Payroll upgrade a learning experience

Selkirk College migrates to in-house HRIS system to handle complex payroll
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/14/2010

It was a long, demanding exercise but Liana Zwick is more than happy her employer migrated to an in-house human resources information system (HRIS) in January.

As HR co-ordinator at Selkirk College in Castlegar, B.C., she says the transition “felt a lot like chaos” at times but she’s glad to be on the other side.

“It was a significant project that took a lot of time and work and I guess it’s ongoing, to a certain degree, in that we’re in our year of firsts,” she said. “Looking on it in retrospect, you could see how much work it involved but we’re also excited about the benefits we’re reaping.”

The community college has about 2,200 students and 580 staff — one-half part time — spread among its eight campuses in British Columbia. For years, the school sent its payroll to a third-party provider. About 10 years ago, with technology improving and keen to have better reporting, the college elected to go with HR software that was part of the vendor’s platform. This involved an interface and the college started building employee data electronically.

But when the vendor discontinued the product line, it was a challenge to receive support and maintain the interface.

“We could just see it was something that was not going to work in the long run for us and continue to meet the needs to provide the type of information that’s useful when determining HR initiatives and priorities,” says Zwick.

Selkirk decided to implement an in-house payroll program, meaning it would keep, pull and develop the deposit files at the college. The change made sense because there’s a charge to sending payroll externally and having it in-house meant greater control over the data, she said.

In considering its options, Selkirk was most impressed by a system used at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. This school had used the software of Star Garden, a provider of payroll, HR and scheduling software, for several years and demonstrated the system to Selkirk College’s HR team.

“Our contracts are complex in that we’ve got three bargaining units and of course we’ve got people who may be in more than one bargaining unit at the same time, different types of contracts as per collective agreement, so we had a lot of complex needs that had to be met, “ says Zwick. “That was a key piece for us, knowing that another institution with a similar setup was successfully using this software.”

Once the college had made its decision, Star Garden provided ongoing support through webinars, teleconferences, phone calls and on-site visits scheduled around critical points in the project.

After all the data was compiled from the old system, the next big step was clearing schedules so the team at Selkirk could spend a few weeks on system setup, focusing on linkages within the program, and data entry.

“It’s all the little calculations — whether it’s benefits, whether it’s your accruals for vacation in lieu, accruals for vacation that’s paid out — it’s inputting all of your data, how you run your business,” says Zwick.

After setting up tables, entering the data was the “big time-eater,” she said, and, on top of that, the payroll department had to run the usual payroll on a bi-weekly and monthly basis.

“So they had the onerous task of not only maintaining current payroll… but also contributing their input and helping us out with the payroll side of the system and setup of that, to make sure they were happy with what they were going to be using,” says Zwick.

Then the college and vendor did some minor functional testing after inputting a few records, to check for any huge glitches and do some cleanup before plunking in the rest of the data, she says. The testing was constant up until the point the college decided to go for two parallel runs, meaning it used the same information in the current system and ran it in the Star Garden system at a test site, then compared the numbers.

“The fun began,” says Zwick, citing challenges such as Canada Pension Plan and employment insurance deductions. “That’s where you’re targeting and pinpointing and troubleshooting and determining how close are (we), is it within acceptable limits.”

The first test produced a few issues, such as life insurance calculations, but the second run went much better and was more about fine-tuning, she says.

The initial launch date was for the end of 2009 but, because of a couple of slippages and to reach a certain level of confidence in the system, the college decided to push the switch to the new year.

“Looking back again, I think that worked out rather well, that we got to spend more time troubleshooting on the systems side and just starting without having to bring over year-to-date totals for all those records and starting from that zero balance.”

January 2010 launch

The final launch in 2010 went well and the college met the time frames of the credit union handling the deposit files.

“I’m not going to say it was all calm and peaceful. We did put in long hours, we stayed here weekends,” says Zwick, who gives a lot of credit to the payroll department as they were watching for every little thing to be done correctly.

And the payroll department has been learning with every pay period, leading to greater confidence with the system, says Zwick.

“It’s really nice to see because… already, the information that we’re pulling is easier to access, I’m more confident in the information that comes out and I see that as one of the benefits that we’ll be enjoying with this new system.”

And all the time and effort has been worth it. The reporting options are much appreciated and Selkirk is working on building greater customization into the system, she says.

“The customizations are great because that’s another feature where processes are automated and the same with payroll — they’re able to see all the back-end stuff, they’re more in charge and control, if there’s a late time sheet, a special request of some type, they’ve got visibility in the system and can speak to that directly,” says Zwick.

Another benefit was the launch of an employee self-service portal to communicate with workers instead of using pay information on paper, and the college is working on a similar portal for managers so they have greater access to information such as types of contracts, vacation accruals and rates of pay.

These phases will be easier thanks to the test site that allows the school to check out its initiatives but not affect anybody in a real way.

“Once we’re satisfied, we move it into production,” she says. “It’s a learning curve for us as well, in that you can enter the data, you can build the tables, but now it’s just experience, hands-on work with the system in order to gain that troubleshooting finesse. I look at is as a gradual weaning process.”

Lessons learned

Looking back, a few lessons have been learned. For one, it’s really important to consider resources and look at the work that needs to continue on regardless of the system changeover, says Zwick.

“If we had the ability to turn the clock back and do things differently, one change I would’ve liked to have seen is more back-up resources provided for the implementation team to enable their full time and attention to setting up, troubleshooting and learning the new system.

“It demands a lot of resources and we probably could have used more,” she says. “If you’re running lean, you may want to wait a bit later to do this.”

It’s also a good idea to test with more complex cases “and think of the craziest contract scenarios” to make sure the system works for those, so straightforward contract entry goes much easier, says Zwick.

“But even with the best planning and resources, I think a project like this requires persistence, perseverance, patience and plenty of hard work.”

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