HR Technology

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Jun 1, 2007
Reuse Permissions

HR Magazine, June 2007 Moving to a New HRIS

Time for a new human resource information system? Plan ahead for a painless conversion.

Back in 2001, the Human Resources Division of the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA) knew its ancient human resource information system (HRIS) was in drastic need of a makeover. “We were using a legacy system HRMS [human resource management system] run on a mainframe,” says ADOA’s HRIS Manager Matthew Timberlake. “It was expensive and didn’t have a lot of features of more modern HR systems.”

But the prospect of changing systems was daunting—the payroll side of the system housed records for some 45,000 state employees, plus an additional 35,000 employee and benefits records for retirees and employees of the state university system. “It’s a huge undertaking for an entity this size,” says Timberlake.

Even at smaller organizations, the thought of moving to a new HRIS can make HR professionals cringe. But experts say that switching systems doesn’t have to be a nightmare. The conversion process often presents opportunities to streamline business processes, improve procedures and cut HR costs. With planning, you can have a painless conversion—and, as an end result, a more efficient, more accurate HRIS.

Assembling a Project Team

Some experts say a healthy respect for the task of undertaking an HRIS conversion is a good thing. Too often, the first mistake business leaders make is underestimating the complexity of a conversion. “Don’t underestimate the amount of effort and investment that this type of transformation requires,” says Timberlake. ADOA’s project was massive: The state moved from a bare-bones HRIS to a fully integrated system that provided payroll, benefits and self-service for employees. The project took two years, with a project team of 30-plus dedicated employees and another 30 vendor representatives and implementation consultants.

Of course, not all HRIS conversions are as large or as complex as ADOA’s. › Depending on the project, experts say HRIS conversions take anywhere from four months to several years. But all conversions—even the most complicated ones—follow the same basic steps. Decisions have to be made about the data—what to convert and what to ditch. The data that are kept have to be validated, and, if necessary, corrected or “scrubbed.” Tables have to be written, mapping data from each field in the original, or “legacy,” system to fields in the new system. And tests have to be run to verify that the mapping tables are working effectively. When all these steps are completed, then the actual conversion can occur.

Depending on the size of the organization, the complexity of the conversion and the available budget, these tasks may be done by in-house staff, vendor staff, third-party vendors or consultants, or a combination. Even when vendors and consultants are involved, the project still needs an in-house team to provide input and oversight.

Experts recommend that HR and IT representatives share leadership of the project team. If at all possible, project team leaders should be dedicated to conversion full time. “Having a dedicated team means [the implementation] will go faster,” says Gretchen Alarcon, vice president of human capital management product strategy for the Redwood Shores, Calif.-based HRIS software firm Oracle.

But everyone working on the conversion doesn’t have to work at it full time. Consider calling some in only at important milestones. For example, “as you get into implementation, you can bring in end users to do validation as fresh eyes,” says Alarcon. Rotating team members in and out of different phases of the project also allows wider involvement and minimizes staffing impact.

Outsourcing some or part of the project can also reduce staffing impact. While many organizations are concerned about costs, experts say that outsourcing can actually save organizations money—both in hard costs and soft costs like saved time, reduced staffing impact and a cleaner conversion.

“Outsourcing is a real valuable choice,” says Larry Dunivan, vice president of global human capital management products at St. Paul, Minn.-based software and services provider Lawson Software. “We recommend that clients don’t build expertise in building conversion programs. We can do it at a much lower cost than customers doing it themselves.”

Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

No matter how the project is staffed, HR representatives need to provide perspective on the data. First, take an honest look at the data and determine what should be converted and what can be discarded. It’s tempting to do a “system-to-system” transfer, converting all the data and cleaning them up later. But experts say that will cause more headaches in the end.

“It’s garbage in, garbage out,” says Dunivan. “It’s an easy choice to make, [because there’s] no upfront work. But it’s a misguided strategy.”

Moreover, much of the information that is stored in a legacy system may no longer be required by the new one. “The biggest challenges are dates and historical data,” says Bernard Aller, SPHR, an HR systems consultant based in Columbia, Md. As a result, Aller says many of his clients choose to discard most historical data and only convert the basics. “The vast majority [of my clients] decide to convert name, address and phone number,” says Aller. “Rather than create a history of every transfer and pay raise, they convert things that are not date- sensitive, [and] from this date forward everything will be date stamped.”

However, before deciding to discard historical data, consider all the repercussions. Eliminating history may weaken new features like management self-service tools. It can also force reliance on the old system you thought you were replacing, which carries new costs. Dotti Freeland, CCP, director of HRIS for Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General Corp., regrets not converting more historical data during her department’s HRIS move. “It was hard for us, especially from a benefits perspective,” says Freeland. “Every time we ran a report for the next three to five years, we had to run it twice, from the new system and the old system.”

