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The HR information system: The heartbeat of the organisation


HeartbeatThe IT system within HR departments forms the lifeblood of any business, says Caroline Attwood, who has some tips for HR on how to choose the right system for your organisation.

The HR information system (HRIS) is the most important application in any organisation. You may think this is a bold statement, but if you take the view that an organisation is its manpower, then surely the system that facilitates efficient management of this very costly, mutable asset is of considerable importance. Should you take the time to sit for a while and draw a map of the information that flows to, from and through HR you will find that you lie at the heart of the corporate body. An intelligently, imaginatively deployed HRIS could therefore, in a manner of speaking, be regarded as the circulatory system.

The systems available to us today provide considerable breadth of functionality in terms of data management and dissemination at every level from top management to employee; provision of strategic business intelligence describing the past, current and future status of the organisation’s most valuable resource; and measurement of organisational health and integrity and communications.

“Key to the success of the system is ownership by HR from the outset.”

These are just a few of the benefits available if they are effectively deployed. However, these applications are still frequently regarded as of secondary importance and, if one reads the statistics in the press, are still failing to produce the glittering prizes of improved reporting, streamlined processes and reduced administration. The reasons for this are many and varied but there are some common themes that I have observed.

Key to the success of the system is ownership by HR from the outset. It has been my experience that in some cases IT or finance plays a greater role in the decision making process than is perhaps appropriate. I have, on occasions, come across them actually taking the final decision regarding which HRIS is to be procured.

The choice of the most appropriate system is not an IT or finance function. Their assistance is necessary and welcome in supporting the process, but actually making the decision as to the optimum solution for a business area in which they have no expertise can lead to problems. The question I have often reflected upon in these circumstances is whether HR would be asked to select a new financial management system or decide which servers to buy for IT!

Undertaking a thorough business analysis is an essential early step and provides multiple benefits. This is a golden opportunity to ascertain precisely the services your clients want from you, to identify redundant or inefficient procedures and opportunities for streamlining and adding value.

Analysing your HRIS

A thorough analysis will provide a range of additional benefits such as information regarding cost and efficiency savings; core functional requirements, and quality assurance criteria that can be used to measure the success of your implementation. Most importantly it provides information that supports your business case and proves to the board that you have done your homework and have verifiable proof of the benefits of purchasing a new system.

A clear, well-constructed business case doesn’t have to be the length of ‘War and Peace’ but does need to provide convincing reasons why the system is required; the tangible and intangible benefits; an estimate of the amount of work to be undertaken and the resources required to assist you in the task. Include as much cost-benefit data as you can as the good old £ sign is still the most convincing factor. However, other, less tangible, benefits such as the ability to protect organisational integrity and security and to measure, monitor and manage talent health and wealth are currently evoking considerable excitement and interest.

When reviewing the marketplace, look for applications that have the capacity to develop and grow with you and are straightforward to use. I have had experiences where users have been reluctant to use the system because they have found it unattractive and dull. Consider the amount of work that may be necessary to install and implement them. At one end of the spectrum are the enterprise solutions such as SAP and Oracle, which have been immensely popular over the last few years. These are wonderfully powerful systems with considerable functionality but are costly to purchase, require considerable consultancy input over a lengthy period and can take a very long time to implement.

“When reviewing the marketplace, look for applications that have the capacity to develop and grow with you and are straightforward to use.”

There are many less hefty but functionally-rich applications and some extremely flexible and adaptable .Net solutions on the market. Have a good look around and use HR websites as well as any other source available to tap into other people’s experiences with these applications. You will get informative reviews on software and suppliers that you certainly won’t get from reference sites because, quite naturally, suppliers won’t tell you of any disasters. If you are buying a payroll application as part of your brief then look at the HMRC website to check that the system has been through their approval process. It provides a quality benchmark.

Vendors are, naturally, keen to sell you their particular solution and a salesman can make their system perform wonders during a demonstration. Ask lots of questions about how their HRIS would solve your particular problems and improve your service to the organisation. Who have they on their books of a similar size and type?

During the selection process it can be useful to set a series of tests for would-be suppliers by creating scenarios that reflect your most pressing issues (using dummy data of course), and ask them to demonstrate the solution. The reporting aspect is a vitally important factor. Systems usually come with a bundle of standard reports, but are they the ones you want or need? Are they just the useful but tired old favourites or do they provide real performance data? Can you and your team members quickly and easily retrieve, combine and display data in appropriate outputs such as dashboard reports? Do you have to learn some complex reporting tool to do the job or – most costly of all – rely on them to write them for you?

Selecting the right system for you

Accreditations such as Six-Sigma etc are not always an indicator that the organisation you are dealing with is any better or more efficient than any other. A vendor can be an invaluable source of support and advice, bringing a wealth of background experience, technical expertise and knowledge of best practice to the table. The relationship you establish with a vendor can make or break the project and I have come across situations where acrimony and blame have caused relationships to founder, with dire consequences for the implementation.

Be realistic about timescales and delivery. There is a tendency to expect the system to materialise overnight – specifically on the part of those who do not work in HR and therefore have no understanding of the complexity of the task. There is also the fact that you still have to do your day job whilst all this is going on! Bear in mind the old adage ‘promise less, deliver more’, and have a good communications plan in situ to manage expectations.

“A good communications plan as well as a well-constructed project plan is essential to the management of expectations.”

Get your core, essential data and processes up and running properly and then start attacking the next areas in order of priority – these should have been identified during your analysis phase. It’s a bit of a balancing act getting one of these systems implemented at a steady but acceptable speed. I have, sadly, seen projects result in failure through lengthy implementations that have resulted in pure boredom and others fall apart due to trying to push ahead too fast. A good communications plan as well as a well-constructed project plan is essential to the management of expectations.

HRIS implementations never really end. Like HR they are organic, growing and changing in relation with the needs of your HR operation and the organisation. New ideas, upgrades or releases emerge in response to legislative change or new ways of working. Providing you own it from the start you will have the skills and understanding to enable you to maximise the capability of your system, making it work for and with you in order to release you from administration and process, so allowing you to concentrate on strategy and performance.

Caroline Attwood is a HRIS consultant who has been involved for many years in advising and assisting organisations on the selection and implementation of their HR and Payroll systems and supporting processes. Email her at or on 07833 995401

2 Responses

  1. Re access for those with disabilities.
    Thanks – you are quite right regarding access to the systems for those with disabilities, this is a requirement that must be included in the selection process, specifically as we now have the possiblity of user access at all levels of the organisation through manager and employee self service.

  2. access considerations and disability data

    I think this is a very comprehensive article; it misses, however, the opportunity to prommpt procurers of ICT systems to consider the need to ensure the accessibility of any system to disabled HR staff, and other staff who may need to update their own records on line.
    Perhaps one question that might be asked of potential vendors might be
    “what steps have you taken to ensure that your system is accessible to people using assistive technology?”
    If their answer is evasive, or their eyes glaze over, don’t buy it!
    Similarly, you may wish to ensure that the systemn you buy is flexible enough to accommodate any changes to your policies on managing sickness absence in relation to anti-discriminatory measures on disability such as distinguishing between sickness absence and disability-related absence, disability leave and disability adjustment leave
    For more information visit the employers’ Forum on Disability (EFD) website
    There you can purchase a very useful Line Managers’ Guide on Reasonable Adjustments, the implementation of which may have significant implications for EHR systems.

    Work is also in progress by EFD in partnership with the British Standards Institute (BSI) to raise the profile of ICT accessibility generally.

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