Is the Web a friend to HR?

How
will the Internet and the new generation of HR leaders who are pioneering e-HR
alter the role of the profession? And will these changes benefit the profession
or signal its demise? Personnel Today teamed up with KnowledgePool to debate
the issue. By Phil Boucher

One
thing is certain about the impact of the Internet on HR – the profession cannot
afford to ignore it. Like previous technological revolutions, from the printing
press to the spinning jenny to the telephone, the Internet is changing the world
and there is no turning back.

There
is a sense, though, that HR people have been slower to jump on the bandwagon
than those in other professions. One reason is that nobody is yet sure whether
the Web is a friend or a foe to HR.

Its
biggest impact so far has been on recruitment with the explosion of online job
sites, but the long-term impact of the Web could be much more profound and
arguably even endanger the survival of in-house HR altogether.

Among
the threats to the HR profession presented by e-HR is the prospect that most
tasks could be turned into online transactions between employees and the
company intranet.

HR
departments will be pared down to a bare minimum, or outsourced altogether. The
few survivors will find that their traditional skills in people management and
specialist knowledge in areas such as employment law have become obsolete when
line managers can gain access to the same services online.

But
for each threat to HR posed by the Web there is an opportunity. The shift to HR
on the intranet will relieve practitioners of much of the administrative
“grunge” that still makes up too big a proportion of HR work. Outsourcing
presents opportunities for those pioneers who want to move out of the
mainstream into HR consultancy work in cutting-edge organisations.

So
exactly how will the role of HR change? And what do HR professionals have to do
to gear themselves up for the Internet age?

To
find out, Personnel Today teamed up with e-learning specialist KnowledgePool to
organise a roundtable debate on the issue. We invited some of the younger
generation of web-savvy HR professionals, as well as more seasoned HR
practitioners and experts in the field to debate what impact the Internet will
have on HR and if the effects will be positive or negative. What follows is a
summary of the themes that emerged.

How
will the Internet change HR?

The
biggest change brought about by Web technology is the way it has accelerated
the automation of HR tasks and enabled HR departments to put basic employee transactions
online.

At
one extreme this can lead to the outsourcing of the HR function altogether.

Outsourcing
clearly appeals to Kevin Green, managing director of HR consultancy Qtab. “If
it is a solution for the transactional side of HR then why not out- source it?”
Green asked the other participants.

The
answer, according to Amira Kohler, director of people management at Metrius, is
to identify what added value internal HR specialists can offer, and this is
tied to their understanding of the business. She pointed out that in themselves
online HR tools are not solutions. You can do 360-degree appraisal online, for
example, but, “that’s the beginning of the conversation,” Kohler said. “HR
people then add value.”

In
theory, freeing HR professionals from the “grunge” of HR administration should
free them to adopt a strategic role, but it may not be so simple in reality.
“HR could get fixated on managing the grunge online,” warned Ralph Tribe,
vice-president of HR at Getty Images.

Devolving
responsibility for this to the line will not necessarily help, Kohler
added.  “Staff don’t want to do the
rubbish either,” she argued. The trick, she said, is to work with technology
suppliers to limit administrative grunge.

Evidence
so far shows that e-HR does result in cuts to HR staff and to a change in the
responsibility of those who remain. The survivors are likely to take on a
strategic and consultancy role in their organisations, as Kohler suggested.

According
to Victoria Bird, HR manager of Electronic Arts, e-HR requires a heightened
level of business understanding. “In the future, I think HR professionals will
be people who could have also gone into marketing,” she said.

Paul
Culleton, vice-president of HR at Johnson & Johnson, agreed. “You need to
think about the internal marketing, positioning and content of the product
within the culture of your organisation,” he said.

Intranets
will also force HR professionals to review how they present their core
information, from HR policy through to employee benefits.

“HR
people tend to think that everyone wants to have all the details they will ever
need so we put together huge manuals and expect them to pick out the bits they
want,” said Kohler. “That’s not good enough. We need to think about producing
information that is swallowable.”

A
large part of HR’s role in future could be designing the service online. “The
HR profession has got to think about designing processes and initiatives with
the delivery channel and end user in mind,” said Kohler.

“We
should recognise that, increasingly, CVs are going to come directly through the
Web and have that in mind at the time of devising the processes rather than
trying to shoe-horn it in later.”

An
important concept to emerge in the debate was “stickiness” – the ability of Web
services to ensure users return to the site. Electronic Arts’ HR website not
only has simple benefits or holiday forms but also e-commerce links.

