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HR technology user groups offer HR professionals support and advice.
When Lisa Buckner, an HR manager at SAS, a Cary, N.C.-based software firm, was looking for tips on getting the most out of a new workforce management system, she skipped over the most obvious resource, her vendor. Instead, she tapped an oft-ignored one: her own colleagues.
Having recently scrapped an underperforming recruitment tool, Buckner was particularly hungry for tips on how to use Taleo, her new system, to meet the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs new applicant tracking requirements for federal contractors.
Buckner got her answers from members of a well-organized group of Taleo customers who meet periodically, independently of the vendor, to help one another get the most from their product.
Many HR professionals, like Buckner, are sidestepping the usual software training mavens--product vendors and pricey consultants. Instead, they are banding with colleagues at other firms, in face-to-face meetings and online, for mutual support and to swap the kind of ideas and advice only another HR pro grappling with the same technology challenges can provide.
Jumping into the Pool
Just as blogs, listservs and e-mail have helped democratize the way information is distributed, so-called software user groups are leveling the way software training is conducted and expertise is shared. While most user groups hold face-to-face meetings, many also keep a dialogue going with chat rooms, bulletin boards and other Internet-powered communication tools.
At their best, user-group fans say, the groups offer impartial, practical guidance at a fraction of the cost charged by their commercial counterparts.
"I find it really helpful to have the chance to learn from others who are serious about getting the most of their software and have had years of experience using the tools," Buckner says. "The people who attend user-group meetings have a variety of experiences with their customized solutions. Its an opportunity to learn from their solution successes and failures. And since they're not tied to the product, I know that they can be objective."
Taleo, Oracle, Peopleclick, UltiPro and Sage Abra, along with Ceridian and ADP, are among the HR and payroll software providers that encourage customers to join their products' user groups and, to varying degrees, support the groups' activities either with direct funds, technical expertise or both.
"The whole purpose is for clients to be talking to other clients," says Li-Chun Hsu of Peopleclick, a Raleigh, N.C.-based HR management software developer that sponsors regional user groups for its various workforce management products.
Adapting to Change
User groups can provide a support network for people and organizations undergoing change.
In 2002, HR information system (HRIS) consultant Cheryl Wyrick found PeopleSofts higher education user group helpful in guiding her through a challenging implementation of the product at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Some of the university employees transitioning to the product were unfamiliar with it, and a few were openly hostile to the changeover. Wyrick, a PeopleSoft expert, was brought in as a consultant to smooth the implementation.
"I think the [user-group] meetings were very productive because you had people at different stages of implementation, including early adapters, who had lots of stories to share," she said. "One of the things I learned was how to deal with employees who didnt want to make the change."
Wyrick says the user-group meetings, attended by both consultants like Wyrick and university staff, helped generate enthusiasm for the implementation. "It was reassuring people that everything was going to be OK."
Some HR professionals also rely on user-group meetings for updates on product changes so they can make appropriate upgrade choices.
Following the acquisition in January 2005 of PeopleSoft by Oracle, Lana Watson, an HRIS programmer for Barnes & Noble College Booksellers in Basking Ridge, N.J., began attending Oracles regional user-group meetings to learn firsthand from company officials about what was in store for PeopleSoft customers. Oracles announcements about its new system architecture, Fusion, only added to her growing concerns about the extent to which the company would continue to support PeopleSoft.
Despite recent assurances by Oracle of its commitment to PeopleSoft users, shes still on edge.
The only technical staffer in her HR department, Watson says she found it comforting to talk with users at other companies with the same concerns.
"We're all out there struggling with [the acquisition]," she says.
As with any organization, the value members can derive from a user group can vary wildly. A lot can depend on a groups leadership.
Mitch Maddox, director of HRIS at a Dallas real estate management firm, says he became disillusioned with large vendor-controlled user-group meetings that often were little more than thinly veiled marketing events. So he resolved to create a different type of user group.
A fan of Ultimate Software's UltiPro Workforce Management System, Maddox launched UltiPro's Southwest Users Group (SWUG), one of seven UltiPro regional groups scattered around the United States.
The New Orleans-based group, he says, provides a model of what a well-run user group should look like, operating its own bulletin board where members can seek help from one another on technical issues and hosting its own annual meeting.
