HR Technology: Making the Most of Manager Self-Service

Online tools offer managers more control to perform transactional HR tasks.

By Dave Zielinski Dec 1, 2013
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Tom Christon knew that his HR staff could never provide true strategic value to his organization as long as they were viewed as "the people who fill out personnel forms." Christon, senior vice president of payroll services at U.S. Bancorp, also believed that the bank could operate more efficiently if managers had greater control over certain personnel decisions that were once under HR’s purview.

Those two factors persuaded him to implement manager self-service systems in the Minneapolis-based bank. Business-unit managers began by using tools embedded in a PeopleSoft 9.1 human capital management (HCM) system to review or approve basic personnel actions, such as terminations, relocations and salary changes.

As managers grew more comfortable with the system, other transactions were shifted under their control. These transactions now include review and approval of merit bonuses and incentives, learning management, and recruiting. The recruiting function allows managers to open requisitions, review resumes and evaluate candidates.

Although there was some initial resistance to the move to self-service—given that managers were, in effect, taking on duties long handled by HR—it gradually faded as managers saw the benefits of the online technologies, Christon says. The benefits included easier access to workforce data for quicker decision-making.

"The reality is, in 2013 we have more managers who want to be able to quickly execute online transactions and move forward," he says. "They welcome that kind of functionality, because in the past these transactions often involved tracking someone down in HR, trying to find current forms, or a lot of e-mail back and forth. Now everything is right there online and easy for them to use."

For HR, the shift to manager self-service has meant less focus on day-to-day transactional tasks and more time for consulting with business-unit managers on important workforce issues. "Our HR business partners, who are our generalists, now have more time to work with managers on reviewing their organizational structures, ensuring the right development plans are in place, evaluating retirement exposure and more," Christon explains.

Adoption Grows

Although employee self-service applications have become part of the HR mainstream—enabling workers to perform transactions such as address changes and benefits enrollment or to view retirement accounts, pay statements and time-off balances—adoption of manager self-service systems has historically lagged, experts say.

That’s partly because many of these tools were initially designed as "bolt-on" applications to HCM systems, says Ron Hanscome, research director of HCM technologies at Gartner Inc., an information-technology research company in Stamford, Conn. Because more applications are now embedded in next-generation HCM systems—and owing to improvements in on-screen guidance to help managers make decisions—many have become easier to use and affordable, Hanscome says.

"What they have evolved to in the latest generation of HCM systems is creating a ‘view’ or defined role for managers within the systems," he says. "The ability to examine transactions or data in HR workflows from a manager perspective has become much less clunky and woven directly into the fabric of how these systems work."

In the past, managers might have had to log in and out of multiple applications to view and act on time-off requests. Now, with self-service functions in some new HCM systems, Hanscome says managers can instantly view—from a single online access point—the leave accumulated by their direct reports by the time they want the request and how a vacation will affect the overall department work schedule, among other things.

"As the usability of these solutions improves, it’s easier for managers to accept them," Hanscome notes. "Instead of having to find and fill out paper forms or have a lot of back-and-forth e-mail exchanges with HR, managers now have the information at their fingertips and, with a few clicks, can review, edit or approve transactions. And from a compliance perspective, these applications can track transactions in a more accurate and reliable way."

Many of the self-service systems also can be customized. Christon tailored the PeopleSoft system in a way that allows U.S. Bancorp leaders to identify someone to replace a bank manager who is transferred or terminated, a process that previously relied on submitting reporting changes to HR.

In addition, the best mobile versions of the systems have simplified the user experience and enable on-the-go managers to more easily review or approve transactions involving their employees, Hanscome says.

Uses for Small Companies

It’s not just large organizations that are finding uses for manager self-service systems. At 95-employee Ninkasi Brewing in Eugene, Ore., vice president of organizational development Cheryl Collins implemented a self-service technology platform from Chicago-based vendor SilkRoad. Her goal was to help managers oversee their direct reports and budgets more efficiently, as well as to enable employees to conduct more HR-related transactions on their own.

Collins also believes that the self-service philosophy helps recast how HR is viewed within the company. "If people have to continually come to HR for the transactional stuff, they think of you more as a traditional human resources department rather than as a group that can add value on the big-picture things, like staff development or coaching," she says.

The company’s CEO, CFO, accounting manager and Collins use the system to automate and track personnel transactions, work that was formerly done with Excel spreadsheets. Managers can use the system to create reports, view workforce data, track workflow process histories, request new hires or make pay changes. The system can be customized to determine who must approve transactions versus who simply must be notified of them, she says.

"Anytime there is a pay change, the system automatically sends notices to our accounting manager and our HR generalist," Collins says. "In the past, people would sometimes make a compensation change and not tell all those who needed to know about it. The platform is good for streamlining communication."

