The inevitability of ESS

A growing embrace of technology is replacing HR administrative work
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/29/2003


ot every organization has employee self service. In fact, many don’t and if they do, the services offered are rudimentary at best. But it seems pretty clear that eventually everyone will have ESS.

Employee self service is inevitable, says Naresh Agarwal, a professor of human resources with the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

The human resources profession is changing rapidly and the growing embrace of technology to replace HR administrative work is both a proof of and a catalyst for that change, he says.

The traditional model of HR where people with good interpersonal skills and an adroit human relations touch could find work is fading away, he says. HR is becoming more professional and technology is allowing that to happen. Data entry for HR will become a thing of the past, but it will be replaced by greater expectations for human resources management counselling, he says.

Right now employee self service may be used to change addresses, but eventually it will be used for a host of other applications which should, if used properly, enable HR practitioners to apply their professional expertise to more value-added activities. Already at McMaster, professors are being asked to assume greater responsibility for their own performance management, he says.

As is often the case, though, HR must be wary of technology not getting ahead of the user.

“I think there might be a tendency on the part of management to overuse the technology in the beginning and not understand the constraints of the environment,” he says. HR can’t measure success by how many employees access the system. They need to be measuring how well it is used and how happy employees are using it.

At the moment, the City of Calgary is using PeopleSoft 7.5 to manage its HR information. It’s not a Web-based system, making it difficult to offer self service for its 14,000 employees.

Eventually, though, they will have ESS. There is no question about that, says David Watson, executive officer of strategic services which include HR, IT and communications. The city is already upgrading to PeopleSoft 8.5, which will give it the technical infrastructure to make ESS possible.

Employee self service, says Watson, will free up his HR staff from some of the transactional work, while reducing mistakes that occur when information is transferred from employee to HR person. Changing a person’s address may seem like a small matter, but when you have 14,000 employees, just changing employee addresses can take a great deal of time.

Beyond that, a Web-based HR system which employees access regularly allows the organization to do a better job of communicating with employees, he says.

Many employees don’t appreciate everything they get from their employer simply because they don’t realize they are getting it, he says. For example, the city contributes more than $35 million a year to the employee pension fund, but most have no idea about the size of this contribution.

One of the challenges is that the city has more than 600 work sites, and only about one-half of the workforce has regular access to a computer. “That means you gotta look at kiosks,” he says.

Employee self service will be only one benefit of new and upgraded technology for the City of Calgary. “As important, in my mind, is manager self service,” says Watson.

Once the new PeopleSoft system is up and running the plan is to move quickly to get managers to use it to take more responsibility for recruiting, he says. Manager self service will almost certainly precede employee self service and could happen by the end of next year, he says.

It could mean a reduction in head count in the 125-person HR department but not necessarily, he says. “Certainly HR is like everyone else and has to be able to stand up and say we are doing the best we can with less,” he says. But HR may be able to move more people from one area to another to concentrate on more value-added activities.

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