Converting HR data into HR information

How to turn raw data into the reports HR needs

The HR world is awash in data. There are statistical reports from all levels of government, consulting studies from organizations looking for business, association polling results and a constant stream of possibly relevant data in the popular media.

On top of this, and perhaps most importantly, every HR management system has at its core a database with many thousands of pieces of unique employee and job-related data.

Data are akin to raw, unprocessed ore. It takes tons of ore and lots of processing to yield a kilogram of gold.

Similarly, it takes lots of computer processing power and the right questions to turn raw data — which is mostly useless for analysis purposes — into information. And it’s information that every HR department needs to guide decisions and planning.

Human resources management system (HRMS) users, like users of most business systems, require two types of outputs. The first provides answers to “what is” questions. (What is the total cost of pension contributions in manufacturing?) The other are “what if” queries. (What if we reduced contributions by five per cent?) Most outputs — hard copy or soft — will be of the first type.

What is…

For the most part, HR users don’t want to write database queries or create report writer programs. They prefer to have the system offer a large number of standard outputs, with options for data selection and sorting. The key to getting useful information from an HRMS is making it easy for users to define their questions properly.

One day there may be computers like those on Star Trek that can answer verbal unstructured commands like, “Computer, print me a report showing the number of back strain injuries over the last 12 months for the Kingston facility and compare it to all other company locations for the same period. And, oh yes, Computer, also display Statistics Canada figures for similar-sized manufacturing operations in the same report. Thank you.” Not likely to happen any time soon, so until then, HR will be mostly limited to using pre-defined sets of criteria to provide a structured request to the HRMS.

Data selection criteria should be easy to define. Criteria can include data elements that specify which groups of employees are of concern for the report (a specific bargaining unit, status code, physical location, department, cost centre), a date range (this year, this quarter, last month) and the data to analyze (all sick time exceeding 20 hours, all scheduled training courses, seniority based on hiring date).

HR should also be able to sort the information in the report in a sequence that is meaningful to users, be it by department, name or age group.

One other step remains and that is getting the information to end users. Is the “report” to be printed and delivered to each user in the group, made available via access to the HRMS or sent to them through the organization’s e-mail network? The HRMS should include options for all of these.

While for the most part, HR systems will be used for standardized reports, there will always be a need for ad hoc outputs to satisfy a one-time information need.

The development of these unique reports (as well as any new outputs to be added to the HRMS report library) takes someone, either in HR or IT, who is thoroughly familiar with applications such as SQL Query or who is adept at using the systems report writer tools and is comfortable digging into the HRMS database — an often-times daunting prospect.

Employee self service

The growth of employee self service (ESS) modules represents another opportunity for HR to turn data into information.

A typical ESS function gives employees the ability to check their entitlements, process vacation requests to their supervisors, examine available training programs and request courses, and modify addresses, dependants or beneficiaries.

All the screens employees see are generally defined by the system, but HR users often have the option of changing some data. For example, HR may have 15 different reason codes that apply to attendance and absenteeism. However, the most frequently used are vacation time off and time off in lieu. HR can assign priority codes to these codes, making them appear at the top of the ESS input screen so that employees don’t have to scroll through a list of unnecessary code with each time input.

What if…

Though HR systems are used mostly to run status reports and answer questions about the current situation, “what if” analyses are generally simpler to conduct. The HRMS should include either a spreadsheet capability or provide for exporting data (not information) seamlessly to a spreadsheet where all types of “what if” analysis can be performed.

The raw data from the HRMS gets moved to a spreadsheet “engine” and is manipulated by the spreadsheet logic.

A typical example of “what if” analysis includes costs associated with employee compensation. For example, develop various scenarios if extended health-care and life insurance benefit plans become fully paid rather than 80 per cent paid by the organization, or if vacation entitlement is altered or if the company-paid education program is reduced to 90 or 95 per cent from 100 per cent.

Another critical issue involved with the extraction of HRMS information is security. Is it necessary to limit access to the system and, if so, what are the rules? The answer to the first part of the question is a simple “yes.” There are legal requirements and ethical norms governing access to personal data of the type in an HRMS.

The rules governing access to the HRMS seem to be consistent across economic sectors, sizes of organizations and geographic locations. Built into any HRMS security module is the understanding that system access will be provided to HR staff, to operating supervisors or managers and, at some point through an ESS function, to all employees. The logic of the module must therefore accommodate the varying needs of each group.

The first step in figuring out access and security is answering the question: “Whose data are we allowed to see?” At the ESS level it’s obviously only data associated with the individual employee accessing the system. A manager should have access to the information of employees reporting to him, but within limits. The manager may not have access to health and safety screens or reports and certainly should not be able to view any reports related to an employee assistance plan. It’s up to HR to determine just what reports or screens a manager can see and what screens should have read/write access or only read access.

Most systems include various table of codes, for instance, codes for employee status, time and attendance, departments. Most organizations name a “keeper of the codes” to ensure consistency across the HRMS. System security must allow only the keeper and a backup to modify these data elements.

One of the key functions of an HRMS is to provide for the transformation of raw bits and pieces of data into useful information. There are many ways that this transformation occurs, but in all instances the task should be as simple and as non-technical as possible. Over the last decade, most developers have successfully adopted this approach by taking an end-user approach to systems design and by taking advantage of networking technology and the Internet to make the HRMS available to all locations within the organization.

Networking technology is key in the design of ESS functionality, which will be the next big change in HRMS systems. Developers initially believed that “if you introduce it, they will use it.” They thought that if they converted an entire HRMS to an ESS model, it would be accepted. Those developers were wrong.

Users are moving into the self serve area very cautiously, and developers are doing much more analysis and planning before introducing new web-based functionality. It’s a mutual learning process that will result in better HRMS systems and in more comfortable HRMS users in the next few years.

It’s very likely that the combination of more simple report request techniques made available to everyone, the use of e-mail reports rather than hard copy and the introduction of the HRMS to all employees through an ESS capability will help HR become a mainstream business function.

Gerson Safran provides marketing and sales support for the INFO:HR Human Resources Management System. He can be reached at (519) 672-5984 or [email protected].

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