Self-Service Data Prep Eases HR Reporting Headaches

By Dave Zielinski January 11, 2019
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​The human resources function at Berkshire Bank was swimming in information. The bank had data dispersed over multiple HR systems and spreadsheets that it had to regularly "cleanse" and blend for the purpose of organizational and compliance-related reporting. But existing processes for combining and transforming that data were too often manual and cumbersome, creating long delays and increasing chances for error.

The specific challenge for MaryAnne Christian, an HR business analyst at Berkshire in Pittsfield, Mass., was to create and disseminate a regular report to business line leaders on the status of job openings at the bank. The company's applicant tracking system could create only separate reports on applicants and open roles, meaning Christian couldn't easily combine those two files for reporting. "We could see what jobs were filled but not who was filling them, or we could see the people we were hiring but not the jobs they were filling," Christian said.

She turned to self-service data preparation software that automates the blending of data from disparate HR sources. "It used to take me a half day to create the combined job requisitions report, and it wasn't providing the kind of data the organization needed," Christian said. "Now I can generate that report in about five minutes and it's a repeatable workflow, since all I have to do is drop in new data to an existing model. It's allowed us to spend more time analyzing report data rather than just creating the reports."

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Data Prep Software Options

As HR grapples with the demands—and opportunities—presented by "big data," the challenge of efficiently accessing and blending data from multiple sources has grown. Cleaning and compiling data needed to submit forms to comply with regulations like the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), for example, can take weeks or more when relying on manual processes.

Self-service data preparation software like Datawatch's Monarch, Tableau's Prep, Alteryx, Datameer and other stand-alone tools automate the process, reduce manual data entry and create reports faster. The best of these tools can access data from PDFs or semi-structured text files and convert it to workable rows and columns with a few mouse clicks. Users then export it to business intelligence platforms for analysis and data visualization.

Because Berkshire has been active in mergers and acquisitions, its HR function has often been asked to migrate data from the HR systems of acquired companies to the existing ones. The data prep software can automatically extract data from PDFs in an acquired firm's payroll system and transfer or "map" it to codes in the current HR system.

"We use it to create and enter import files into our HRIS [HR information system] when we bring new employees on board," Christian said. "It's a huge timesaver from the old manual process that often required entering one file at a time."

Choosing Software Wisely

Many HR functions use data prep software for headcount reports, tracking the status of employees' certifications or to comply with government regulations. ERISA regulations, for example, require organizations to combine and reconcile their own internal reporting with external 401(k) provider reports to check for discrepancies. Using the software can shorten the time needed to complete that task from days to hours.

HR leaders need to gather some information before selecting software tools for combining sensitive data, said Littal Shemer Haim, a people analytics and HR data strategy consultant based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Step one is understanding the regulatory and data privacy laws in a country or state. "Who can be exposed to the data and where can you safely store combined data that includes sensitive employee information?" Shemer Haim asked.

It's also important to know which HR tech platforms and software tools have easy connectivity through application programming interfaces. "Know in advance which fields are shared from which database and in what direction," she said. For example, stand-alone data preparation software often needs to integrate with business intelligence platforms to draw actionable insights from the data.

Combining HR and Non-HR Data

Combining data from disparate HR systems for more-efficient reporting and analysis—as well as the more-advanced analytics practice of correlating HR information with data from finance or operations—requires the underlying data to be sound, said Jacqueline Kuhn, executive vice president of human capital management consulting services for HRchitect, an HR technology consulting firm in Frisco, Texas.

"The reason many efforts to combine data fall short is the data isn't reliable or useable enough to begin with," Kuhn said. "If you are blending data or bringing it in from outside sources, you have to determine how clean it is and what's needed to scrub it before you can share it with others for analysis."

Shemer Haim agrees that "cleansing" and creating trustworthy data should be the first step in efforts to combine data for improved reporting or management decision-making. "You'd be surprised how many errors and discrepancies arise when starting an analytical project based on combined data," she said.

Data integrity is a growing concern as more-progressive HR functions look to combine workforce data with non-HR data from finance or operations to guide strategic decisions, Kuhn said. "We are working more often with organizations' finance teams to understand how their data is organized and how their systems are different from HR so when data from the two functions is combined it makes sense," she said.

Even more important than the technical issues involved in correlating HR data with finance data is addressing the collaboration challenges that can arise, Shemer Haim believes. "HR needs to collaborate with different leaders and departments to get access to their data, so it becomes almost more of a cultural or organizational issue than it does a technical one," she said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

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