'Administrivia' Slayer

Under the leadership of David Aker, Unisys not only drove down costs, but re-engineered the HR function.

Sunday, October 6, 2002
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David Aker hasn't always been a big fan of HR. Early in his career, as a manager at a manufacturing company, he found the HR department "wasn't helping me do my job," he says. "More often, it was an impediment to me getting my job done. What I got more of was [the department's] need for me to fill out paperwork and forms . . . "

The relationship between Aker and HR was so bad, in fact, that when the employment manager at the company quit and Aker was offered the job, his family couldn't believe it when he accepted. "The night I got promoted, I called my sister to tell her, and she said, 'You? In personnel?' "

In the more than two decades since that night, Aker -- now senior vice president of worldwide human resources at Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys and one of this year's HR Honor Roll recipients -- has learned to love the human resource field and see its importance.

"Where I think I add value to the company's strategic planning is when we're looking at organizational effectiveness," he says. "HR has a large role in answering the question of how we make Unisys more effective."

That business perspective is well-rooted in Aker, who received his bachelor's degree in business from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and his master's degree in business administration from Pepperdine University. After a stint in Burroughs Corp. and an earlier tenure at Unisys, he spent three years at Rolls-Royce of North America as vice president of human resources and administration and as a director of a subsidiary company. He returned to Unisys in February 1994 to serve as vice president of human resources for the information services and systems group.

In July of 1995, Aker was elected corporate vice president, and with that promotion came a daunting challenge. The company, historically a provider of high-end, high-margin computer hardware, was changing to become a provider of value-added information-technology services, a business with much tighter margins and requiring stringent cost controls.

"My predecessor explained to me that the company was calling on us to drive down HR costs by about 40 percent," Aker recalls. "In a situation like that, necessity became the mother of invention: It became clear that automating as many of the administrative processes as we could was going to be essential."

His first task was to sell that automation to senior management. "Fortunately, we had an enlightened CIO and CFO, who understood the value of the proposition," he says. The company brought in PeopleSoft, which eventually led to the creation of the Unisys' Employee Network, an employee intranet site from which employees access all HR-related information and conduct online transactions.

Career Planning

Among other things, the intranet Aker saw to fruition now serves as a source for career planning and development tools, benefits and rewards information and work/life balance resources. It also includes the Manager's Access Center, where supervisors can oversee employee performance, approve expenses, make reward decisions and assess the skills and talents of their workforce. Other facets of the system include Personnel Records Online, where employees update their personal information, and Career Portfolio, where they can track performance objectives, skill profiles and development and training plans.

"The site really offers one-stop shopping," Aker says. "Employees can go there to conduct transactions, get information, sign up for programs, and it all gets done more efficiently and cheaply than before. Before this, we had one HR staffer for every 76 employees. We knew that was not going to be affordable as we became a professional-services organization."

Describing the plethora of stuff the Employee Network was created to deal with as "administrivia," Aker says slaying the "administrivia dragon" has led to just the kind of cost savings that the company was asking for: As a result of automation and other measures, the Unisys HR cost per employee dropped from $1,800 in 1996 to $900 in 2001. The HR-to-employee ratio dropped to 1:105 in that year, while employee satisfaction has improved, growing from 45 percent in 1995 to 76 percent in 2001.

Aker and his team have also made considerable headway addressing another challenge many companies must face: the recruiting and hiring beast. Their achievement, Unisys' Global Hiring System, is an Internet-driven, unified approach to addressing staffing demands globally. The result is a time-to-hire figure of 45 days, well below the 61-day industry benchmark.

Under Aker's leadership, Unisys has made major strides in training as well. Unisys University, a virtual campus that provides employees with a wide array of classroom and distance-learning education, is powered by Smartforce. A hefty 62 percent of the company's learning in 2001 was delivered through distance-learning mechanisms, providing 84,000 learning experiences. That's up from 77,500 in 2000, with no increase in the learning budget.

How well is Unisys University working? It now offers more than 130 certifications, and 95 percent of students pass their certification tests the first time, compared with a 75 percent first-time pass rate in 1999.

"Of course, as a professional services company, we're all about selling the skills of our people," Aker says. "It's our job to have the right person with the right skill in the right place at the right time, so training is integral to the bottom line."

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Talent Acquisition

With administrivia under control, Aker has also been able to deal with strategic issues like succession planning. "We've been delving deeply into that area lately," he says, "including sharpening our talent acquisition, designing strategic compensation and building global recognition programs. The goal is the continuous deepening of our bench strength. We're also continually building our global capability: We're good in the U.S., but we need to do it better in the rest of the world, and we're working hard to get there."

The current tight job market has not lulled Aker into complacency. "Once this marketplace heats up again, there is going to be a war for talent again. Plus, we're doing things internally to [keep] the people that we have. Retention is crucial."

Aker's responsibilities continue to increase. He was named senior vice president in 1997; in 2001, he became responsible for the company's worldwide facilities and real estate functions, including facilities operations, asset management, real estate operations, workplace strategic planning, environmental safety and health and aviation operations. He is a member of the Conference Board Advisory Council on Human Resources Management, and in early 2003 will be joining the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School Education Advisory Board.

This full plate does not surprise Elliot Ross, until recently a managing consultant at Jacksonville, Fla.-based HR consultancy Manchester Inc. (Ross recently left Manchester to form his own consulting firm, Elliott Ross and Associates.)

"The characteristic that I respect most about David is that he thinks like a businessman," Ross says. "He understands the business and he relates to the executives in the company, and yet he also does an effective job standing up for the HR issues when they need representing."

Ross says he first met Aker in 1986, following the merger of Burroughs and Sperry-Rand, when, as Ross puts it, "he became my boss. I could immediately tell that he was an individual with a true vision of what our function could be." His ability to see the larger picture, Ross adds, comes from "a combination of the business experience, in addition to his diverse HR experience. If I were building a young HR executive, I would want him to have this kind of background."

In Aker's estimation, "the real value of HR comes when you've supported and contributed to the business. We need to be consultants instead of administrators. You have to bring knowledge of the business to the table -- nobody's going to listen to us if we don't -- and not forget that the business should be supportive of employees."

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