Before you fill up on self-serve, check your reality gauge

By Ian Turnbull
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/06/2002

The concept of employee self-service (ESS) is a relatively straightforward one. Open up the organization’s human resource database to every employee and then allow them to read the data in their file, and to modify selected pieces of data directly from the source — that is, themselves.

The theory is that since we don’t follow employees home to ensure they live where they say they do, we should be able to trust them to enter the data without a supervisor, payroll or human resources (or all three) getting in the way, thus following a key rule in business process engineering — enter data as close to the source as possible.

Coupled with transaction processing methodology — better known as “workflow” — ESS can mean a revolution in how employees interact with their employment data.

What can employees do with ESS?

•view and enroll in benefits, as well as add beneficiaries and dependents;

•enrol in training courses, and also compare their competencies to the competencies required in their job or position;

•work with their manager to build their competencies, as well as indicate future career goals;

•view their paycheques online and also model future retirement savings and tax changes;

•enter time-record information, even if it’s only exception hours such as vacation and sick pay; and

•check time accrual and leave balances online.

HR software vendors claim their clients save $10 per employee per year just by giving them the ability to view their current enrolment information; that’s not even to enrol in benefits.

That was the good news

Now for the downside. As wonderful as ESS sounds, it rests on a very shaky foundation. It assumes all employees have access to the human resource system, either at work, or outside of it. Organizations attempt this in various ways. The most obvious, and the one method generally touted by software vendors, is Internet or intranet access — mostly from desktops in the workplace, but also opening it up to access remotely, from home.

The difficulty with employees accessing ESS while at work is that many jobs actually preclude it. Anyone in a public customer service role, for example, may find it somewhat difficult to check on their vacation balance or sick leave entitlement while customers are waiting in line. And their supervisors may be somewhat concerned if they don’t find it difficult to do so.

And how many employees actually have Internet access at work anyway? Let’s consider the profile of a typical organization — a hospital, for instance. The way health care has bought into technology, everyone who works in a hospital has access at work, right?

Well, food services doesn’t. Nor do staff in the laundry, housekeeping, physical plant or security. And what about nurses? They all work with computers now. But much like others in customer service, nurses really don’t have access. Their access is through computers that are also used for patient treatment, and the atmosphere around a typical nursing station — patients, families, doctors, nurses and other staff all milling around — doesn’t seem ideal for spending personal time on personal affairs. So that would seem to leave administration staff.

Other organizations supplement desktops with employee kiosks — PCs, usually in a dedicated space, for ESS access. Kiosks may be a good idea, although I personally haven’t seen them adopted with open arms. They too tend to lack the privacy most employees seem to want before accessing personal records.

Well then, it might be said, let those types of employees access the ESS from their homes. Home is where their families are, and presumably where many questions about various coverages and balances may arise. I am not aware of any definitive study on the number of Canadian families that have Internet access from home, but I do know that any count that I have seen represents the number of PCs as compared to the number of families. Unfortunately, that assumes only one PC per home. I guess that the other four in my home and home office don’t count? In other words, reports of Canadian residential connectivity are highly exaggerated.

Another alternative (and in my mind, the most cost effective) is Interactive Voice Response (IVR). Why? Because everyone has a phone, no investment required. IVR and Internet/intranet access are not mutually exclusive. Of course, creating a system that encourages employees to access ESS in non-work hours also suggests that HR should offer functional HR system support during those same hours — an evening shift.

ESS is a great idea. And in some organizations it can be (and has been) implemented well. But many organizations have neither the organizational readiness, the technical framework nor the specific solutions geared to their particular kind of employees. Let’s not promote ESS just because we can.

Ian Turnbull is president of Laird & Greer Management Consultants, HRMS specialists. He has co-authored two books, the latest being:

Human Resources Management Systems: A Practical Approach

. He is immediate past-president of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management and president of the Canadian Council of Human Resource Associations.

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