How Technology Is Reinventing the HR-IT Relationship

By Mark Feffer Nov 27, 2016
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​Illustration by Mike Austin for HR Magazine

When Katherine Mancuso joined telecom provider ShoreTel as vice president of human resources, one of the first projects she tackled was introducing a new onboarding system.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company wanted to provide its increasing number of remote employees with a system that was easier to use and required less time to administer. Mancuso’s team conducted internal research to determine specific requirements and then studied vendors until it found Worktap, a cloud-based product that fit the bill.

Then, and only then, did Mancuso turn to ShoreTel’s IT department, which vetted the product before she signed on with the vendor and began putting the new onboarding system in place.

Until recently, it was all but unheard-of for HR to take that kind of lead on a technical project. But that is changing, as the same advances that power our latest apps and analytics packages are putting HR professionals in a better position to lead the discussion—and selection—of the technology they use to do their jobs.

Changing Landscape

"The premise used to be that HR was an afterthought" when it came to purchasing technology, says Steven John, chief information officer for AmeriPride Services, a large uniform rental and linen supply company based in Minnetonka, Minn. "HR was generally a low priority to IT."

Today, about half of all HR systems reside in the cloud, according to recent data from Sierra-Cedar. That reality has led HR in many organizations to become more likely to "own" its technology, while IT’s role is limited to ensuring that tech solutions meet the company’s requirements in security, systems integration and other technical areas. IT now assumes a more consultative role rather than acting as decision-makers, says Jeremy Ames, CEO of Hive Tech HR, an HR systems consultant in Hopkinton, Mass.

Know What You Want

"The best path begins with HR describing its talent strategy and how technology can help," says Dan Schwartz, a partner in Bain & Co.’s organizational practice in Washington, D.C. "Companies that realize HR’s [strategic] role start the process with a clear view of how technology can enable better decision-making and follow-through." In such cases, IT’s job is to translate technology into business solutions by identifying the systems that meet HR’s requirements.

At other organizations—like ShoreTel, where the HR leader reports directly to the CEO—HR may conduct its own product research and then bring in IT to vet the solution it’s zeroing in on.

"I’m looking at things like ease-of-use and employee experience, while IT’s worrying about things like security and integration," Mancuso says.

IT’s Changing Role

In this new environment, building a productive relationship requires two things: getting to know the people in IT and learning the nuts and bolts of their jobs. "It’s important to understand their world and plan carefully so as not to infringe on their resources, but to maximize their effort," says Kim Ziprik, SHRM-CP, organizational development manager for Atlanta-based Nasco, which provides administrative solutions to Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

To do that, take the time to learn how IT operates, including everything from its workflow to the tenets of technical development and operations. This doesn’t mean you need to know how to code, but you should grasp the basic processes. Too often, HR underestimates how much time and money technology projects require, Ames says.

Sixty percent of top-performing organizations are investing both time and resources in a major HR initiative to create or improve enterprise HR systems.
Source: Sierra-Cedar 2016-2017 HR Systems Survey.

Common Ground

Of course, launching new technology still requires IT’s involvement in product evaluation, systems integration and data-handling. For instance, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of how a technology vendor imports data into its tool is integral to IT’s role. "We have to go to the people who can help us succeed," says Barbara Bell-Dees, Nasco’s vice president of human resources and people services.

It’s best to start a conversation early in the collaborative process. After Ziprik wrote requirements for a request for proposals (RFP), she asked the tech team to vet the technology-focused portions to make sure they were properly presented.

Once the RFP was distributed, Ziprik worked with a cross-functional team—including representatives from IT, finance, learning and development and business stakeholders themselves—to evaluate the vendors who responded. "You need to know your organization, the business and the technology requirements," she says. "Otherwise, you get sold on fluffy pieces."

Making Your Case

You may also need to be assertive. For example, an IT team that’s running SAP systems across the company may prefer the continuity of using SAP SuccessFactors as an HR information system solution. But HR should push back if another system will have a greater impact on helping the company meet its goals. "It all comes back to the business case," says Bain & Co.’s Schwartz.

Thus, if IT contends that SuccessFactors will be less expensive to implement and support, it’s up to HR to prove that its alternative will allow the company to handle areas such as workforce planning and management in ways that result in greater cost savings, increased revenue and other financial advantages.

Clearly, the days of passively waiting for IT to approve talent-related technology solutions are over—or at least numbered—in many companies, and HR is poised to take an active lead role. 

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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