Shifting gears and adding value

As keepers of the people systems, HR must continuously evolve
By Deborah Harcus
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/10/2012

We all heard the hype — implementing technology would free HR to spend less time on administrative tasks so it would have more time to spend on strategic activities. So, you had the business case approved, implemented an HR technology solution and it’s now several years later.

How’s this working? Do you really have more time? How much time do you spend reviewing and approving routine data or transaction changes? Do you continue to hear HR must be more “strategic, flexible and agile”? Have things really changed?

As a profession, HR has come a long way but there’s still much to be done. It’s time to shift up a gear, take our skills and knowledge up a notch and continue to evolve so we are capable of doing what still needs to be done.

Looking back

Historically, the need to trace accountability has been a fundamental must-have. HR needed to confirm and review the supporting authorizations before it would process the changes. So, when it initially implemented HR technology, it took the existing business process — which included steps, decisions and approvals — and automated it. Since the initial implementation, HR’s use of technology may have even expanded, with new functionality or applications and a variety of interfaces between the systems.

The key implementation challenges in the past were obtaining buy-in from within HR to use technology in the first place and if self-service tools were deployed, getting employees to “own” their data and report time or absences, while convincing managers that performing online approvals was superior to paper-based ones.

Yes, there have been benefits: Less paper is being used, employee data is more accurate and timely, and everyone is much more comfortable using technology for HR-related tasks. HR professionals went through a learning curve too — they learned what user-friendliness meant, what a process map was, what HR systems were capable of doing and how to effectively implement change.

Good but still not great

These are all good things but apparently they still aren’t enough — HR needs to be more agile, flexible and strategic. The business hasn’t yet experienced any significant impacts — it can’t see much in the way of benefits. It’s a matter of looking at this from the customer’s perspective and asking, “How did they benefit?”

When it comes down to it, other than eliminating some paper, a customer may think HR really hasn’t changed all that much. Things aren’t completed much faster, more cheaply or efficiently — they’re pretty much the same.

So, what more can be done? The need to trace accountability hasn’t diminished but the time has come to review what was originally put in place and start taking some hard looks, with new skills, to see if the overall business process can be streamlined.

Listen to the customer

“Listen to the customer” may seem like an odd statement to people in HR but it’s one that’s very familiar to the operational people. They know what it takes to improve the value proposition of products and services. They learned how to do more with less — less cost and time and fewer people. They learned how to reinvent themselves just to continue to exist and remain competitive.

HR isn’t so different — it produces results by providing products and service. It has customers too but they’re internal rather than external — leaders, managers, supervisors and employees. HR must take the time to reinvent itself, become even more strategic and, ultimately, proactive in supporting the business.

When was the last time you reviewed and improved business processes and involved “customers” in that discussion? What do they really need? What works well? What doesn’t? What do they find frustrating? HR needs to ask these questions so it can learn to experience HR from an outside perspective.

Is HR truly adding value to the people side of the business or is it perceived as a barrier in getting things done? Does it have the skills and experience to facilitate a review of its processes or could it do this for other department, such as accounting or purchasing?

With the appropriate knowledge and skills, there’s no reason an HR professional couldn’t facilitate a process improvement session for another department. As a facilitator, she would guide the process, rather than participate in identifying and analyzing the outcomes, which is best done by participants from the department.

In doing this, HR should ask the following questions:

• Could the number of approvals or steps in a process be reduced to complete it faster? What would be the result of completing it faster?

• Does a transaction really need to be approved two to three times? What’s the root cause of this? Could the same result be achieved by making accountability changes in a management job role? Could a report identifying exceptions to the rule provide the same end result?

• Could the work be reorganized so there are fewer interruptions or handoffs? Rather than having one person review and another approve, could the reviewer be given authority to approve as well?

• Can something be done to control the flow of work or balance the load better? Most work is no longer visible, it’s hidden in online systems and email so when backlogs occur, they aren’t noticeable or visible. Does anyone know how much work there really is or why it comes in all at once?

• When did you last conduct a review of the IT platform for the HR systems to see if there were inefficiencies? Are there too many interfaces? How could this be streamlined?

• Have the roles of the people in the HR department changed to the point the system no longer supports their needs?

Process redesign

So, where does HR begin? This is where the shift in gears needs to occur.

To facilitate fundamental change, HR might consider adding process re-engineering, value stream mapping (VSM) or perhaps lean office tools and methodologies to its skill set.

If the HR system is part of an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, HR may have an advantage as the vendor likely has best practice business processes already defined. If process re-engineering is the chosen path, HR should use a traditional design approach and use the best practice as the “future state” to identify, analyze and close the gaps between that and the current state process map.

If not, significant results are still achievable using effective continuous improvement design principles. This would start with benchmarking and go through a few iterations of improvement and measuring the results, to establish the new future state.

HR should review and renew its business processes, just like every other department. To do this, the skills and competencies of HR professionals need to be synchronized with those of customers.

HR needs to be able to respond to changes in the business quickly, do what needs to be done effectively and do it repeatedly. It needs to contribute in a positive way and add value. As the keepers of the people systems, HR must continuously evolve and morph until the business finally perceives it is, in fact, strategic, agile and flexible.

Deborah Harcus is president of outsourcing provider Interlake Professional Services in Winnipeg, Man. She is also a member of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) and can be reached at or (204) 471-6581.

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