively and Eversheds will be looking to engender a collaborative approach to these changes to avoid the issues which were faced in the first implementation.