Establishing a similar group in Dallas has cut travel costs for many Texas-based UltiPro users. And it gives the 50 to 100 members who typically attend the two-day annual meetings a more intimate experience, according to some of the groups participants.
SWUG has no membership dues, but members pay about $200 to attend the groups annual meeting. Anyone can join SWUG, but the group, like some of its regional counterparts, discourages the participation of software consultants and bars them from online activities.
"They [consultants] tend to take over the user group. Were there to learn new things about our software, not to be sold something," Maddox says.
In preparation for the annual meeting, SWUG members jointly develop an agenda that can run the gamut from best practices for using the softwares e-recruitment tools to tips for complying with Sarbanes-Oxley Act reporting requirements. Nearly all presenters are members of the group.
"Our group is 100 percent user-driven," says Maddox.
Ultimate Software company representatives say they can live with this arrangementespecially since they get to call the shots at their own user training held at a different time and venue.
"Our role is to enhance the users' experience," says Karen Dudas, Ultimate Softwares director of product strategy. "We don't try to slide in sales and marketing."
Claudine Tudgay, SWUGs current president and payroll director at the Irving, Texas-based Container Store, says the meetings have helped her get a better handle on UltiPros employee and manager self-service tools.
"We had barely scratched the surface of self-service and the online enrollment of benefits. And like everyone else, we want to go paperless," she says.
As president, Tudgay has tried to beef up the use of technology at user-group meetings. In preparation for SWUGs fall meeting in Dallas, she is hoping to arrange for Wi-Fi access that will allow meeting attendees to follow along with the presenter on their own laptop computers.
Topics tentatively slated for this years meeting include using the software to handle child support garnishments, improving communications between HR and payroll, and transferring data between UltiPro and other systems.
Advise and Critique
Vendors get as much information from the groups as users do. Many vendors rely on their user groups for product inputboth positive and negative.
As chair of payroll processor ADP's Enterprise Payroll User Group, Marcia Aamodt, payroll director at New
Albany, Ohio-based clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, solicits product-related comments and suggestions from her groups members during conference calls and via e-mails throughout the year. Users then vote on the 10 product changes they would most like to see. On behalf of the group, Aamodt or another user-group leader presents the final list to ADP executives at the annual user-group meeting held each September.
The group usually offers up specific recommendations, like adding a field to a particular screen or adding functionality to the various products, Aamodt says.
During a separate town hall session of the user groups annual meeting, users simply get to vent about whatever they dont like about the product.
ADP, she says, takes the recommendations, along with the complaints, "very seriously" and either commits to resolve problems or allows a software developer to explain why a suggestion is unfeasible or a complaint unfair.
Mark Duhamel, vice president of HR at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York and president of Taleo's Northeast Users Group, says his members arent shy about airing grievances to the vendor during group meetings or about protesting when they feel they are being manipulated.
"We're in the business of pushing the vendor to make the product work for us," he says.
As a user-group participant, Duhamel says, he has also gotten the chance to test Taleo products and make suggestions for 11th-hour changes before the software is officially released. Getting the suggestions implemented before the product goes final, he says, may make or break a decision about whether his company wants the product.
Giving input on product development early on, he says, is increasingly important for companies like his that rely on web-based products that offer limited options for customization.
According to Duhamel, JPMorgan Chase & Co. may test a product for 12 to 18 months.
User groups traditionally had the narrow mandate of improving users understanding of a particular product, but some technology experts believe they provide the opportunity for a broader learning experience.
HR technology consultant Jason Averbook, who frequently presents at user-group meetings, urges audiences to expect more from a user-group meeting than simply gaining functional knowledge of software.
"I think a great user event combines how you do your job now with how you will do your job in the future," says Averbook, chief executive officer of Knowledge Infusion in San Ramon, Calif.
Software consultant Mark Dresser, head of the Scarborough, Maine-based firm Dresser and Associates, agrees, even though he sometimes encounters resistance from attendees intent on focusing their learning on the product at hand. "People say, 'That's great. But we just really want product information,' " he says.
Nevertheless, hes committed to expanding the software users' focus. "Every now and then I'll try to sneak in something strategic," he says.
Rita Zeidner is managing editor of the Society for Human Resource Managements Technology Focus Area.
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