Waiting in the wings

After
tripping up when it first appeared on the scene, self-service IT is now ready
to take centre stage, says Keith Rodgers

If
the IT pundits of the late 1990s had got it right about employee self-service,
most HR functions would be unrecognisable today. The emergence of
internet-based software applications held out the promise of a new,
highly-automated working environment where workers could carry out complex HR
tasks for themselves, without needing to call for administrative support. As a result,
the HR department would be freed from its administrative constraints to focus
on strategic activities that truly ‘add value’.   

So
much for the hype. While vendors report a growing interest in these kinds of
applications, the reality is the adoption of HR self-service lags some way
behind initial expectations. It’s not just the HR department itself that has
struggled to embrace the concept – in many cases, staff, line managers and the
board still need to be convinced.

For
advocates of self-service, this is all a little hard to comprehend. Although IT
spending has been reined in over the past three years, self-service is one area
that should actually appeal to the finance department, because it helps to
slash costs. Even for a basic task such as recording a change of address,
automating manual processes avoids duplicating data entry, and reduces the
number of errors that subsequently need to be corrected. What, after all, is
the point of an employee filling in a form and HR then rekeying it?

Once
you get to the more advanced levels of self-service, such as online benefit
enrolment, a comprehensive self-service application can make huge inroads into
cutting HR’s support requirements.

More
importantly, this isn’t just an argument for the bean-counters in finance. In
theory, self-service also allows HR to dramatically improve the level of
service it provides across the organisation. Instead of holding on the phone
when they want to find out what training is available, for example, staff can
access a central system whenever they choose, check out the courses and enrol
on the spot.

Assuming
that the right workflows are in place, the self-service system can then either
route the request to a line manager for approval, or send an alert that allows
the manager to intervene if they see fit. The worker gets faster results, and
the manager gets up-to-date information about ongoing learning projects.

In
practice, however, early adopters did not always get to enjoy these kinds of
benefits. For one thing, many early implementations of self-service focused on
basic applications that offered little value to the employee. Being able to
change your address online, for example, is hardly a significant benefit, given
how infrequently most people move house.

Likewise,
as Conor Gallagher, business development director at HR services provider
Arinso International points out, most people know they receive limited training
– being told to log on to see just how limited that training is hardly
constitutes a benefit.

The
IT industry didn’t help itself in the early days. Michael Richards, chief
executive of HR and payroll software provider Snowdrop Systems, points out that
first-generation self-service systems were often inflexible and hard to deploy
– a particular problem for larger organisations with multiple locations.
Although newer, more manageable systems subsequently emerged, their arrival
coincided with the downturn in high-tech spending.

In
addition, cultural issues have had an impact on uptake. The HR department isn’t
always prepared to put swathes of its own data out into the wider world. For
their part, line managers and workers have sometimes resisted rollouts in the
belief that HR is simply pushing its administrative workload onto their
shoulders. And as Gallagher points out, some parts of the workforce are simply
unaccustomed to using IT in this way.

Both
Gallagher and Richards stress that the key to success is making self-service
relevant to those who use it. Being able to look up HR policies online is
useful, but hardly significant. By contrast, receiving an electronic payslip
two days earlier than the print version makes a noticeable difference,
particularly when employees need to query the figures.

Likewise,
the ability for staff to research and select flexible benefits at a time of
their choosing is a tangible benefit. For managers, meanwhile, the real value
comes in the dissemination of information that helps them do their jobs, such
as compensation data and online appraisal updates.

What
is HR self-service?
Born again technology

The
term ‘HR self-service’ is loosely applied to a range of different activities,
but the principle is simple.

Rather
than HR managing and executing its traditional activities behind closed doors,
its systems are opened up to give employees and managers access to select
information. This is often done through an employee portal.

At
its most basic, self-service allows workers to view information, such as
company policies, their number of outstanding vacation days and bank details.
This ‘push’ mechanism may be generic and available to everybody, or personal
and restricted on the basis of access privileges.

The
next stage is to allow staff to interact with the system. They may begin by
changing details such as their home or bank address, but will ultimately be
able to register for training courses, prepare for appraisals, sign up for
benefits and so forth. Manager self-service provides additional functionality,
automating approval processes and providing visibility to employee information
for decision support.

While
much of the emphasis on self-service is on cost-savings, there is also a more
strategic benefit. Automating HR processes through self-service helps companies
capture valuable people-related data, which provides the basis for workforce
intelligence.

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