Monday, September 14, 2009

HR, Technology and Technologists -- An Uneasy Relationship

In the "old days" HR and technology were barely on speaking terms, and that worked all right. I remember a disaster recovery committee meeting in the mid-1990's when I was Chief HR Officer for a hospital. The question on the table -- how long can your department continue normal operations if we have a catastrophic event and lose access to technology?in the IT department.

Coming forward to today, not enough has changed from that viewpoint in HR with the result that many key HR technology decisions still get made in the wrong place, by the wrong people and HR realizes too late that they should have been at the table. A few examples:

The answers started coming -- 2 hours, 4 hours, 1 hour, and then there was me. My response -- HR wouldn't even notice we'd lost access for days -- until we had to run the next payroll. We didn't have much call for live data. Talent Management was done on the phone and documented via e-mail and slips of paper; our knowledge base was a printout of employee Master Files that got updated each time we ran a payroll; benefits data came from the carrier or the retirement plan administrator; compensation ran on an independent desktop system and the inevitable spreadsheets, and we did performance management by talk and hard copy. As most of my HR peers told it "HR is about the content, not about the delivery systems." My tireless advocacy for more and better technology in HR was thought a little odd for the top HR Executive. In their view the details of technology belonged in the lower ranks --
  • Several major organizations I consulted for purchased PeopleSoft HR (in the day). The HR executive was there for the overview meeting, agreed to the purchase and left the detail to the technologists and their user department liaisons. Most of my clients either didn't purchase or didn't use Position Management. Then came the development of human capital and talent management approaches to organization analysis. Suddenly the need for a system-based way to analyze and report on the organization and its talent pool independent of which body was in which chair became essential. And that was exactly why PeopleSoft had offered Position Management. Technologists can't be faulted for not understanding the subtle difference between capturing data on a person in a job v. a position in an organization structure -- that's HR's business, and they weren't there with enough understanding of the technology to make the critical distinction.
  • Another large US-based organization decided years ago to build their own payroll and benefits system. Technologists decided it was wasteful to build two separate core data tables (one for payroll and one for benefits) since the two were clearly so closely linked (many benefits got paid for via payroll deduction, and, a number of benefit levels were determined by rate of pay). The system was built and worked fine so long as everything was done in-house. Then came the day when the company wanted to outsource benefits. The entire sourcing project schedule hung on how soon the benefits data tables could be split off from payroll. Again, HR wasn't at the table with sufficient understanding of the technology when the original decisions were made.
  • Finally, a consulting client had installed SAP HR, but didn't like some of the features of the SAP- supplied employee portal. HR turned to the internal IT organization to build the customized portal they felt they needed from scratch to their exact specs. Last I heard, the project was months behind schedule because it was put on hold for higher IT priorities and programmers needing to fit in an ad hoc education in the essentials of HR.

What's to be done to remedy this state of affairs? Unless there is some compelling reason why not, I strongly recommend to my clients that HR applications and systems be hosted externally. In most cases this is the easiest, least politically fraught and fastest way to get HR technology into the hands of people who understand both HR and technology.

Of course, this solution only side-steps the foundational issue of in-house HR staff with too little understanding of relevant technology. There is an important consideration in influencing HR pros to get more tech savvy -- technology expertise is the road to the top only in IT. In HR the road up is typically through compensation or through talent management, HR strategy or succession/executive development. HR operations is considered "back-office," not the place to look for someone to get the big promotion.

There are a couple of things happening to mitigate this state --

1. HR is increasingly subject to regular measures and metrics -- our enterprises often now require us to meet internal SLA's. Metrics means technology to collect, crunch and report on the data. This means technology that we have to integrate into daily management life in HR both for capture/reporting and making the necessary performance adjustments to correct SLA problems. To accomplish this HR executives must know at least enough to determine data sources and design the metrics to produce the results that their jobs ultimately depend upon

2. With increasing sophistication of systems and the blurring of the lines between content and delivery, it is less and less possible to be an expert in only the content -- the HR part -- and leave the delivery to others. HR professionals at all levels are beginning to understand that they need knowledge of both sides of the content/delivery equation to do justice to themselves, their organizations and our profession

What is your experience?  I’d love to hear thoughts and comments from both the HR and technology sides.

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