Telling it like it is

Software needs to have a definable purpose in a business context – and that
means cutting through both IT and HR speak, says Keith Rodgers

The IT industry is notorious for its ability to massacre the English
language. In the last couple of decades, vendors have invented such delights as
‘solution’ – IT speak for a software package that may or may not tackle your
business problems – and a slew of acronyms, from ‘UDDI’ to ‘ETL’ (don’t ask).

While contributions such as ‘RTFM’ have helped make the industry marginally
more interesting (IT shorthand for users who can’t ‘read the manual’, only
slightly more emphatic), most of what passes for communication is pretty dire.

How refreshing, then, to see plain speaking finally enjoying a comeback in
the HR space. Talk to software vendors today and it is clear their sales
prospects have become fixated on one question. Whatever ‘solution’ the vendors
may be punting, the increasingly common response is ‘so what?’.

What customers want today is software that will have a real, definable
impact on their business. Of course, users have always expected some kind of return
from their investments, even during the headiest days of the 1990s internet
buying frenzy. But what is different now is that the impact has to be definable
in terms that business leaders understand. It is no longer good enough to talk
IT speak – and it is no longer good enough to talk HR speak either.

That is why HR suppliers are focusing on bringing a broader business focus
to the information they generate, and moving beyond traditional metrics. Tell
your chief executive that your absenteeism rate has dropped by 3 per cent and
you will get one answer: ‘so what?’. But tell the board that the 3 per cent
decrease has resulted in savings of ‘x’ over ‘y’ months, thanks to less use of
temporary staff or better productivity, and you will get their attention.

This has some important ramifications that may be hard to swallow for less
tech-savvy practitioners. For one, HR is going to have to be appreciative of
broader IT issues when it buys software. If you want to understand the real
cost and causes of employee attrition in high-turnover departments, you are
going to want a lot of different information from across the organisation, so
you will need to have confidence in your IT department’s data management

You will also want to get to grips with the way information is disseminated.
There is no point establishing all these causal links if you cannot share your
knowledge with the people who matter, so mechanisms like employee portals play
a key role.

It is also important, however, to keep these IT issues in proportion. No-one
is suggesting HR needs to don a white coat and start writing code. I recently
spoke with an HR director who had blown millions of pounds on a learning
management system and had no clue who had actually supplied the equipment. The
point was that he justified the investment before-hand on the basis of
bottom-line benefits that he subsequently delivered. In most cases, HR’s
technical expertise needs to go no further than RTFM. What is important is to
deliver an ROI.

By Keith Rodgers, Co-founder of Webster Buchanan Research, a research
company specialising in human capital management

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