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Software solutions right under your nose

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If you’re looking to reduce absence or provide better information to your senior management team, the answer might already be at your fingertips. Chris Berry, managing director of Computers In Personnel, argues that the HR system you already own could do far more than you realise.


There’s something strangely contradictory about the way HR professionals approach technology. More and more organisations are investing in software to improve the way they manage their employees, from handling job applications over the web to introducing ‘self-service’ capabilities that allow employees to book their holidays online or receive electronic payslips.

Yet at the same time, large numbers of HR professionals aren’t taking advantage of the software they already own – despite the fact that much of it could solve critical day-to-day business problems.

In fact, if you compared all the software that’s been paid for in the UK with the features that are actually in use, you’d be left with the digital equivalent of an EU butter mountain.

This isn’t a problem that is exclusive to the HR function – far from it, in fact. Across the IT industry, it is widely acknowledged that people rarely take full advantage of the software they purchase.

Just look at the desktop applications you use day-to-day. How much of the rich functionality that you find in Microsoft Excel do you really use? Are you a whiz on pivot tables, writing macros and using the advanced programming techniques available for in-depth data analysis? Or are you one of the majority who uses what they know, and occasionally wishes they’d been better trained to use the rest?

Software project

The reality is that most organisations never get round to finishing the job they start when they set out on a software project. Business software, including HR systems, typically come in modules that can be installed one at a time or in phased groups. After installing the core HR system that manages basic people administration, most organisations then focus on the aspects that tackle their most immediate business challenges.

If your biggest pain point is handling the volume of recruitment applications you receive, for example, you’re going to focus on implementing a recruitment module before you think about anything else.

“The reality of today’s hectic HR environment is that once you’ve tackled one top priority, another one crops up – and whatever your best intentions, the remaining phases of your HR rollout will often end up on the back-burner.”

But the reality of today’s hectic HR environment is that once you’ve tackled one top priority, another one crops up – and whatever your best intentions, the remaining phases of your HR rollout will often end up on the back-burner.

Restarting a project is never easy, and as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to implement the remaining modules, particularly when the people who were involved in the original project start to move on.

That’s why many of the business challenges that HR departments face today could be solved with a combination of installing more of what they already own and some shrewd, tactical investment in new additional software and training.

Control over spend

Software for basic tasks such as centralised training administration are commonly not implemented – yet they can help organisations tighten control over their training spend and get better data on the quality of training they’re paying for.

If you consider that training is typically one of the first budget lines to get cut when organisations need to tighten their belts, being able to demonstrate training efficiency and show metrics on quality control will stand you in better stead for a discussion with the finance director.

Likewise, many organisations under-utilise the absence management capability built into their software. Most HR software systems contain functionality that allows you to gather and categorise absence statistics, along with reporting and analysis tools which enable you to drill into the figure and perhaps identify trends.

Introducing this kind of capability can directly impact your bottom line. Organisations often find that having better data on long-term absence, for example, gives them an opportunity to tackle problem areas earlier and save money. Some public and private sector organisations have gone further, displaying absence statistics in ‘portals’ that their employees access when they log in each morning – many have found that simply letting members of staff know absence is being monitored helps to reduce unnecessary days off.

Broader reporting capability, too, is often ignored. Most HR systems come with a wide range of reports that can help organisations analyse key people management metrics, going beyond the core metrics that HR departments have traditionally relied on to give a far bigger picture about everything from recruitment advertising effectiveness to voluntary turnover among high performers. With HR constantly under pressure to offer more ‘strategic’ input, this kind of capability provides a powerful tool.

New products

As well as missing out on software functionality they’ve already paid for, many HR managers are also unaware of new products that have been developed since they invested in their original system.

The software industry moves at a rapid pace, and if you installed or started to use your system three or four years ago, you may be surprised at the extra capability your vendor has since developed.

“Self-service allows employees to register for training courses and book holidays online – and once the necessary workflows have been set up, managers can also get involved in approving requests.”