“My
vision would be a website where you can do everything,” Bird explained.  “Yes, there are benefits and yes there’s
health information, but it’s also somewhere that you can do your shopping. It
might not be a HR function but it’s about pulling people to your site. If you
want to find out about flower arranging – go to the site too as that’s
learning. It’s not about learning to do your role and your job necessarily, but
it’s a completely different mindset.”

Since
its introduction she has recognised a large increase in web traffic. “From my
experience, people surfing the site will only visit it once in a while if you’ve
just got a list of benefits,” she said. 
“If you have a site which is like your total career and your life then
people are going to visit it every day.”

Ralph
Tribe agreed that this approach could address the issue of stickiness. “It is
the Web changing the working environment. It becomes less of a vending machine
and becomes a working world that you switch on in the morning and dip in and
out of during the day,” he said.

What
skills will HR professionals need for e-HR?

The
Web is fundamentally changing the skills set needed by HR professionals, the
panel agreed. “HR professionals will become a hybrid between HR and people who
are web-savvy, web project managers,” said Bird.

This
does not explain how that can be achieved or where HR departments are going to
develop the Web skills to make it a reality. Bird contended that handling
on-line recruitment has enabled her to “manage almost any website”.

Apart
from new technology skills, HR professionals will need a heightened commercial
awareness, according to Brian McLaren, head of training and online learning for
Royal Bank of Scotland. “The Web calls upon people to be more commercially
aware, which I think is a big part of the future of HR,” said McClaren.

These
skills will be needed to deal with those supplying technology solutions.
McClaren added, “It can be difficult to deal with a technical supplier who
claims to have the solution to all your problems, particularly if you have to
tell them that you’re not interested. It’s a big change for people who have
grown used to the personnel officer-type role.”

McClaren
identified commercial awareness, partnering of internal and external customers
and supplier management as key HR skills of the future.

Green
warned that there were risks for HR. “Are we just recipients of the latest fad
from the marketplace?” he asked.

Culleton
argued that HR managers needed to champion the Internet in their organisations.
They should “act like a CEO who just happens to have HR responsibility” and
bring technological awareness to the boardroom. HR should promote web
technology “so that it makes sense to the board and can then be introduced to
the whole organisation”, said Culleton.

Philip
Burns, vice-president of European HR for Electronic Arts, supported this view.
“Technology is providing us with an opportunity. We either take that up and
exploit it or we leave all the possibilities of its HR functions behind,” he
said.

Burns
suggested that lack of confidence has caused HR professionals to ignore the
full potential of web technology. “The Internet is a reality. It’s a fantastic
tool for HR. Let it demonstrate the benefits to the organisation. But not with
massive board level presentations as they are not going to be too interested –
they’re going to want to see results. So let’s get some results and not spend
too much time navel-gazing.”

The
panel agreed that HR has a key role in leading change, not just as change
agents, but as initiators of change.

Kohler
had a view as to what was the best way to develop cutting-edge e-HR skills:
“Work in organisations where there is a passionate belief in the advances e-HR
can deliver.”

What
can HR professionals do to make sure their organisation has the right web
technology?

While
HR professionals look set to become web masters leading the rest of their
organisation through change, this naturally calls upon them to become
increasingly strategic and invest funds in highly complex equipment. A role
which Green believes “HR as a profession is traditionally poor at
winning”. 

He
asserted that it is vital for HR to understand why they’re buying something –
even if it means ignoring the latest technology on the market. “If you’re a
supplier then there’s clearly a demand from organisations saying, ‘What new
ways have you got of doing something?’

“But
it’s still the fundamental question of is it the right tool? Will it make a
difference? Will it add value to the organisation? HR needs to drive the debate
about what adds value.”

Tribe
agreed.  “You need to think about
measurable value first and then work backwards,’ he said. “Forget about ‘e’.
The issue is technology. And e-technology or web technology is simply the
latest technology in the same way that Windows-based technology was 10 years
ago.

“In
another 10 years there will be another form of technology, so I think you need
to forget about that and concentrate on achieving value.”

David
Wimpress, chairman of learning provider KnowledgePool, said HR departments
should extend their knowledge about technology as far as possible. “HR leaders
need to have a full understanding of what’s out there for training,” he said.
“You need to be sure that you’re getting balanced, subjective output from your
strategic partners. One of the biggest dangers is putting together niche
players who will steer you in the particular direction that conforms with their
own business model.”

