Making the Connection
With advancements in technology clipping along at lightning speed, and with rapidly evolving regulatory and compliance requirements presenting an ever-present risk, HR and IT need to work together to update processes and procedures, and establish clearly defined guidelines and best practices that can help minimize mistakes and maximize transparency and efficiency.
By Gloria Smith
In an increasingly digital and technically sophisticated world, HR professionals are frequently able to utilize powerful new technologies to become more efficient and effective in the workplace. The downside to these high-tech advances, however, is a greater potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and the corresponding chaos that can result when high-tech systems are not complemented by increased departmental coordination and communication.
One of the most common sources for this technical/procedural disconnect is a lack of clear and consistent communication between IT and HR personnel. Even when IT views a new system update as a relatively minor and straightforward occurrence, it can have potentially dramatic ramifications on HR policies, procedures or even user functionality, making it increasingly important for HR professionals to understand where, why and how these departmental disconnects occur.
The responsibilities of HR professionals have increased significantly over the past 10 years. Thanks to greater professional mobility and a progressively complex thicket of regulatory and legislative updates to consider, HR departments must be more flexible and responsive than ever before. Today, HR professionals are responsible for virtually every aspect of an employee's professional (and sometimes personal) development and well-being. Unfortunately, as technical challenges for HR personnel have expanded, communication with IT departments has decreased. In years past, poor interdepartmental communication could be a hassle. Today, with IT functionality a part of nearly every aspect of running a company, a lack of collaborative engagement can be a serious problem.
For instance, instead of releasing new iterations of software and new technologies every few years, many technology solution providers have embraced the release of periodic system updates through bundled packages that occur more frequently. These bundles can provide anything from small bug fixes within the system to enhanced functionality for the end user or improved system navigation. These system improvements are typically handled by the IT department, and, in most cases, the HR department is unaware of these updates -- regardless of how large or small they may be.
Awareness usually stems from the moment an end user turns on his or her machine or accesses the system and observes a new layout, new features or other significant changes to system navigation. Even what the IT department perceives to be strictly technical upgrades to the tools of the system can include functional upgrades that affect how the user will interact with it -- not only in terms of navigation, but new pages, new capabilities and access to new information. The lack of a clear and concise collaboration and communication strategy can result in disrupted workflow or user frustration, and efficiency actually suffers due to the upgrade or implementation, instead of reaching the higher potential that the new functionality intends to achieve.
A Booming Dilemma
The need for an integrated, collaborative approach will become increasingly important over the next several years as throngs of baby boomers reach the age of retirement. MSN Money estimates that 77 million baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) will retire by 2019, with approximately 10,000 reaching the age of retirement on a daily basis. This stunning abundance of retirees is already creating havoc for HR personnel who are desperately working to handle the tsunami of retiring baby boomers and adequately manage talent simultaneously. Effectively conducting full-blown upgrades to existing talent management systems could take years, which they don't have, prompting many companies to transition their traditional talent management system to the Cloud -- which offers nearly unlimited resources -- to complement their on-premise system. HR absolutely needs to be part of the conversation about the transition to the Cloud. Who better to assess the growing needs and essential requirements of such a transition? While IT will understand the technical components and security considerations behind the scenes, HR needs to have a voice on what the extended system on the Cloud needs to look like and the capabilities it needs to boast.
While working with IT may not be a top priority for HR personnel, it is a necessity toward creating cohesive processes and procedures needed to enhance efficiency and ensure that evolving regulatory and compliance requirements are maintained. By following several best practices, HR professionals can find a common middle ground with IT personnel to secure a healthy working relationship.
Faced with these new professional realities, the importance of establishing and maintaining productive interdepartmental relationships is essential. The most effective step that any firm can take is to embrace a collaborative business model. Inherent to that approach is the understanding that any change -- from major policy shifts to even the smallest technical detail -- must be communicated and integrated holistically across the company. Bringing together all departments, especially IT and HR, is the best way to ensure that the subtle and not-so-subtle implications of legal, technical or procedural changes are appreciated and anticipated by all parties. This kind of proactive and collaborative approach can help catch small issues before they become crises, and can help ensure that IT and HR are both aware of and planning for any downstream challenges. To bolster accountability, it is wise to consider forming a dedicated team comprised of trained professionals who address emerging issues related to compliance, new regulations or any other significant changes coming down the pipeline, and prepare the company to accommodate those transformations.
To strengthen interdepartmental coordination, more and more companies are relying on an "IT liaison" responsible for coordinating changes across the firm. Another possibility is to establish a position for a full-time "compliance officer." No matter what position in the company hierarchy these individuals might occupy, their role is more strategic than tactical. Their job exists to ensure that all departments are accounting for upcoming changes. They should adopt a big-picture perspective that enables them to anticipate how these alterations will impact the firm, and to help different departments coordinate and prepare. It is not necessary to look far to see how even a small change can wreak havoc on an organization. In recent years, when some firms failed to update their payroll system correctly in response to relatively modest changes to employee FICA contribution mandates, many employees' tax withholdings were flawed and chaos ensued. This kind of avoidable experience can be costly and logistically difficult to rectify, can damage employer-employee relations and can even incur financial penalties for non-compliance.
Education is an important and often neglected piece of the puzzle. Every employee should take the time to educate themselves about important issues, consider how new legislation or regulatory updates might impact their department, and coordinate with other departments to minimize implementation headaches. For example, one aspect of the recent health care reform legislation allows children to utilize their parents' medical benefits until the age of 27. While this is an uncomplicated regulatory change, the implementation is far from simple. Not only are HR professionals responsible for assessing who qualifies and how to monitor and enforce the new age limit, they also need to determine the operational mechanics of how (and when) to transition eligible dependents onto their parents' plans. When all parties in HR and IT are well-informed about these kinds of changes, that process is streamlined and compliance concerns are largely alleviated.
The reality is that IT plays an essential role in the logistical implementation and integration of virtually all changes to HR systems and software, and is a vital part of ensuring that regulatory change and compliance measurements are met and maintained. When HR and IT personnel are able to communicate clearly and work closely to make those changes together, departmental disconnects are minimized and operational efficiencies are maximized.
Gloria Smith serves as senior principal consultant with MIPRO, a Milford, Mich.-based consultancy specializing in implementations, upgrades and optimizations of Oracle's PeopleSoft applications. She can be reached at Gloria.firstname.lastname@example.org.