Other organizations embrace manager self-service for its added data-security protections. Sherryanne Meyer, manager of global information technology HR solutions at Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Allentown, Pa., says self-service functions bundled in a platform she uses from vendor SAP have improved the process of locking down sensitive information.

For example, spreadsheets with compensation planning data were once shared in the organization via less-secure e-mail, but that information is now protected under new security protocols on the HCM system. "Only managers with clearance to see that kind of data can access it," Meyer explains.

The online self-service capability also gives managers round-the-clock access to real-time personnel information, she says. "Many managers do their thoughtful analysis about compensation planning or performance appraisal decisions in off hours because workdays are taken up with meetings, so having access to the portal at those times is vital," Meyer says.

Manager self-service is primarily used for quarterly performance reviews at CareerBuilder.com, according to Megan Kleinick, an HR operations manager at the online recruiting company. "We can send out automatic reminders to those who haven’t completed performance reviews, for example. And the ability to tell at a glance the status of employee reviews around the company is a big help," she says. Part of a Workday HCM, the application will soon be used to enable managers to conduct employee transfers, promotions and terminations, as well.

The amount of time saved by using the system has been significant, Kleinick says. In the past, managers would e-mail an employee relations group within HR with personnel-related requests or actions, where they’d be reviewed for errors, approved and then sent for entry into spreadsheets or databases. Those e-mail exchanges often meant process delays.

"Now we’ve removed employee relations from the equation, and requests go directly into the centralized system for review and decision-making," she says. "Managers like it because they no longer have to keep track of e-mail templates or spreadsheets."

Compliance Benefits

Organizations in highly regulated industries such as health care or financial services also find compliance benefits in manager self-service systems, many of which create databases that can be easily accessed to report on compliance-related data.

Tom Aldrich, SPHR, senior vice president of human resources at Teche Federal Bank in Lafayette, La., says the manager self-service component of Workforce Now, an HCM system the bank uses from vendor ADP, aids compliance reporting required in the banking industry, and he expects it to help administer requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Managers use the self-service system to review employee timecards, to make "off cycle" pay change requests, for performance reviews, and to request employee transfers or terminations.

"The system has advanced reporting capabilities in terms of what people did and when they did it, so there are few misunderstandings," Aldrich says. "Whether it’s employees’ eligibility for COBRA or how many hours people have worked, if we’re ever audited, the system will allow us to see exactly what happened and why."

Usability was a big issue for Aldrich, who says the bank’s intuitive interface and icon-based navigation have helped managers accept the tool. "We have managers at different levels of technology sophistication, so a system that was easy to learn and use was imperative," he says.

Smoother Rollout

HR leaders who take on the often-daunting task of implementing manager self-service usually have valuable lessons to share from the process. Christon says a key to the initiative at U.S. Bancorp was ensuring that managers could complete entire transactions without HR assistance or offline follow-up. For example, HR gave managers the ability to validate the vacation hours that terminated employees had taken.

"If you don’t incorporate the entire end-to-end process, you might end up with a manager completing a self-service transaction online but then needing to pick up the phone or send e-mail to complete the rest of the transaction," he says. "You need to look at the big picture of transactions and try to incorporate as much of them as you can online."

Another thing Christon learned: Don’t drown managers or HR staff in approvals. Since many self-service systems allow you to create unlimited approvals of personnel transactions, it’s important to establish limits, he says.

"Early on, we established a pretty extensive manager-approval process but found it was causing delays," he says. "So we changed it to be more flexible. Now there has to be at least one level of manager approval. Then, depending on the complexity of the transaction, people can move it forward for additional approvals if necessary."

Finally, Christon suggests making a clean break when moving from old administrative processes to manager self-service. "Once our self-service technologies were up and running, we didn’t accept paper forms or e-mails anymore. We engaged our HR staff in becoming teachers and promoters of the new functionality and discouraged managers from falling back on old ways of doing things," he says.

Aldrich stresses that it’s important to remain patient as managers become familiar with self-service systems. "We wanted to leverage technology to help our managers feel more engaged in personnel issues, but we did have some resistance at first. But some of the detractors became our biggest supporters six months down the road," he says.

Hanscome says one way to encourage adoption is to roll out manager self-service only with selected tasks and then get top-performing managers on board as ambassadors. "Identify a subset of key self-service transactions that provide the most benefit, or address managers’ biggest areas of pain and let them get used to using the technology and experiencing how it can make their lives easier," he recommends.

Acceptance of manager self-service will ultimately succeed or fail based on HR’s ability "to sell or show how the technology will make things simpler or more efficient," Hanscome says.

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

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