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Denis Barnard

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Is your HR department pulling its weight?


In the toughest trading conditions in a generation, HR needs to add value and be able to prove it. Making the most of HRIS can be key, says Denis Barnard.


We all know what good HR practice should mean – higher retention, productivity and business performance. The problem is, with costs coming under a higher scrutiny, how can you really demonstrate your worth?

One empirical (and unscientific) observation is that this is more often an issue for practitioners who have only ever worked in HR; those who have moved across from another discipline, usually a profit centre, seem to do it instinctively.

It may be the case that the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) is not giving enough guidance in the area of ROI calculation to ensure their members more credibility when they present at the boardroom table. One of the more common assumptions I see in ROI papers is that having an ‘absence module’ will automatically reduce absence. These assumptions are then compounded by sums calculating percentage savings in terms of days and salaries. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. You can have the most sophisticated absence-recording software available and still not make a dent in absence rates.

It’s the way that management uses the information that is paramount, and whether managers have the will to take the difficult path, which can often mean confrontation.

HR information systems

When it comes to HRIS implementations, whether migrating to new applications, or adding new modules to existing ones, I am continually advising clients to take on board their own project manager. It is not good enough to rely on a vendor’s project manager to run the project plan; their first allegiance, understandably, is to the vendor, and it is inevitable that there will be times that the vendor’s interests and those of the client are at odds.

Making your HRIS pay 

  • Do make sure you know what platform/s your organisation currently uses. It may be that that dream HRIS may not run optimally on what you have.
  • Do make sure your data is cleansed before you source your software

  • Do collect all your pay, benefits and other organisational rules together before configuration and implementation of your new application. Running round while a vendor consultant is on the meter is poor practice.

  • Do give thought to how you want to preserve and access your legacy information. It is not effective in time and cost terms to migrate complete HR history through to a new application.

  • Don’t expect your vendor to project manage for you. Get your own person to handle the project and the vendor relationship.

  • Don’t buy an application out of scale with your organisation’s needs. It is wasteful, and can lead to your HR department running flat out just to feed the system with superfluous data.

  • Don’t skimp on the training; you made the investment, now ensure that you follow through a comprehensive a training programme.

  • Don’t leave your system to gently stagnate. Have a long hard look at how you are using it, and what you are getting from it, and don’t be shy about calling the vendor and asking for guidance.

Another course I advise against is appointing an existing member of the HR team as project manager. I can guarantee the project’s priorities will subsume those of the ‘day job’ with adverse effects.

Unless an HR staff member has previous PM experience and can hand over their normal workload, I would pass the responsibility to either an external project manager or to a member of staff who does have the relevant background. I would recommend the latter course where practicable, because it means that the expertise does not walk out of the door at the end of the project.

Making the most of what you have

As I move around organisations in an advisory capacity, I am often amazed by how little the full power of software that they have purchased is actually deployed. This can be for a number of reasons, the first of which is knowledge drift.

Over time, there is a gradual drift of system expertise as people leave. The remaining knowledge passed on to new employees is generally anecdotal, with the result that what the organisation possesses is actually heavily diluted software know-how.

The best way to combat this – and one I know organisations are reluctant to do – is to book a refresher training course for all staff using the application. Yes, there is a cost attached to this, but it is futile having a costly piece of software that is not delivering maximum benefit.

It may be hard to believe, but many of the software system’s most useful tools – notably the audit trail, triggered events and mailmerges – have never been activated.

These functions usually reside within the system administration tools, and get overlooked either by the IT department (who, not trusting the HR users, insist on taking on the admin themselves) or by HR itself not getting round to setting them up. When you consider that triggered events is one of the really big wins for anyone having an HRIS, this is a serious failing.

To avoid this situation, and on the basis ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, I would urge HR personnel to either ask to their vendor representative to run through the features and spot the missing ones, or engage a specialist to conduct a quick audit of what is being done and what more could be done with the application.

Reporting back

Reporting is always something of a ‘blind spot’ with HRIS, which is a pity because it’s a great tool in knowing how well the department is performing. It’s in part because many reporting applications are cumbersome to use, or require degrees in mathematics to understand.

Many organisations have a suite of standard reports set up at the outset and the vendor’s consultants and often happy to leave it at that. Any further progress in the reporting area is usually only carved out by the inquisitive or intrepid.

Although this is a quick fix to ensure continuity of information flow, there is no substitute for having your HR and payroll departments fully conversant with the report writing tool and able to construct reports at will.

There is a cost attached to this, as no HRIS training comes cheap.

The flexibility this gives an organisation is well worth the outlay, after all, this type of output is one of the reasons for having the application in the first place.

