When managing HR technology, personal skills are paramount

A profile of HR technology specialist Marilyn Blackwood
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/10/2004

Six months ago, Marilyn Blackwood took over as director of global HRMS for Montreal-based CAE. She was first hired by the company as an independent consultant back in 2001 as project manager for the implementation of its new VIP human resources management system bought from Canadian firm DLGL.

After a successful implementation, and with a working lifetime spent in HR and HR systems, CAE, a provider of simulation technologies and integrated training services, asked Blackwood to join the organization full time to oversee the roll out of the system.

She now reports directly to the vice-president of HR at the company, which has more than 5,000 employees at manufacturing and training facilities around the world.

Though managing an HR system requires a balance of HR and technical expertise, Blackwood says she is more HR professional than IT expert.

The system is simply a tool used to solve bigger business and HR problems, she says.

While she needs a thorough understanding of how the system operates, she does not need to understand the underlying technical details of how the system works.

“I have never written a program in my life,” she says. “I know all of the basics of the technology, but I am far from being an expert. I know enough to ask all the right questions.”

She gained that knowledge from a 35-year career in both HR administration and technology. Indeed, she moved between the two at the same time technology was increasingly being used to improve HR administration.

She started out in payroll, then took a job in an HR department working on what was then called “systems and records.”

After that came a 12-year stint in the IT department at Canadian pulp and paper firm Domtar. Eventually she was put in charge of the company’s human resources information centre, which included payroll, as well as technical analysts and programmers.

Having gained enough experience and expertise in both HR and technology — and insight into how the latter could help the former — Blackwood made the move into the HR management system (HRMS) vendor industry taking a job with Cyborg systems. She spent seven years there, as vice-president of client services, before striking out on her own in 1999 to work as an independent consultant.

Aside from the requisite technical and HR functional knowledge, successfully managing an HRMS takes finely tuned personal skills and, simply put, a lot of common sense, she says.

Once you have a firm grasp of what the system can do at any given point and time, it is simply a matter of deciding what is reasonable and what isn’t. You need very good people skills because there will be a lot of demands, some unreasonable and others not, both on the system and by extension, upon the people running the system.

Conflicts invariably arise because people are making demands that are simply impossible to meet. “Sometimes you have to give them a choice. We either do this or we do that, but you can’t do both,” she says.

CAE has finished phase one which includes the roll out in Canada of payroll, basic HR administration, including benefits, position management and time capture. Roll out in the United States, phase two, is underway now, but even when that is done there is probably another three years of development and implementation work to do, she says. After rolling out the system across the U.S., the next major step will be web-based modules — for everything from staffing to training — which will lead to more self service.

“An HRMS to me is a living breathing thing; it just keeps going and going and going,” she says. “There are always ways of improving it and reviewing what you are doing and looking at your processes.”

As the demands on the organization change, so too will the expectations for the HRMS and the team supporting it. Similarly, as the team masters an area or completes the roll out of one module, it can move onto new projects or new roll outs.

Aside from the five people working full time on payroll, Blackwood has eight HRMS staff plus two IT people working to ensure the organization is using the system to maximum effect. Because some parts of the system are fully operational while others are still being implemented, roles and responsibilities will change over time.

At the moment, employee data maintenance is still part of her team’s responsibilities. “Two people are primarily responsible for maintaining employee data within the system,” she says. But that should change when the employee self service portal is up and fully operational, a project Blackwood’s team is in the midst of at the moment. The first electronic pay stubs will go out soon, and after that, employees will be able to make address changes and other administrative entries.

Another of Blackwood’s employees spends most of her time keeping HR/payroll-related tables up to date, for example, changing organizational charts as people move around the organization and positions are redefined.

Eventually some of this too will be decentralized: the benefits people will look after benefits tables, compensation people will make changes to their own tables and so on.

Another person works in a support role developing learning tools and helping new users find their way around the system and get comfortable on new modules. “A major problem I see is great new systems are introduced but very few people ever get to know them or use them effectively. We are being very aggressive in ensuring users are properly trained.”

Blackwood also has two technical experts on her team. These aren’t “pure” IT people in that they are not programmers, she says. But they have a strong technical background and are more familiar with the inner workings of the system. For instance, as is often the case, report writing tools can be difficult for casual users depending on the complexity of the report. These two people have the most thorough understanding of these tools and do most of the report writing.

Another of these two employees’ primary responsibilities is system security. Security issues change depending on how and for what the system is being used. The two are charged with ensuring everything is done securely. Though the responsibility is shared between the two, it takes up the equivalent of about one-quarter of a full-time position.

Blackwood also has an HRMS project manager who shares the management and co-ordination of the various projects. And finally, the two “pure” IT people. One programmer spends most of her time developing and maintaining the many interfaces between the HRMS and other systems used by the organization and third-parties, such as benefit carriers. And a systems analyst is onboard who, for the most part, spends her time reviewing processes and looking at new modules and figuring out how the organization will implement them.

An important benefit of the HRMS will be increased manager and employee self service. As the system changes, so too will the expectations of Blackwood’s team. It is possible that eventually the team could shrink but that is certainly not a primary objective, she says. “The justification for an HRMS does not come from reducing one or two heads,” she says. Rather people will be retrained and redeployed taking on new responsibilities to meet changing demands. It’s what they’ve been doing all along, she says. “We’ve been moving ahead with many different projects but with the same staff.”

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