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HR Leadership Column

A Conversion to HR Technology

The time when HR leaders could relegate technology decisions to the IT department or to HRIS personnel is over. To enable strategic workforce decisions, HR executives need to make enterprise and HR technologies a priority.

Monday, October 31, 2011
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Many years ago, the CEO walked into my office and snapped "IT. It's broken. Fix it." Then he turned around and walked out. It was his way of telling me I was now also responsible for information technology at the company.

I was terrified. On the one hand, I knew that this was one of those "developmental opportunities" that good employers provide to test and grow their talent. On the other hand, I was a lawyer by training, and had no technology training or background.

At the time, the organization was in the middle of a significant database conversion that had everyone in turmoil. And, as anyone who's been responsible for a conversion knows, it was like having a root canal that lasted for months.

We got through the process, although it probably wasn't done as elegantly as it might have been if I had a deep background in database conversions. And it was definitely a "stretch assignment" that made me a better leader; I learned a lot about project and change management, and the importance of communication within an organization.

But as I was recently reminded, I think the most important thing I gained was a true appreciation of the technology infrastructure for the organization -- how it worked, how it made us more efficient and how it really was our central nervous system.

And perhaps most importantly, I learned how quickly things change in the world of technology. Before we even finished the conversion, we had to begin planning for the next upgrade.

I was reminded of my early experience recently as I followed some of the tweets and blogs from attendees at the recent HR Technology® Conference in Las Vegas. There was a lot of excitement about the new HRM tools that are now available, how the tools are being deployed and about what is yet to come.

Despite a moribund economy, attendance was reportedly up by more than 40 percent from the last year, suggesting that companies realize the savings potential from new technology is worth the conference investment. You can read more about the conference in Bill Kutik's column.

I was further reminded of my own experience when I next attended a meeting of the Human Resource Policy Institute, which is housed in Boston University. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Fellow of the Institute, and always look forward to its meetings of top HR executives from around the country.

The subject of the most recent meeting was "The Impact of New Technologies on Work and the Delivery of HR Solutions."

One of the speakers was the executive vice president for HR at a Fortune 200 company. He recounted how, for the last year or so, he and his executive team had spent a great deal of time looking into the company's HRM system and the changes coming in HRM technology.

He went on to admit that he was embarrassed it took him so long to recognize the full cost and potential of technology as a tool for his company -- a technology company -- and regretted he didn't invest the time earlier. His message to his peers: Pay more attention, and don't just leave it to the HRIS staff member on your team.

I don't think his prior lack of focus on workforce technology is unusual. Somehow, other priorities seem to get in the way for many HR professionals. And if IT professionals have trouble keeping up, how can HR? Especially when one of the challenges is that there aren't generally accepted terms and definitions for HRM concepts and metrics; each vendor has its own take on it, making it pretty difficult to understand the broad trends and compare HRM software offerings.

But I also wonder if some are reluctant to investigate technology because of the fear of what they'll find it means to their career.

As Naomi Bloom -- a well-known blogger on HRMS issues -- stressed to the HRPI group, the introduction of more and more enterprise HRM system solutions will fundamentally change the number of HR professionals required in a corporation: There will be fewer.

Some of the trends? More and more companies are moving to Software as a Service, which enables them to rent or subscribe to online software instead of actually purchasing and installing it on their computers. When combined with renting a hardware platform as a service, the companies enter "the Cloud" -- cloud computing.

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The result can be significantly reduced expense because there are no upfront costs for purchasing new software packages or doing data conversions for upgrades of the software. Companies subscribe to a service, rather than licensing software.

This means that the current practice of simply upgrading to the latest version of their HRM software will require a different cost-benefit analysis. If the company is going to incur the costs of conversion anyway, would it make more sense to move to a subscription model and away from licensing?

Social-networking platforms are multiplying. While there may be risks when employees use some of these platforms, they afford real opportunities for workers to connect and collaborate in better ways, as well as help employees develop new knowledge and skills, while enhancing productivity and innovation across an organization.

Finally, mobile communications are advancing so rapidly that it's now possible to weave HRM tools into the cell phones of employees. Employees will not only want, but expect, self-service from their phones, and won't understand why they have to go online or to a company kiosk.

So what should HR executives do when confronted with rapid changes in technology in an environment of limited time and resources? I think the best strategy is to view it as a priority. Recognize that this has become an important competency for HR leaders, and you have to make time to become more informed of what's happening in enterprise and HR technologies.

I think Naomi Bloom's prediction of a smaller number of HR professionals is right. There may be fewer in HR, but there will be new roles for professionals who develop strong HR technology competencies.

These professionals won't be burdened with transactional activities. They'll be able to use technology and the analytics made possible by the technology to become better leaders in their organizations. They will be leaders grounded in the decision science of human resource management, and not the folklore of the profession.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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