Remember the user

Finally – and this bears repeating yet again – when selecting an HRIS, just remember who has to use it on a day-to-day basis.

The day spent at an exhibition, where the senior HR professionals fell in love with all the whizzy features at a demo, can end up in bitter recriminations down the line when ordinary mortals actually have to get to trips with the ‘beast’.

Denis Barnard is the CEO of the UK’s first HRIS comparison website,, which includes advice, tips and resources to help choose the best HRIS software. He is an expert on the implementation of HR and payroll systems and has worked in the HR industry for more than 20 years.

3 Responses

  1. HRIS
    I couldn’t agree more with Denis’ comment about appointing a PM who is not a member of the HR team. I took on the role of PM whilst trying to carry on with my day to day work within the HR Department and it was almost impossible. If a company wants to implement a new system, they owe it to themselves, the HR Department and everyone else within the company who will use it, to ensure that it will actually do the job you want it to do and not, as Denis said, a system with the ‘wow’ factor, whistles and buzzers, that on a demo look fantastic. It’s also important that the system is chosen for the right reason – not because you liked the guys on one stand who made you laugh and treated you like you were their next best friend. After all, once you’ve paid the initial set up fee and started the implementation program, your new best friend could be your worst enemy if they don’t deliver.

    It is also important to train every member of the HR team in all aspects of the system. Training one or two is just foolhardy. You only need one to leave and the other to go on holiday and you’re in deep trouble. Again, I have to agree with Denis that it’s important to have an annual refresher course.

    I was happy to take on the role of PM and got a great deal of satisfaction from helping to deliver a new and much more user friendly system to the company. But I learnt some hard lessons and don’t think I’d be quite so quick to put my hand up next time.

  2. HRIS, PMs, Reporting and the rest . . .
    There is much I agree with in what you say, Denis. Implementations need a PM. Specifically one who knows the business of HR and Payroll and has actually done the job in the past. Getting the maximum out of your HRIS requires you and your PM working together from a point of common business understanding, creating a dynamic and flexible tool that can be used to both deliver HR’s strategic plans and measure the success of its interventions. When you buy a HRIS you get a large jigsaw puzzle to put together in a way that suits your particular needs within your unique organisation. To do that you need understanding of how HR and the HRIS can work together as a blended activity within that environment. So take the time to look around and find the right person. An employee is a good idea – but they don’t always stay when they suddenly find what a heavy demand there is for experienced consultants! You do have to take very good care of them.

    Too right about the training – you do have to keep staff up to date and newcomers have to be trained. I get all my clients to document their processes in a clear and easy to follow format, where there is an IT training team we build up a set of courses with a core series and then modular units for such areas as Recruitment, Learing and development etc. Naturally as new patches and upgrades come in they have to be maintained and updated.

    As for reports – it is up to us as purchasers to make the suppliers meet our needs by being demanding. One of my purchasing ploys is to look at the reports and ask for more and better as part of the deal.
    One should definitely train staff on the application’s report writer but choose carefully which staff – not everyone is happy to take on Business Objects or Cognos and in fact it may not be appropriate for them to do so. I usually hand the heavy stuff such as complex Key Performance Indicators to IT – who love that sort of stuff – and train the day to day users on the lighter weight query tools that often come with the applications and frequently meet their general needs very effectively and are more dynamic.

    As for choosing an HRIS. There is no subsititute for a lot of up front hard work slogging your way through where you are, where you want to go and how the system must support you to get there. Loads of queries, reviews, questions and trials. It pays off in helpong you get the best system and the best out of it whent it’s in.

    Caroline Attwood FRSA
    Compos Mentis HR Systems Consultancy

  3. ROI on HR systems
    Denis – you’re absolutely right – implementing the right technology is about being better, more efficient, more effective, less administrative and more – dare I say – strategic. It’s about raising the bar and creating, then delivering to, higher expectations set amongst the management and board of the company. Seeing sexy software at an exhibition is one thing, and putting it in to place is quite another. Sound project, and in many cases, change management is essential to be done right first time for the new solution not be be stillborn – a second try at a launch will be MUCH harder work.

    However, all of this comes AFTER the decision to purchase and implement the chosen solution. This often needs the maths, facts and figures, the hard cash realities behind the savings that appropriate use of technology can really deliver in order to justify such expense. To be able to answer the “so what?” question with reasonable expectations of savings – in time, in headcount, in accuracy and in efficiency – with a Return On Investment that ought to make the Finance Director wonder why we haven’t done this already is a really useful business case that the HR Manager needs to make more than ever now. Your preferred supplier ought to be able to help – they’ll have been asked this many times before. I know I have.

    Tony Price


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