Clean up your act

you getting the most out of your IT systems and software packages?  A spring clean will help clear out the
debris and is also a good time to revisit forgotten capabilities that
originally drew you too choose that system, writes Rob McLuhan

An IT system does not normally need an engineer coming round with an oil can
to keep it going. Although in many respects it is self-maintaining, a good
spring clean once in a while can help keep it in peak condition.

Some of the work will involve the IT support team or vendor carrying out
technical checks. However, there is much that HR can do itself to optimise the
system’s performance by overhauling its content and applications.

"A regular clear-out can have some amazing benefits in terms of use and
efficiency," says Paul Beaumont, production director HR Payroll at
Microsoft Great Plains Business Solutions. As a starting point he recommends
looking to see how quickly the system operates.

Now that the cost of storage has plummeted, hard drives are capable of
storing huge amounts of data. But they are still finite, and eventually there
will come a time when the system slows from the accumulated weight of years of
input. That will leave staff tapping their fingers while information is being

"When the database is clean it might take less than half a second to
retrieve a file, but within six months it could slow to two seconds,"
Beaumont says. "After a year it could be more than five seconds – slow
enough to be an irritation."

The problem here is disk fragmentation. Lack of space means parcels of data
are distributed increasingly widely in the system instead of being stored in a
single location. Where insertions, updates and deletions are constantly being
made, it takes time to gather the information and reassemble it as a single

A first step is to back up all data on magnetic tapes or digital storage
while IT "defrags" the entire database – the equivalent of emptying a
room of furniture to give it a good clean. 
Once the data is reimported the system should be much more responsive.

However, speed is affected by the working of the network as a whole, and the
next stage should be to check how many users are connected. "Try to
fine-tune the system to peak periods," suggests Beaumont. "There may
be times when access is higher than on a day-to-day basis, such as end-of-month
processing. Monitoring the uses of the system could uncover bottlenecks where
IT could do some beefing up."

One problem here could develop as a result of the increasing popularity of
employee self-service. "You can anticipate an abnormally large number of
people applying for leave at Christmas and Easter, and there will also be a
high level of traffic just after the year end as individuals are accessing
their P60 forms online," says Mark O’Dowd, head of HR solutions at SAP UK.
"It is a good idea to sit down every so often with the IT department to
find ways of balancing the peaks and troughs."

Similarly, each time the HR department is about to make a new service
available to employees or managers they need to think about whether the
performance will be satisfactory, he adds. If users find it hard to use the
system they will be put off.

The start of a new year, whether calendar or financial, is an excellent time
to look at the data held within it, and this should be the next major area to
look at, says Jim Nugent, head of strategic development for service delivery at

Hard decisions need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away.
Much data may have outlived its usefulness: absence records more than three
years old, leavers and unsuccessful candidates, vacancies, old course bookings
– all can all be reviewed and where necessary deleted.

"When we implement a new system companies often want to transfer data
they previously held," Nugent says. "But we ask them if they actually
need to. What purpose does it have and what is its value? In many cases it
turns out there is none – if it doesn’t drive the business it is just taking up
disk space."

Statutory regulations mean that employee and other business data has to be
held for several years. But if the necessary period of time has elapsed there
is no reason why the data cannot be archived in an offline storage facility.

Legislative changes are frequent and affect HR more than most departments.
Payroll will need to be updated with new tax rates, increases in national
insurance, or changes to reporting procedures on company cars, for example.

"This can be a nightmare for HR," says Mark O’Dowd, head of HR
solutions at SAP UK. The company offers its customers legal change packages,
notifying them ahead of time of what to expect. That is an opportunity for HR
to liaise with IT, providing the necessary information about its internal
processes and ensuring updates are assimilated onto the system.

O’Dowd also stresses the need to store information with appropriate date
stamps, ensuring material can be efficiently retrieved from the archives. For
instance, if an employee’s address changes, the system will record the exact date
from which the new one is valid and the old one defunct, ensuring it can
cross-reference accurately in the future if the need arises.

