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Automating Human Resources
Discussion with two British HR professionals about the state of automating HR functions and the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Posted Jul 12, 2000
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It's nothing short of tragic that at this advanced stage of the information age the lion's share of HR professionals' time is still spent maintaining basic employee records. But the data platform has to be in place before personnel managers can even think of offering their strategic value to the company, and gathering that information is actually far more difficult than it sounds.

But once the platform is there, new HR possibilities abound through better reporting, policy implementation and, ultimately, employee self-service. Here a group of HR professional gathered to exchange thoughts about future directions in HR.

Matthew Trueblood, assistant personnel director at merchant bank Lazard Brothers, states the strategic goal of most HR professionals quite boldly: "In the past a great deal of our time has been tied up with those administrative functions which HR departments have to do. And computers help us do them. But the wish for the future is that we will become increasingly automated and hopefully staff will do more and more of the record keeping themselves with little intervention from us, freeing up our time for more interesting matters than changing addresses."

However, he admits: "The leap onto a modern personnel system when you haven't had good systems in the past or you've had data in a number of places, part paper, part Excel spreadsheets, is a huge one. A system can't be strategic without holding the right data in the first place."

With a 17-strong HR and payroll department for a single site, 600-person company, Lazards uses its computer system to "back up, reinforce and hopefully revolutionise the way we do that HR function". Trueblood adds that the company's move to a modern HR platform "seems to have taken forever" and he adds that it's far from finished. With an old system that hadn't been upgraded or maintained and could no longer perform its basic functions, Lazards started specifying its needs in 1996. After selecting Rebus, formerly Peterborough Software in the UK, data conversion began in the winter of 1997 and the company went live on the personnel side in the summer of 1998, with payroll following last spring. "Pulling all that together took a great deal of effort," says Trueblood.

"With HR records it's much more difficult than in other areas to get the right data there, and the challenge of data cleansing is probably the most difficult task you face within an HR implementation. So to convert a system into a valuable business tool, there has to have been quite an investment with users," says Keith Brooks, product manager responsible for Sema Group's HR and payroll service offering. Over the past 18 months he has been implementing the service internally, and also investigating how rail companies might revolutionise their HR functions.

Sema Group's own challenge with getting to this stage involved gathering data from a number of disparate systems. In the UK, it had grown by acquisition, so not only did information reside in different areas, but persuading people to pass it on was not always easy. "Each time you acquire large numbers of new staff, it's always a challenge for the HR manager to get all the information together. One of the difficult things is actually obtaining from the person outsourcing or selling on some of the basic detail about employees that you require. They may not have it in a form that you can take on, or they may simply not want to give it to you - they will only be as cooperative as they need to be."

Having come from the former British Rail's IT function, acquired by Sema Group on privatisation, Brooks set about piecing together a systems offering for the newly privatised rail companies. Here the situation with HR records was quite different. "They have a history of maintaining detailed career records because the need for employee history was seen as a key requirement. You tended to get into areas that weren't exactly safety critical but by charting disciplinary record and medical history, they could say whether a person was suitable to perform a particular role."

Given that it was providing the service for customers, there was immediate acceptance within the IT provider that it would do the same internally, and it spent last year implementing. Sema Group is now moving on to the next stage, piloting use of the company intranet for basic maintenance of the information it has assembled.

Although they are only at an early stage, both panelists agree a move to some form of self-service is the obvious next step. "With the experience of going through it, you get a bit puritanical about making sure the data is up-to-date, and the people who are best placed to keep those records clean are the users themselves," says Trueblood.

Lazards is currently waiting to see whether its packaged software supplier can come up with a solution: "We've been looking at [self-service] for a while now, either designing our own solution or hoping that Rebus will come up with a solution that involves the database that we're trying to hook into. We haven't yet decided which route we want to go down.

Security Issues
Of course, the security implications of making employee data available over a company-wide network are profound. Brooks warns: "You are suddenly moving from the secured nature of a HR database to a much more open system. Therefore we've made some conscious decisions about the architecture we've used. We're keeping the HR database quite secure and not opening it to large numbers of employees, but using our own internally secured employee intranet for maintaining and updating employee records.

"When you start talking about people being your most valuable asset, they're also your competitor's greatest asset. With the IT environment we're in, it's so much more open that your security considerations have to be that much greater."

Sema Group has taken extracts such as name and address, work location and current project from the main database and populated basic employee records. This resource data is now sitting on the intranet for staff to maintain and update. "That model moves us forward to some level of data maintenance, but at this stage what we're saying is you can update the records and HR will follow up to ensure it happens."

Lazards has decided that when it does move to self-service it will take a slightly different approach, partly because of its size, but again with security as the foremost consideration. "The onus is on us to keep the data tight and secure. The solutions we're looking at would pull a data set out of the central data warehouse enterprise server, show it to the employee on the screen, giving them certain access rights, but then push it back into the main database. We'll develop a password process which ensures they can only access their own records and which will shut them out after five minutes if they haven't made a keystroke."

Brooks has found an illustration of the difficulties Sema Group is likely to face with the self-service process. One of his own staff who moved a few weeks ago had not used the intranet to change his address details--of course, he would argue he was too busy and had in fact changed the record on the master database, but Brooks recognises incentives need to be in place for employees to take on what is traditionally seen to be the HR department's job. "It's all about carrots and sticks," he says.

With his benefits background, Trueblood sees the next big opportunity in allowing employees to select their own package. "Employees have quite a lot of choice over the level of benefits they wish to take and that could be concentrated in a more formal package. The intranet will clearly be the most sensible way of disseminating the information about these benefits and then pulling in what their choices are."

The big problem with current benefits systems is they only deliver the options a couple of months before all the choices have to be made in order for the offerings to be up-to-date. Printing catalogues of available options delays the process further and forces both employees and HR staff to rush to get the packages in place.

"Once most of an HR record is in, there aren't that many elements that change regularly and if you can get the employee to change their own address, that's one of the most common ones which is taken out of your hands," says Trueblood. "But if you're introducing flexible benefits, you could have maybe five different deals for every employee which they can change--so it's probably the next biggest thing after the first data input."

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