Technology's Role in Strategic Human Resources

  • Written By: Michael Nosil
  • Published: June 5 2006

The Imperative for Strategic Contribution

Most chief executive officers (CEOs) are challenging their human resources (HR) departments to make more strategic contributions to the organization. With HR traditionally viewed as a cost center, it is often difficult to know precisely what that means. CEOs, who are focused on growth, earnings, and shareholder returns, want HR to support corporate business objectives and to have the necessary data to support business decisions. These roles are necessarily integrated with HR's responsibility to ensure that there are qualified and satisfied workers when and where they are needed. The way to fulfill these roles is through process excellence, integrated HR systems, and accurate and actionable data from all HR departments. When these elements come together, HR can have a tremendous and meaningful impact on the bottom line.

It sounds like a lot to ask, but these demands are achievable today. And the HR department doesn't have to go it alone. There are technologies and service providers that can help move HR from the administrative rut, free up manpower for strategic tasks, and employ business intelligence capability to align HR with desired business outcomes.

The Role of Outsourcing

Human resources outsourcers play a critical role. Companies often choose to work with outsourcers to gain access to the latest technologies without having to make the associated capital investment. At most enterprises where HR functions have been outsourced, the initial tier of value is well-established. Processes are standardized and employee interactions are professionalized. Transactions are faster, more user-friendly, and less costly. As employee programs continually become more complex and difficult to administer, outsourcing consistently delivers high levels of service.

But it's that next critical tier where advanced HR outsourcing technologies are delivering strategic leverage by gathering and combining fragmented data from discrete vertical HR systems. When data from various departments is integrated into a reliable, consistent source of centralized information, HR can make better-informed and more strategic business decisions daily. The impacts of HR programs and practices can be assessed, and critical insights into the workforce revealed.

Sophisticated analytics can measure how HR systems and programs affect employee behavior and influence customer behavior (for example), ultimately impacting financial results and corporate growth. Companies are beginning to see that reducing HR administrative costs is only the tip of the iceberg. A new priority is to employ the technologies that provide data and analysis, in order to realize the savings that lie in HR.

Technology at Work

For example, your time and attendance program tracks worker hours and absences, and is the entry process for generating payroll. A separate program handles short-term and long-term disability payments. Both of these systems are important. But viewed separately, they reinforce HR's traditional administrative role. An outsourcing solution that combines information from both systems and employs business intelligence functionality delivers a human asset management program that tracks absenteeism, peak work periods, and turnover. Now your data shows impacts on labor costs, overtime, and the amount of money spent on temps and employee replacement. This business intelligence can be used to closely align the workforce with long-term labor needs, manage absence and labor utilization, and thereby reduce operating costs.

Training, staffing, and recruiting programs can be linked in beneficial ways, too. There are lots of technology tools that enable prospective employees to submit rsums online. But does your HR department use that information beyond the recruiting process? By integrating prospective employee data and skill sets against the company's development plan and training programs, qualified individuals can be "pipelined" into the organization over time, and existing staff can be educated. This ensures more strategic hiring decisions from the outside, and better use of existing personnel.

Succession planning is another key area where HR outsourcing can provide strategic value. For example, if a company has a 10 percent turnover rate, and it typically takes 30 days to fill a job, what does that mean for its staffing at any given point in time? It means the company is nearly one percent understaffed at all times. In an organization of 50,000 employees, that's 400 workers not meeting deadlines or producing, which negatively impacts customer satisfaction.

In that same scenario, add in the ramp-up time required for new hires to fill the open slots, and the "downtime" could be as much as sixty days per opening. Factor in absenteeism, short- and long-term disability, sabbaticals, maternity and paternity leave, job sharing, and other benefits, and the staffing levels are likely to be much lower than imagined. Using business intelligence technologies and analytics allows HR departments to better see and manage what is really happening with staffing levels, and predictive measurements can help plan more accurately for the normal ebbs and flows of business.

Selecting the Right Outsourcing Provider

As important as deciding to outsource HR functions, however, is selecting the right partner. Partnering with an HR provider is a critical business decision, and should be considered with the same due diligence as a merger or joint venture. Companies should be culturally compatible and share a common vision.

An outsourcing partner's service framework and delivery model should be engineered to meet your requirements, and there should be a clear definition of the scope of services and defined service levels. The objectives of outsourcing should be translated into service-level agreements so performance can be measured against stated expectations. Most large enterprises will want a full-service provider rather than one that handles just one element (such as payroll). References should be checked, and the provider should demonstrate capabilities in full-spectrum HR outsourcing (and have the financial backing to be around for the long term).

Remember, working with an outsourcer is not about giving up control. Rather, it is about finding the best ways to deliver quality service, impact organization economics, and provide the data that aligns the HR department with business outcomes.

The Metamorphosis

In today's economic climate, all CEOs have a growth agenda that requires a solid and committed workforce—in other words, they need to have the right people in the right place at the right time. The true value of the human resource team will be measured in how well it aligns with this growth agenda. Effectively integrating HR business intelligence technologies is foundational to HR's metamorphosis from administrative cost center to strategic contributor to corporate growth.

Examples of Strategic HR

Here are some quick takes on how companies can strategically leverage HR for measurable gains. The impact areas and results in the list below are far from complete, and are provided here only as samples:

  • Staffing levels: Aligning time tracking with disability and leave information fosters greater understanding of staffing needs.
  • New hires: Melding rsum data with future business needs "pipelines" qualified individuals for impending job openings.
  • Succession planning: Assessing skill sets of existing employees and overlaying it with upcoming job openings promotes hiring from within.
  • Benefits cost: Integrating HR survey data with corporate goals can help predict changing corporate contribution rates that would result in more job turnover.
  • Hiring assessments: Extracting data from various HR functions allows you to determine if increased hiring is due to growth and skill upgrades, or to unwanted turnover.

Essential Considerations When Selecting an Outsourcing Provider

Beyond general considerations with respect to the utility of outsourcing providers, there are specific questions which enable companies to determine the compatibility of a prospective provider:

  • Do the provider's systems have the capabilities to meet specific technology and business requirements? Note that inadequacy with respect to this question can of course come on two counts: either the provider's systems are too "generic" to meet these specific requirements, or else (in the case where they do in fact address the particular requirements) they simply underperform.
  • Does the outsourcer have a clear understanding of needed capabilities?
  • Will the operation be transparent, both financially and managerially?
  • Do the outsourcer and your company share a common vision?
  • Does the outsourcer have a partnering mindset?
  • Is the outsourcer's culture compatible with your corporate culture?
  • Will the outsourcer be proactive in engaging your company to resolve problems?
  • Are the scope of services and performance levels clearly defined in a service level agreement?
  • Can the provider enable your company to deliver business performance impact?

By conducting a thorough review of the tangible and intangible elements underlying these questions, companies should be in a strong position to ensure that HR is not only a fundamental element for achieving corporate objectives, but an integral driver of success.

About the Author

Michael Nosil ( is Vice-president of HR executives at ExcellerateHRO, the jointly owned HR business of EDS and Towers Perrin. ExcellerateHRO helps its clients optimize their investment in human resource processes and programs, while better aligning their HR agenda and delivery model with their business objectives.

This article appears courtesy of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM). IHRIM provides information regarding HR information management, systems issues, trends, and technology. For more information, click here.

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