Michael Richards, managing director of Snowdrop Systems, also suggests
reviewing content such as holiday and sickness codes. His company provides
support to define those at the implementation stage, but over a period some
will become redundant. "You can mess up your data if you have two codes
that mean the same thing, but it’s a fairly easy process to go through and update
them. It is important to do this if the system has been in place for a few

Then take a look at the standard letters, he suggests. Do they adhere to
corporate standards and are they applicable in terms of HR legislation? Review
those aspects which have the most value and make any necessary adjustments.

Another area that needs checking is the accuracy of employee details. Where
staff are using intranet self-service these records are less likely to be out
of date, but it is still useful to overhaul the system from time to time.
"About 50 per cent of all our new customers since last summer have some
sort of intranet, but anyone who has had a system in place for more than two
years should carry out a review," Richards says.

Moving on to the next stage, HR should ensure it is getting the most out of
its system. Often, an organisation may intend to fully use it, but because of
staff changes or other reasons some facilities are forgotten or ignored.

"As time goes by facilities become increasingly hidden, and you end up
not using them," says Richards. Snowdrop offers one- or two-day system
health checks, going back to the client and running through all its features to
identify those that are not being used.

Typically, it might find that only three or four out of five key facilities
are being used properly, often those that are less obvious but might still have
a bearing on HR strategy. One neglected feature enables Word documents to be
attached to an individual job record rather than being stored elsewhere on the
HR server. That means the document can be read from directly within the system
instead of having to be searched out.

Spring is as good a time as ever to remember why you bought the IT system or
software package and review what difference it has made to your performance,
says Ian Murison, sales director at Wealden Computing Services.
"Invariably, people buy systems based on what they have been shown by the
vendor," he says. "They are attracted by all the sophisticated things
it can do, but end up using it as an electronic filing cabinet."

One of Wealden’s features is diary task management, which sets up schedules
for reminders and the creation of documents. "People say this is exactly
what they want, and then we come back a year later and find no-one is using it.
They have got bogged down in administration – the very reason they bought the
system in the first place."

So a yearly maintenance session could include a further demonstration from
the vendor plus training, reminding staff of what the system can do and
ensuring that they take full advantage of it. This can have a positive bearing
on the overall HR performance, Murison points out.

For example, the diary can be used to alert managers to the end of a
probationary period and offer to generate a questionnaire asking what action to
take, a routine process that often gets overlooked or tackled at the last
minute. Or it could remind HR about the progress of a disciplinary review
period, which might affect the outcome of an industrial tribunal. "More
companies lose cases because they didn’t follow their own disciplinary
procedures than for any other single reason," Murison says.

Another feature might be document generation. Check to see whether you have
set up the templates as you planned at the implementation stage, or whether
they need amending. Look at the generation of organisational charts – are they
being produced as easily as it looked in the original demonstration? And
question whether the information is getting beyond the HR management as intended,
benefiting the whole organisation.

Many problems occur with systems because of lax security. About 60 per cent
of companies have suffered a security breach, costing an average of £16,000
each, according to research last year by the DTI.

A spring clean needs to take account of how seriously users are taking this.
If an informal audit of monitors reveals passwords scribbled on Post-it notes,
file covers or blotters, it is time to take action.

Finally, it can be useful to look beyond the system at the business
processes that surround it. "The software industry is criticised for
forcing companies to do business in certain ways, but many organisations have
ingrained processes that aren’t rooted in good strategy," says Larry
Donivan, vice-president of global development for Lawson.

Lawson provides best practice performance indicators and external market
data, enabling customers to discover attributes such as cost and time per hire.
But from time to time the department needs to ensure it is carrying out these
measurements and is collecting the data it needs to analyse it over time.

He says, "We can create sophisticated systems but they are only as good
as the data you put in," Donivan says. "If you are going to carry out
measurements, you need to ensure the business process is working

For instance, he says, recruiters are notoriously poor at managing their CV
intake, which they tend to keep in file folders instead of automating.
"When the process is complete there are piles of candidates, hired or not
, but no processes exist to collect that data efficiently."

How far you want to go with an annual overhaul will depend on the resources
available and how well the system was functioning to begin with. Turning a
house upside down for a spring clean will just cause disruption if order isn’t
restored quickly. But even a little attention, judiciously and regularly
applied, is certain to make a difference.

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