Change is constant for HR technology staff

HR systems don’t mean less work, just different kinds of work
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/10/2004

The 10-person HR information management group at Manitoba telecommunications firm MTS Communications has changed dramatically in the past three years, says Deb Harcus, manager of the group.

For the last seven years the company has been running SAP (and is currently on version 4.6), but in 2001, they began to roll out employee self service across the company.

Before that the team spent a lot more time with mundane data entry tasks, she says. “A lot of the administrative work that used to come into the group went away.” As many HR systems managers have learned, that did not translate into less work, just different work — though hopefully work of greater value.

At MTS, the team used to include a full-time compensation analyst. The system made that position redundant, but the job has been replaced by a full-time organizational management analyst — one person working just maintaining the organization structure, so that reporting relationships are all up to date. Changes have to be made right away for the self service tools to run effectively, Harcus says.

“I also used to have six people doing clerical payroll work, now I have four,” said Harcus. Two of the employees filled new, more valuable, HR testing analyst positions while the remaining four had their titles changed to employee service reps to reflect the changes in their work.

Over the past couple of decades HR management systems have transformed many HR departments in similar ways, and even, some argue, revolutionized the profession itself.

This argument holds that progressively better software has changed HR administration from a job for many to a job for a few. Less time and energy spent on administration means more on strategic HR planning and other work that adds value.

But these HR systems are also extraordinarily complex, constantly evolving tools. In a sense, implementations never end. Changes to the business often require fundamental shifts in how the system is used, and regular updates and new modules from the vendor mean the expectations upon the people running the system are also constantly in flux.

At MTS, about 50 HR people are using the system for everything from recruitment to organization development, to performance management and compensation planning. And most of the company’s 3,300 employees across four business units are now regularly accessing the system to make basic information changes.

“Human resources used to be very involved with tuition refunds and education assistance,” says Harcus. “We were the keepers of the requests and the group that validated that the person completed the course.”

That is all done electronically now through the HR system. Unless a company-wide report is requested, HR spends little time on this now. Freed from tasks of that nature, they now spend a lot of time leveraging the system for maximum benefit to the organization. At the moment they’re in the process of eliminating all paper personnel files.

Records are being scanned and turned into e-files. It reduces paper, gets rid of filing cabinets and makes the files more accessible to the people who need them in HR, Harcus says.

Once an organization reaches the 500-employee mark it becomes difficult to manage the employee data and information and stay compliant without some sort of HR system, says John Johnston, a long-time Toronto-based HR systems consultant and instructor. But it is rare to see any organization with fewer than 3,000 employees with a full-time employee working as a manager of the HR system, he says. And it is only the large organizations that will have a senior person (vice-president) in charge of HR information management.

As for the teams to run the system, there are no hard and fast rules for how many people or what skill sets are needed, he says. But often companies put in a system with the idea they’ll be able to reduce HR head count.

“Depending on how they do it, they may find they have to hire a couple of people because they’ll be doing things they didn’t have to do before,” he says.

It all depends on what the organization wants from the system.

If the HR system is viewed as a necessary nuisance, a tool just to take care of the requisite personnel work, then it will be done with the fewest staff possible. But if the system is looked upon as method to make fundamental changes to the way the business is managed and how HR contributes, more people will be needed to work with the system.

Getting the most from a system requires skilled administrators with a deep and expansive understanding of its functions. It requires support for the often growing list of self service users, be they managers or employees (if self service isn’t a factor right now, chances are it will be). And finally, and perhaps most importantly, HR technology staff should be figuring out how best to use the system to solve future business challenges.

Oversight requires a manager who is both HR professional and IT expert, with exceptional project management and facilitator skills.

In many cases, the person responsible for the HRMS comes from compensation because they are the ones who deal with the most data, says Johnston. “Compensation people in general tend to be very analytical. They understand how data (management) works and understand how to ensure there is integrity in the data.”

It was a job in compensation that led Johnston into HR technology.

“I was the compensation manager and I was the one who needed the data and was pushing for an HR system. Then, by default, I wound up owning it,” he says. This is likely to change however, as more HR professionals — like those in recruiting — get more accustomed to working with business software.

Dave Maharaj works as a payroll project manager at McMaster University in Hamilton and teaches HR systems management at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. He says the most important thing for an HRMS manager is not IT experience, but good communication and change or project management skills.

There is a tremendous amount of change and the manager must have a thorough understanding of the business processes, be able to identify opportunities for improvements and then explain that to the rest of the organization, he says.

HR systems management was a very hot skill set a few years ago, says Toronto-based HRMS consultant Ian Turnbull. In the past couple of years, the market has cooled down slightly, but before that companies had a hard time holding onto managers because they were lured away for consulting jobs. Turnbull says he still gets regular calls from organizations looking to bring him on full time to run an HR system.

Aside from an excellent understanding of systems and HR, the HRMS manager needs finely tuned communication and analytical skills, he says.

Too often HRMS managers get requests from someone else in the organization who doesn’t fully understand how the system works. The requests can be obscure or perhaps never before requested.

“The challenge is to go back and ask why do you want this? What are you trying to achieve? It may be that this is not what you actually need, or it may be something that everyone in the company should have. You have to be someone who not just responds. You need to be able to deal with people in that way and that is very challenging.”

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