If you believe that a fundamental
shift in the way HR works in a company has to be led from the top, then look no
further than IBM for proof.
Martin James, manager of the
European HR service centre at IBM EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) claims
he is not being sycophantic when he says that the radical change in the EMEA’s
HR function is all thanks to vice-president of human resources Federico
The VP stated that he wanted to change
the image of the HR function and set about “consistently communicating his
message to the HR community”, explains James.
“HR was not providing proper
support to business and wasn’t helping in major people-related issues. We had
the traditional set-up of a personnel officer for each area and there were just
too many people in each HR person’s patch.”
Added to this, by 1998 the business
had become international but the HR function was still country-based. “We knew
that HR had to serve the business better and our specific aim was to release HR
time at the higher end by putting the day-to-day tasks out through another
channel,” says James.
Two years on, IBM EMEA’s HR service
centre in Portsmouth is widely regarded as a global benchmark in e-HR. It
serves 17 countries and 95,000 staff and, by using Internet, intranet and
telephone-based technologies, has eradicated most if not all routine HR tasks
through its branded AskHR system.
The centre with 120 staff – a
mixture of HR generalists and specialists – has been responsible for a 57 per
cent reduction in HR operating costs. During 2000 it fielded 190,000 calls and
46,000 e-mails; in January this year it took 27,000 calls and 8,000 e-mails.
Previously, an HR manager would have dealt with all of these messages. Calls or
e-mails from employees are now handled by HR generalists, with the specialists
brought in when needed.
The HR specialists are broken into
three teams: compensation and benefits; workforce management and staffing; and
skills, learning and executive resources. Each will cover two or three
countries, as well as handle a specialist topic for the whole of EMEA (such as
appraisals, maternity and external benchmarking).
The centre staff are supported by a
customised e-HR system (although e-HR wasn’t coined as a phrase when it was
installed) comprising an intranet knowledge base that acts as a pan-European
resource for HR staff, employees and managers, an HR intranet for staff to
access, HR data management facilities and the HR case tracking system, which
follows an enquiry from the first tier generalists to the specialists until the
case is closed. The HR intranet can be accessed in 12 languages and a Hebrew
version is in the pipeline.
The system and underlying
technology is still evolving, explains James, who says that employees will soon
be able to access a “My Data” page from anywhere in the world.
IBM is also rolling out a set of
self-service HR tools, the first of which is a global appraisal form. “We want
to re-engineer as many HR processes as we can to make them consistent across
Europe, such as for job evaluation, company leavers and internal transfers,”
says James, who admits that at times the different IT infrastructures in place
across Europe has hampered the bid for consistency.
There have been people hindrances,
he says, with some sceptics among the HR community but overall the system has
gone down well. “The culture change is the biggest and some did find it
difficult to change. But those who have espoused the new model now do almost no
individual employee work at all.”
IBM has also experimented with
one-on-one marketing of the system where someone sits with the sceptic and uses
the service with them. “This has worked in some cases, but not all, of course,”
That the employees are pleased with
the system is borne out by customer satisfaction levels of 90 per cent. And to
date, there have been no concerns of it turning HR into a faceless function.
“They like the fact that they can call a number or send an e-mail and get an
answer much quicker – before they perhaps had to wait two or three days,” says
“Those who maybe would bemoan the
lack of a face are those who work on a large site with an on-site HR service
that they could literally walk into, seize someone by the lapels and demand an
Face-to-face HR still takes place
for important matters like career or other personal discussions.
James recommends that automation of
the lower level functions of HR should be explored by all companies, but he
believes this type of system can be particularly effective in an organisation
that is made up of several subsidiaries and is trying to operate as a
“They have to look at how they can
organise HR as effectively as possible. There’s a huge amount of day-to-day
stuff that needs to go on to keep a company running, but unless you can get
that handled elsewhere it will take up 75-80 per cent of a department’s time.”
The system used by IBM is also sold
externally by its Global Services division. Mike Theaker, executive consultant
of e-HR practice at Global Services, explains that in line with the IBM
approach, companies should start by looking at how the business strategy can
best be supported by an e-HR strategy. “Every system we’ve worked with has been
different. Some companies want to put their entire HR function through the Web;
others want to stay closer to our model of a service centre,” he said.