The
panel concluded that HR needed to strike a balance between making a start on
relatively small scale Internet projects with the need to ensure that web
activity was adding value. 

Burn
came down heavily in favour of  making a
start. “The reality of it is that I look at my existing budgets, see where I
can find some money and then I get something that’s a paper aeroplane and I
launch it. And if I can then demonstrate that the paper aeroplane flies, I
escalate it all and I gather in more resources.”

Tribe,
however, cautioned against “tinkering with change” and argued that HR web
projects should be integrated with the business.

David
Brain, director of consultancy at KnowledgePool, said that HR professionals
should trust their instincts. “One of the greatest additional values that HR
can impart to a business is our spirit,” he said. “I think there’s a good case
for being slightly intuitive in management and HR managers are generally pretty
wise and commercially sensitive.”

Wimpress
summed up by saying the Internet is “not a panacea but it is an important new
development in the market”.

How
effective is the Web at training and development?

As
a learning medium, the Internet is often criticised for its lack of
interactivity and the isolation experienced by learners. Wimpress had a clear
view on this. “You need to build the interaction of the classroom into the
e-learning environment,” he said. One of his organisation’s solutions is 24/7
mentoring online.

Another
issue was the content of e-learning. Green insisted that to be successful it
needs to be driven by individual rather than organisational objectives.

Tribe
agreed. “The Web is either a tool that works or not depending upon the culture
of your organisation – whether people see that it’s important for their
day-to-day work or career development or not. If it is then people will
actually make the effort,” he said.

Wimpress
said a good way to do this was to integrate e-learning into the individual’s
personal development plan which can include tools such as competency modelling,
skills gap analysis, succession planning and psychometric appraisal.

Tribe
urged organisations to generate a learning culture so that “people get used to
reference-based learning or wanting to learn how to learn”.

Kohler
argued that this is one of the biggest challenges faced by HR. As she said, “One
of the advantages classroom-based training has is that at least people have the
date written in their diary and they know they’re going to be out of the
workplace for a particular amount of time. A problem with online learning is
getting people into the discipline of taking the time out to actually do the
training.”

What
it boils down to, McLaren said, was understanding the people within the
organisation. “Yes it’s cost effective, and I can easily convince my managers
to buy Internet stuff,” he said.

“But
I’m still not convinced that we’ve yet got into the mindset of the people who
actually use it. I think that’s the biggest challenge. It’s not the efficiency
of it – it’s the effectiveness.”

The
panel obviously believed that HR was up to the challenge of the Internet. When
asked whether the Web was a friend or foe to HR a show of hands showed that the
panel was unanimous in the view that the Internet is HR’s friend.

Biographies

Victoria
Bird
, 28, has been in HR for seven years. She started her career as a
graduate trainee with Marks & Spencer and has also held management
positions at Time Warner. She has been at Electronic Arts for two years as HR
manager

David
Brain
, 50, has worked in HR for 25 years. He has previously worked for
Bedfordshire County Council and is currently director of consultancy for
Knowledgepool

Philip
Burn
, 48, has worked in HR for 26 years and joined Electronic Arts in
December 1997. He started his career in 1974 as BAT’s first graduate personnel
trainee and has also worked for RCA Records, Ward Brothers, De la Rue and
Logica. He is currently the vice-president of European HR for EA

Paul
Culleton
, 44, has been with Johnson & Johnson for five  years and is currently vice-president of HR
in their medical devices section. He has previously worked for Burmah Oil,
Costain Engineering, Crosfield Electronics and various independent
consultancies

Kevin
Green
, 38, has been Qtab’s managing director since 1991. During that time,
the company has grown by 70 per cent. His clients include Unilever, First
Choice, DHL International and Smith and Nephew

Amira
Kohler
, 29, has worked in HR for eight years and held positions at Network
South East and British Airways. She is currently director of people management
at Metrius

Brian
McLaren
, 32, is head of training and online learning at the Royal Bank of
Scotland Group. He has held various positions in the bank since joining in 1997
and previously worked for Computershare Services

Ralph
Tribe
, 32, is vice-president of HR for Getty Images. In 1992 he started as
a recruitment and training officer for British Rail and has also worked for
Railtrack, Qtab and DACG

David
Wimpress
, 54, has been executive chairman of KnowledgePool since 1992. He
has also been HR director of ICL UK, group HR director of De La Rue and the UK
HR director for Motorola

Chairman
Noel O’Reilly, editor of Personnel Today

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