Branding Iron - an HR wake up call

[An article commissioned for a Human Resources magazine exploring the potential of Web-based HR tools to revolutionise traditional HR activities.]

Title: Branding Iron - why Human Resources is going on-line, fast!

Standfirst:  It’s time Human Resources found its brand and sold itself to the organisation, says Jim Costello. Traditional HR methods are no match – commercially, technically or culturally - for a forward-thinking, Web-based portal providing a unique link between HR and every manager and workforce employee.

Body Copy:
Imagine if the scientists mapping our DNA ever identified a gene responsible for objective, common sense thinking. In particular, what if they isolated the ability to examine with a fresh eye what is deemed accepted wisdom?

While many would welcome this Entrepreneur gene or Initiative gene, in the ensuring furore there would be much unseemly jostling for seats in the lifeboats of ideas sinking out of favour. There might well be calls for such a discovery to be suppressed or named the Heretical gene or, perhaps, the Emperor’s New Clothes gene. There would certainly be plenty of “Emperors” – from politicians to management consultants - suddenly worried about their lack of clothes.

Why would panic ensue? Because the reality behind many job titles relies on the universal acceptance that the work described – at least in its current form - is both meaningful and efficient. Just as the forces of nature have a tendency to assert themselves every so often, giving humankind a reality check, so the emergence of “disruptive” technologies demands that business takes a long, hard look at itself. A shake-up ensues. There are winners and losers. From the random destruction of a forest fire, fresh growth emerges; rational thought, like nature, can only be suppressed for so long.

One strand of business DNA that is already benefiting from some “genetic engineering” along these lines is that all-embracing but most elusive of departments: Human Resources. Forward-thinking organisations are revitalising their HR departments with the introduction of Internet-hosted HR services – applications that employees and managers can control themselves via a Web browser. This saves everyone – including the HR people - time and money. It enables HR staff to focus on work that demands from them quality, not merely quantity, and forces an organisation to take a long, hard look at just what the HR department should be doing for its living.

It is October 2005, new students at a university in central England are registering for their courses. Each student is presented with a form to fill in by hand; four days are set aside to “process” these applications. What decade was that again? No, not 1975, it was 2005 – when almost every student has excellent keyboard skills and a working knowledge of Microsoft applications. How can this HR department justify such waste of time and resources? Those forms will be keyed in manually by HR staff – with all the inevitable inaccuracies - into a system that could just as easily have offered Web-based, self-service pre-registering for students.

Where’s the ROI?
HR ascended to dizzy heights of apparent meaningfulness as one large organisation after another embraced the HR mantras. Away went the personnel department, responsible for hiring, firing and holiday entitlement. In its place: the all-singing, all-dancing HR department, full of “HR professionals”, with a roving brief from psychological profiling to lifecycle management and seemingly indispensable in understanding how to scale the growing mountain of official paperwork that threatens to stifle employee and managerial initiative.

Certainly the tasks HR encompasses can make or break an organisation: ensuring effective external and internal recruitment, managing day-to-day employment practices, performance management and training, monitoring policies for job descriptions, terminations and benefits – the list is formidable. No one would deny that the complexity of the modern enterprise, fuelled by government and legislative bureaucracy, means an HR function is needed to what otherwise would be sprawling and potentially law-flouting anarchy.

Where this particular Emperor begins to look sartorially challenged is in accepting uncritically that traditional HR departments pay their way by improving profit margins and increasing productivity. Are they actually able to increase the Return on Investment (ROI) that business leaders expect from the hiring and training of their workforce? Do similar ridiculous scenarios as the one outline above also happen in some fashion in your organisation?

Conventional wisdom says:

- HR professionals are an offshoot of management, in charge of ensuring the workforce “works”, through a combination of precise analytics and a careful human touch.
- HR is a highly sensitive art-science with specific techniques for enhancing the workforce. Performance management, for instance, (overseeing how well an employee does at his or her job) enables HR people to determine how much each employee is worth and so who to recruit, promote or fire.
- Evaluations, reviews and numerous metrics, help identify and understand the workforce and can be used to optimise their productivity and efficiency.
- Employees are the organisation’s greatest assets, so anything done to improve the workforce positively affects the company as a whole.