This is where a third-party vendor can add value. “Most people don’t convert history because they don’t have tools to identify and supplement that data,” says Joseph Hillesheim, managing partner of ERP Solutions Inc., a Dallas-based implementation vendor that specializes in SAP systems. “The further back you go in any system, the data gets worse. Usually we ask people to find a point in history where their data is good” and convert from there. Vendors who have proven expertise in data mining can help pull it all together.

Scrub It Down

Once the conversion data has been narrowed down, it needs to be validated, or “scrubbed.” “It is foolish to convert data that is incorrect. Let’s correct that data in the system today—you don’t want to pay to convert data that’s bogus,” says Aller.

One way to determine the legitimacy of your legacy data is to run a validation test on a subset of employee records before tackling the entire database. No database is completely error-free; before starting, have the project team agree on the acceptable level of discrepancies. The legacy data subset can be compared with another trustworthy source; if your payroll system is independent of your HRIS, it can be an ideal comparison point for names and addresses. Then use the results to determine if a full-scale data scrubbing is warranted. “If 25 percent are bad, a reliable vendor will go back and say the data are crummy, clean them up,” says Aller.

Data scrubbing can be tedious. But experts say the time and effort are worth it. At Dollar General, the legacy system had been built in-house and provided few data-entry edits. “You could do anything you wanted,” says Freeland. “It didn’t have checks and balances.” That made for messy data and a lengthy data scrubbing process, but Freeland is glad for it. “Anyone who’s going through this, I strongly encourage them to scrub the data. Take the time; it will save time in the end.”

At ADOA, data scrubbing “became a project in and of itself,” says John Murrin, senior project manager in the HRIS department. According to Murrin, ADOA’s approach was, “let’s make sure everything is clean in the old system so there is minimal cleanup afterward. It was a six-month mini-project to communicate with the agencies, run reports from the old system of data that needed to be cleaned and clean it, [and] update fields that were critical to the new system that may not have even been used.” During the process, the scrubbing team reported weekly to the larger implementation project team on its progress.

Making a Map

All the newly scrubbed data need somewhere to go. That’s where mapping comes in—creating a program to direct the data in each field in the legacy system to a field in the new system. For simple conversions, vendor template tools may make it possible for one person to map data fields in just a few hours.

Sharon Jordan, an HR applications consultant based in Glen Ellyn, Ill., has used Lawson’s Add-ins for Microsoft Office tools to map several HRIS conversions for clients. The Lawson Add-in, which is embedded in Microsoft Excel, provides a Wizard system for setting up the business rules for the template. Then the data from the old system is dumped into an Excel spreadsheet. The user can work with the data in Excel to correct any errors before uploading it to the Lawson system. “I’m not a programmer, I couldn’t write a line of code if my life depended on it,” says Jordan. Still, she says, this template tool has allowed her to map and load data for as many as 2,000 records in less than a day.

In other cases, mapping can be quite complex. “Most of the time, the data aren’t coming from just one system,” says Hillesheim. “They’re coming from multiple systems, and from databases and spreadsheets.” In these cases, there may also be another level of complication: Fields in each system may not match. For example, one system may use an employee number, while another system uses the employee’s Social Security number as an identifier. With this level of complexity, organizations may choose to use a third-party vendor to manage the mapping process.

Test and Test Again

Once the mapping process is complete, it’s time to begin testing. The length of the testing period depends on a variety of factors. “If you are putting in multiple modules and converting a lot of systems at once, you’ll want multiple tests before full implementation,” says Alarcon. “Other customers with lightweight implementa- tions are OK to roll over without significant amounts of testing.”

Most organizations run a few tests with a subset of records first, to identify issues. Then the team will conduct at least one test conversion with the full database. Once the test runs are clean, the project can progress to a full conversion into production.

If the new HRIS includes payroll, or feeds data into the payroll system, most organizations will follow the testing process with a period of parallel processing. This involves running processes on the legacy system and the new system simultaneously as a safeguard against convention errors. Experts say that parallel processing should only begin after consistently good testing results, to minimize costs and headaches. Dollar General had a six-week parallel period, which the department found exhausting. “Do a lot of due diligence on the front end. Do a lot of mini-conversions to minimize the parallel period,” says Freeland.

One or two parallel payroll cycles should be enough. “It’s very expensive for the organization,” says Dunivan. “You can’t do it for extended periods of time.”

While undertaking an HRIS conversion may seem overwhelming, a well-executed move can provide an opportunity to start fresh with a new HRIS, clean data and improved efficiency.

Jennifer Taylor Arnold is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM articles:
How to Select an HRIS and Save Your Saturdays 
(SHRM Online's HR Technology Focus Area)

The Eight Fatal Flaws of HR System Implementation and How to Avoid Them 
(SHRM Online's HR Technology Focus Area)

SHRM toolkit:
HRIS Toolkit

Reuse Permissions


Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect