· 8 min read · News

HR systems one step at a time


Design what you need now, with the option to add functions you want later. Thats the message from those with personal experience of e-HR. By Peter Crush and Antonia Windsor

HR technology has advanced dramatically in the past decade and its easy now to dream of huge projects that will transform the function and make it a much better service for end-users. The arguments for HR systems are well-rehearsed in these pages: it slashes day-to-day administration, liberates HR staff for more important work, provides easy access to data and allows accurate tracking and analysis of that data.

But are HR directors in danger of being swept off their feet by a utopian dream of computers that will do everything from writing recruitment ads, to conducting exit interviews? And are they talking up the possibilities in order to win that big cash promise from the finance director?

Vance Kearney, vice president of human resources at Oracle, suspects this may be the case: Too many HR managers base their plans on a dream of what they want now, of a perfect piece of software that doesnt exist. Its predicated on trying to conjure up big money savings to impress the finance director, he says.

The most common experience with information and communication technology is that it creates as many problems as it solves. Will it be any different for HR?

Kearneys advice is, Design what you need rather than what you want. If that means waiting and holding back on the sexier stuff like online learning, so be it.

Clare Chapman, HR director at Tesco, is an advocate of this no-nonsense approach. But while she says that IT will automate practically everything we do, shes careful not to get carried away either. I want to make sure I dont look beyond our means, she says. If it doesnt add value, we wont do it. Were very focused on the fact that automation wont solve everything.

Chapman sees her main priority as getting the technology to fit her companys requirements. She is taking a step-by-step, bottom-up approach that means she will acquire features that provide most benefit first, and add smaller ones later on. So far, Tesco has a pilot intranet self-service system that allows staff to input their own holiday and absence information. Chapmans plans include a system for managers to access performance review and appraisals data.

But even if you are certain you have planned your new system efficiently, plenty of other difficulties will inevitably arise. Nothing comes without a price.

One potential cost of implementing an HR system is personal contact with HR staff. Reuters, the global news company, faced potential problems when it moved HR staff out of business units and introduced a shared services centre. The HR department launched the centre at the end of last year, headed by e-HR manager Lucy Wise who reports to Mark Sandham, UK HR director. Reuters employs 5,000 staff across 12 London offices and until the new system was brought in, each department had its own HR team.

Now every Reuters employee has email and telephone access to a central helpdesk manned by 20 HR staff. The centre is designed to deal with what Sandham calls first-level enquiries such as arranging maternity leave or contract queries. All calls, emails and data changes are then logged straight on to a central HR database.

According to Sandham, the system has met all Reuters objectives: standardisation, maintenance of accurate central records and best practice without making HR impersonal. The shared service system is simply the first point of contact, he explains. Should an employee want to discuss a disciplinary matter, for example, the helpdesk would arrange a meeting or telephone conversation with our internal specialists on employee relations.

The companys next project will involve the introduction of employee and manager self-service on to its newly formed global HR database. The plan is to allow employees access to their own employment records and hand them the ability to update selected information their contact details, for example. Managers will be able to view their own records as well as selected information on members of their team.

Reuters has been able to plan its new systems with relative freedom, but not every HR department has that choice. LOral does 15% of its recruitment online, but is still in the process of developing a full-blown HR system. When Nikki Rolfe, HR director for the cosmetics giant, joined the company in July 2001, there was only an old employee-record-card system that had no links to payroll or a cv-management system. Its being generous to say weve got an HR system, admits Rolfe.

For LOral, talent acquisition is a key concern so its first step towards automation will be to put details of the companys 2,500 UK staff on a single system and to develop a cv-management system.

Another challenge for Rolfe is that a new payroll system was installed just as she joined the company. Now, any HR system she implements will have to be designed around that payroll system. Im not playing catch up as such, but Ive got an infrastructure that Im forced to work with, she says.

But if implementing an HR system means fitting in with the IT schemes of other departments, is there a danger that too much automation will lead to a reduction in the influence of HR?

Lindsey McEwan, director of international business at software provider Axiom, argues that the opposite is true. We provide screening and sifting technology that can rank and rate the applicants prior to interview and this is based on the criteria input by HR. This enables HR to spend time on the 20% of applicants they are interested in and not waste time on unsuitable candidates. You still need HR people, he says, to ensure that action is taken, but processes become more streamlined.

External technology changes internal processes, says McEwan. We say its akin to maths. Do you want to do arithmetic by using numbers on a piece of paper or do you want to use a calculator?

Axiom is one among a number of companies that provide HR software. But since no two companies are alike, is it fair to say that a system designed for one organisation will suit another?

Too often these systems are designed by IT people and not HR people, says Carmel OKane, HR director of public relations agency Firefly. Coming from the business itself she was formerly a PR executive has, she argues, given her a valuable insight into what is needed from HR for her business. When we started looking for a system in 2000, it became apparent there was nothing that suited our business. As a PR agency, we wanted to link resource to client need and match peoples skills to different accounts. Although the off-the-shelf products looked very sexy, it didnt make sense to have a lot of buttons we never used.

