How to… Specify a system

These days, technology touches many aspects of an HR professional’s life,
whether in the shape of a full-blown e-HR system that transforms the way the
entire department works, or the PC that now sits on everyone’s desktop.

While nobody expects the function to become IT experts overnight, able to
spec a system down to the very last megabyte, it is important that HR has an
informed voice when it comes to any systems-related decision-making. One reason
that HR lost knowledge management to IT in some organisations was because of
the function’s abdication of technical matters. This should not be allowed to
happen with other aspects of the department’s work.

How do I become Bill Gates in quick, easy lessons?

The good news is, you don’t need to. However, cultivating an interest in
technology and observing how it impacts on the business is a good move. One of
the easiest ways to do this is by making a friend in IT.

Ideally, form an allegiance with the IT director, and with one or two
members of the department at shopfloor level, as they are the ones handling the
technology on a day-to-day basis. They are also the ones who are most useful
when the system suddenly breaks down.

Other general things you can do to increase technical know-how is to read
the technology sections of business magazines and supplements, or even
dedicated technology magazines, such as Wired, which will show you where the
leading edge is really headed.

Where to next?

Of course, the specific approach will depend on the kind of system the
organisation is looking to install and implement (e-HR, payroll, flexible
benefits, online recruitment management) but there are a number of factors
common to all.

First of all, review what is currently in place to perform that function and
ensure investment in the technology can be justified. If it is something as
major as a new flexible benefits or e-HR system, then several departments in
the company will probably be involved in the review already, such as IT and
finance. Make sure that HR is heard throughout the process – it’s your
department that will be using it.

Remember the hidden costs

Cost will obviously be a big issue and as the review team will be answerable
to the very top of the management chain, it is important you have factored in
everything from the word go.

As well as hardware and software costs, remember to factor in service and
support and staff training costs, which can easily be underestimated. If the
system has to be integrated with other computers in the department, make sure
this has been properly investigated.

HR was one of the first departments to automate, so it can sometimes suffer
from antiquated legacy systems. You may have to decide between bolting
everything together or ripping it out and starting again. Either route can be
costly – especially if consultant fees are involved – so beware.

Do your homework

Once a genuine need for the technology has been established, a business case
made and a budget set, you need to focus on what’s available. This will mean
getting out to exhibitions, bringing suppliers into the company to pitch their
wares, and generally doing your homework. Be guided by IT by all means, but
it’s ultimately you who must be satisfied of the system’s appropriateness.

It is also a good idea to talk to other HR professionals who have gone
through the same process.

Visit the potential suppliers’ website too as they often carry case studies
featuring organisations who have plumped for their system. They will provide
useful pieces of info, but remember that they will have been edited by the
supplier, and so may not be as frank about any drawbacks or hiccups in the

Be realistic about features and functions

A common mistake made by technology purchasers is that they are often
seduced by features and functions. The whizziest system on the market, which
also appears to represent the best value, will not necessarily be the right
system for your department, so stick to the checklist that arose from the

Many people buy systems and only use half of their features. During the
e-learning revolution, suppliers told tales of learning management systems
gathering dust inside some organisations, because they shouldn’t have been
bought in the first place.

Where can I get more information?

The inside track on the IT world – a bit technical, but IT will be impressed if
you start quoting from it.
Excellent online version of the US e-business magazine.

Remember websites from major vendors such as, and will feature user case studies and downloadable
brochures and background information on their systems.


Wired is good for snapshots of the future.


– eHR Transforming the Function by Business Intelligence. Published in 2001,
it has lots of relevant info, including a survey and case studies of 91

– HR Imperative, the Concours Group in Conversation with Peter Drucker, Judy
Bardwick, Marvin Bressler and Dave Ulrich, which discusses the convergence of
technology and people management, can be requested online at

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