Until now, the conclusion is that HR delivers its ROI, but this conventional wisdom also leads to the type of waste and repetition found in the university example above. Change is afoot and it’s time for HR to stand up and be counted.

The on-line imperative
That conventional wisdom is now disrupted – significantly and permanently – by advanced technology in the shape of ubiquitous Internet access and new, employee-empowering ways of tackling HR activities.

While databases and other in-house software applications have long been integral to HR activity – tools for monitoring the cost of Human Capital Management (HCM) - far too much HR activity remains paper-based, slow, duplicated and therefore inefficient and costly. There is now a highly cost-effective alternative: have the HR applications hosted over the Internet by a third-party organisation, access them via any Web browser and pay for each authorised user either by rental period or pay-as-you go on demand.

The ever increasing support, maintenance and training from the in-house IT department - once deemed inescapable overheads – are replaced by quantifiable costs supported by Service Level Agreements.

However coherent a business case HR might make to the finance director for a particular application, it is still the IT department, charged with supporting and securing it, that has to be convinced. The Web-based options by-pass these constraints. Instead of remaining tied to antiquated in-house programs, HR can now also access best of breed HCM applications on line for a known outlay.

HR activities by definition involve the workforce. Now HR can empower the workforce who can take charge of much of their necessary input, through self-help and self-service via their own Web browser. They can interact with simple-to-use HR applications, in their own time, at their own speed, taking responsibility for example, that their personal details on the corporate systems are accurate. Of course, this leaves the HR staff with far more freedom to focus on far more valuable, skill-demanding tasks than data entry.

An HR portal - faster, cheaper, better
An organisation of thousands of employees can easily lose track of the small stuff, such as the administration cost of a single request for time off. Though negligible when all of the other employee-related costs are added up, money is nonetheless chipped off the bottom line every time such simple transactions occur via conventional methods.

A Web-based portal within a culture of self-service means that a significant amount of administrative overhead – including improved accuracy and less waste – disappears. That expenditure is gone for good. In addition, the HR department has a natural conduit – the portal – for all kinds of important messages, from disseminating information on internal vacancies or pensions to initiating surveys among the workforce.

This is not mere theory – it is already happening with companies such as BP: the HR portal is the vehicle for the HR department’s brand, with its own flavour, character and identity.

It is no longer enough for HR to be that part-managerial, part-clerical hybrid that everyone else in the company has little to do with, apart from when joining and leaving the organisation. If HR is to justify its complex role and add quantifiable value through finding, training and helping retain high-quality staff, maintaining morale and providing appropriate guidance in a myriad of areas, from sick pay to sexual harassment, then the HR machine has to be leaner, fitter, quicker and slicker.

Of course, HR departments of companies with large workforces and decades of HR activities behind them will bear the brunt of such an upheaval in working practices. In many cases it would shock to the foundations to change largely paper-based, old-fashioned practices.

Mark Barlow, managing director of e-HR specialist Qikker Solutions, welcomes the wind of change sweeping through HR, but points to the scale of the task facing conventional corporate HR departments: "The art and science of HR emerged from the traditional personnel department. It evolved into a complex mix of functions that can be very influential within an organisation. Now there are compelling commercial arguments in favour of transforming a conventional HR culture into an enterprise-wide, Web-based information source, driven by self-empowered employees and augmented by interactive services. However strong the imperatives, though, it is a big, big challenge."

However, just as the bursting of the bubble demonstrated that nothing is sacred in the marketplace there is, undoubtedly, a growing momentum that will shake HR to the roots. Software developers in their hundreds around the world are offering state-of-the-art HR applications; the standards are fast-emerging; the “early adopter” stage of Web-based HR is most definitely over. Isn’t it time HR your organisation – as a hosted, branded and cost-efficient service – showed its true value?

About the author: Jim Costello is a UK-based freelance writer; contact