The company looked at many software providers before choosing TimeWeave, which was able to tailor the system, Navision, to Fireflys needs. Each member of staff will have their own kiosk, which will be much more secure than the intranet. There, they will be able to change their bank details and contact information as well as continue to make holiday requests, log expenses and see who else in their account teams is absent. Training will eventually come on board and be linked to appraisals.

Fireflys e-HR transformation has been two years in the making and began with the introduction of an intranet. This was launched in August 2000 and was initially very simple, with a section on HR policy, job vacancies and a training calendar. Then in January 2001 a comprehensive database was completed that fed into the intranet. Staff had an individual log-on through which they could book holidays, replacing a time-consuming, paper-based system.

Firefly is nearly at the end of the third phase, the launch of a bespoke internet portal. OKane calls the portal the crowning glory of Fireflys e-strategy. It will not only be used for HR but will be linked to other parts of the company, such as the finance department.

OKane, who was closely involved in the development of the new system, along with Ricky Merry, the e-business director, admits that at times it has been a painful process. Everyone is happier dealing with systems they are familiar with, she says. And Id be lying if I didnt say I felt a resistance to the new system at times. It is difficult to create an entirely new database and continue with the day-to-day functions.

For OKane, though, the solution to this is simple know the business and communicate everything to staff.

This last point cant be stressed enough, says Steve Ranaghan, business architecture manager of the HR outsourcer, e-peopleserve.com. Its extremely easy to develop a limited information service and call it e-HR, he argues, or go to the other extreme and move from nothing to very rich functionality.

Good e-HR portal content is about stuff thats relevant and introducing it slowly but surely. You cant flood users with too many services all at once. Where HR is large enough, he says, an HR transformation service should be broken down into teams those responsible for flexible benefits, online recruitment, e-learning and so on. And there has to be a business case put forward for each rather than simply saying, Because we can.

Gloria Barber is Abbey Nationals recruitment manager and is involved in designing strategy for recruitment systems. With 20 years experience behind her she knows not to jump in at the deep end. My job involves looking at areas that will help our e-recruitment strategy. We already have a PeopleSoft system but our current version is not yet at the stage where we can do things like sift through cvs and match internal applicants to specific jobs. At the moment, it is used for tracking applicants through every stage of the recruitment process.

Her priority is to make it easier for the thousands of new starters she expects to hire this year to apply online. At the moment, we can log all enquiries to our system, produce letters and other correspondence, but I want to move to a fully integrated candidate database where we can search cvs against specific criteria.

We already have technology for candidates to apply online for the roles of financial adviser, call-centre adviser and entry-level positions, but we want a more generic system that can be applied against most of our key roles where there is high recruitment activity. Currently, all other candidates can apply by sending their cv through our job site jobsatabbeynational.co.uk but we do have a facility for people to register their details and their interest in a particular role. Then when a vacancy arises we can then send them an email notification.

As Barber points out: This is not a project with an end. Just as you satisfy one area, something else comes up.

Piecemeal, it seems, is best, but it need not mean ad hoc. According to Gail Boulter, personnel services manager with Hertfordshire Constabulary, it means being flexible enough to see where new opportunities lie.

Last year, Boulter had not only to replace staff lost through normal turnover but, thanks to changes to policing boundaries, also to recruit extra officers. The recruitment drive drew an unexpected response, so her system priorities had to change. We needed to alter our Midland Software Delfi system from simply managing staffs personal information and running reports. It became important to log how people had heard of us and measure the effectiveness of our recruitment media, she says.

From here system changes escalated. We logged calls and began matching which ones turned into applications and which ones didnt to produce cost-per-hire costs. This helps in predicting future intakes, male or female and ethnic minority biases. As a direct consequence of this, training has also moved higher up the agenda with the logging of training requests and matching peoples skills to internal jobs.

Next on the horizon is recording peoples career aspirations. This add-on should be in place by April. This will enable HR to ensure that a particular officers career progression tallies with their personal interests, enabling them to move into areas of specialisation, should they so desire. But not every company has the option to feel its way into HR systems. Sometimes a company has to jump right in at the deep end.

Until last year, the caf chain, Pret A Manger, with 110 retail outlets, 100 million turnover and 2,200 employees, had no HR software of any kind. It had outsourced its payroll to ADP but had no way of recording and retrieving accurate recruitment information. A change in recruitment policy meant this had to change.

The company installed a modular system supplied by Snowdrop. The Snowdrop modules cover four separate areas of HR: personnel records; training management; recruitment administration; and U-access the timesheet module used by the 110 shops which provides data on absence and holidays. Everything is linked to the ADP payroll system. We now have accurate data to make informed decisions about future and current HR activities, says Bruce Robertson, who was head of HR at Pret until the end of December.

The benefits of a robust system that employees like to use is not, as Robertsons succinct evaluation shows, difficult to sum up. And, if predictions from Gartner, the IT research and consultancy group, are correct, garnering management support for HR transformation will get easier.

Gartner forecasts that 60% of large IT organisations will have minimum skills management software in place for use in recruitment, training and resource management by the end of the year. To satisfy the number-crunchers, it also forecasts that organisations that follow this path will gain a 25% advantage in development time and costs over those that do not. The technology is well and truly out there and, as with any system, its what you can make it do for you that really counts.