‘Self-service’ is a good example. Over the last few years, more and more organisations have opened up parts of their core HR systems to people outside the HR department, giving managers and employees access to a wide range of information. By accessing the system over their internal network – or in some cases, securely over the internet – employees can find a wide range of information for themselves that in previous years would have required a call to the HR department.

At a basic level this means they can update their personal details when they move house or change bank, and in some cases, see their pay history and receive payslips electronically rather than on paper. But it goes further than that. Self-service allows employees to register for training courses and book holidays online – and once the necessary workflows have been set up, managers can also get involved in approving requests.

All of this cuts HR administrative overhead – and at the same time, with 24/7 availability, it provides employees with a better quality of service.

These factors are all worth bearing in mind if you ever find yourself complaining about the limitations of your HR system. Software can never solve all of HR’s challenges – but they may well be able to solve far more than you realise.

3 Responses

  1. Use Excel for a quick win

    Having come from a generalist HR background, I found that a huge amount of time was wasted by bad systems and/or staff that were not trained or inclined to use them well. I got increasingly drawn in to improving processes by fixing these problems, either through training, adapting systems, or finding work-arounds with easily available tools – mainly Microsoft Excel. This grew to the point where I would create macro-powered Excel applications to deal with processes like salary review (and to the extent that I blog about Excel for HR at http://xlcalibre.com ). I think that a certain level of Excel skills can be very helpful to your average HR professional.

    If you are a small business Excel can be all that you need. But for larger organisations you should have a solid system with facilities like employee and manager self service. I have to say I’m impressed by some of the Saas solutions coming onto the scene, and can only see HR technology improving rapidly in the coming years. The question is whether HR professionals will embrace change to make the most of the existing and new tools available to them.

  2. Training
    A final point picking up on that many HR users fail to use what they have is the lack of training.

    Many organisations to save money will train just one user and then expect them to teach everyone else. The other way of cutting costs is to only sending users on the basic courses again resulting in the users abilityt to get the very best out of the system.

    This approaches often fail as in many cases the individual is not a professional trainer and therefore does not conduct professional training and also by not learning the system to advanced level the full potential of the system will never be reached.

    These approaches may in the short term appear to save money but will cost an organisation money in the failure to be able to operate the software at its full potential.

    Some companies, and I know Computers in Personnel is one of them will agree if companies are up front with them agree to train trainers as authorised trainers in their products and will allow use of their training materials.

  3. HR MIS
    I agree with much of Chris has to say but a couple his article misses a couple of important points.

    Firstly, is that many HR professionals do not understand what computers are and what they can do for HR.? Many HR Departments see them as nothing more than glorified typewriters and filing cabinets.

    The next problem is that in many cases the agenda for many HR systems is not set by HR but often by IT or accounts. Oh the accounts package or the payroll package we have got has got an HR module that will do. Or IT thinks that they can knock up something in 10 minutes in MS Access that will meet HR needs. HR needs special HR software written for HR professionals not some software package that could have been written as part of an NVQ level 1 project. Even if HR is allowed to seek professional software they are often told by accounts or IT that they don’t need this module or don’t need that reporting tool. Only to find after the event they do need it and the self service module etc. and by that time the purse strings are closed.

    A long side this problem we have the problem of accounts controlling the purse strings. They will happily spend thousands on an accounts system but will not spend anything like that on an HR system which could save thousands on effectively managing their manpower.

    Leading on from my original point about HR not understanding what it needs from an HR System and picking up on Chris’s point about users failing to utilise the full features of the system. I believe that part of the problems stems from the failure of many HR Systems suppliers to demonstrate their products as anything more that electronic personal data recording systems and do not show what with investment of time and resources many of these systems are really capable of.

    The final problem is starting to change but HR as a profession has in general failed to recognise that Computer HR Systems are now in a specialist field of HR and as such require specialists. The same way that we recognise the need for specialists in Recruitment or Benefits. This problem stems from top to bottom the CIPD holds an annual HR Systems exhibition and conference but does not recognise it as a specialism of its members.

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