Systems of Engagement Serve Employees Enterprisewide

User-friendly HR software boosts adoption and curtails costs.

By Dave Zielinski July 21, 2014

August CoverWhen Peter LeBlanc was in the market for new HR technologies, one buying criterion carried more weight with him than it did in the past: the quality of the user experience. Other factors, such as subscription costs, product quality and customer support, still held sway. But LeBlanc, vice president of human resource operations at CareFusion, a health care organization in San Diego with 15,000 employees worldwide, wanted systems that would be intuitive and easy to learn not just for HR staff but for line managers and employees as well.

LeBlanc knew his biggest return on investment would come from HR systems that were heavily used. Talent management systems that lie fallow after a big investment represent a problem that has long plagued the HR field, and it was a pitfall he wanted to avoid.

“We wanted systems that would facilitate easy adoption by managers and employees with a minimum amount of training,” LeBlanc says. “There is a direct connection between the complexity of the user experience and the number of incoming calls from employees as well as the staffing levels in your HR service center.”

LeBlanc found user experiences that met his needs by investing in a human capital management (HCM) system as well as performance management and compensation planning systems from vendor Workday. He says the intuitive user interfaces, embedded decision-support tools and mobile-friendly system designs are paying dividends.

“We have been able to reduce our staffing levels and thus the cost of our service center by 35 percent over the past four years,” LeBlanc says. “That’s a direct result of improvements in usability as well as our employees becoming more familiar with the self-service tools.”

A Friendlier Experience

Industry vendors have begun pouring more resources into enhancing the user experience. They have been spurred by the user-friendly interfaces of consumer-grade applications like Amazon and Facebook, and they are also responding to increasingly vocal HR information systems leaders seeking improvements in the usability of HR software.

“One of the things driving change is that people are simply demanding better,” says Sarah White, founder and principal advisor of Accelir, a human resources advisory firm in Milwaukee. “Every day, people in HR are using consumer apps on their smartphones and tablets that are simple to use and robust. The expectation that HR software will have a low-quality user interface is no longer considered acceptable.”

Industry vendors now view the user experience as a competitive battleground, says Ron Hanscome, research director of HCM technologies at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory company in Stamford, Conn.

“User experience used to be one of those things where a major change might happen every three years,” Hanscome says. “But now we’re moving into the era of continuously evolving and improving user experience, as each software update delivered from cloud vendors has an incremental improvement in usability. No one stands still in this environment.”

Larger vendors have even built their own user experience labs, Hanscome says, rather than contracting for the space as in the past. The labs are used to observe how individuals from different job functions, job levels and geographies use HR technologies. The investigators examine factors such as eye movement to track usage. Then they use that feedback to improve interface design.

Recent studies suggest that user experience has ascended to the top of HR buyers’ priority lists for purchasing new talent management systems. When asked to rate the importance of 11 different product criteria in talent systems, 191 respondents to Gartner’s 2014 Magic Quadrant for Talent Management Suites study ranked “ease of use for employees and managers” the highest.

The dimension ranked ahead of factors such as product quality, reporting capabilities, integration and configuration.

“Those results reflect the fact that these systems once were used by a small cadre of HR professionals that you could easily train, but now they’re far more open to line employees and managers,” Hanscome says.

The demand for user-friendly HR systems also can be seen in the results of a recent CedarCrestone survey. Almost half of survey respondents (45 percent) said they were considering moving to the software-as-a-service (SAAS) version of an HCM from an on-premise model. Top reasons for that move included:

  • Expectations for improved user experience.
  • Better functionality.
  • Easier upgrades.

Spreading Adoption

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, an HR research and advisory firm in Oakland, Calif., separates industry vendors into two categories: those that provide “systems of record” and those offering “systems of engagement.” Systems of record are the enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems like a core HCM system where data needs to be accurate, consistent and highly secure. Most of these back-office systems were originally designed for people who had no choice but to use them, Bersin says.

Systems of engagement, on the other hand, are used by more stakeholders than just HR staff—job candidates, employees and managers, for example—and help employees manage themselves, rather than requiring ongoing HR intervention.

Katherine Jones, vice president of HCM technology research at Bersin by Deloitte, says systems of engagement are more likely to be connected to a core HCM system than to be part of it.

“Companies typically aren’t going to rip and replace an HCM that’s part of an ERP for something that’s more engaging, because that represents a big investment,” Jones says. “What they’re more likely to do is attach talent systems to the front end of the HCM for things like recruiting, learning or performance that are more engaging for both line employees and HR to use.”

White says an engaging user experience now ranks in the top two buying criteria for the companies for which she helps to evaluate HR software. She recently worked with one client who reviewed a number of talent systems, then was able to successfully double its original budget to purchase a system whose user interface far outshone competitors’.

“They were confident a great user interface was not only going to make their jobs easier, it was going to improve adoption of the system,” White says.

LeBlanc says system adoption is a key metric at CareFusion. The organization is geographically dispersed outside of the United States, and it can’t monetarily justify placing dedicated HR service centers in countries with small numbers of employees.

“Employees there need to be self-sufficient, and the way to do that is to increase system adoption,” LeBlanc says. “That’s accomplished with simplicity in your talent systems, through embedding logic in your business processes, and enabling people to access information or advice online as they need it.”

Flexible Tech

The fact that more vendors now build talent systems first for a mobile platform, with the desktop version a secondary consideration, has contributed to improvements in usability, White says. “That forced design teams to simplify pages and screens and make the software more like consumer technology than business technology,” she explains.

The growing use of responsive Web design also has enhanced how mobile users experience HR technology. Responsive design adapts the layout of screen content to a user’s viewing environment. That means those accessing HR systems from smartphones or tablets see content in different configurations than those using laptops or desktops.

For people scrolling HR information on smartphones, for example, high-priority information might be delivered to the top of the screen, with less-critical information below. Tablet users would see information presented side by side. “Systems designed this way also can show additional analytics or data when there is more space to show it,” Hanscome says.

Derek Beebe, a senior HR technology consultant with professional services firm Towers Watson, says 46 percent of organizations in the company’s 2014 HR Service Delivery and Technology survey reported using mobile technologies for HR transactions. Yet only 26 percent of respondents using those technologies agreed that the solutions were effective. Beebe says one problem is that HR-related content isn’t always tailored to employee needs.

“An employee who’s been with the company for six years should see something different in their HR app than someone who’s only been there a year,” Beebe says. “Or if you work in Europe or Asia, the content you see should be different than if you’re in the United States. This idea of microsegmentation is about delivering the right content to the right person at the right time. If the user interface looks pretty but you still have to sort through 52 things to find something relevant to you, it’s not an effective user experience.”

When Greg Churchman was searching for a new recruiting system, he sought something that would prove user-friendly for three audiences: recruiters, hiring managers and job candidates. Churchman, who heads the talent acquisition function at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo., chose a cloud-based system from vendor Cornerstone OnDemand.

Churchman says the user interface allows recruiters to review and evaluate job candidates more efficiently, a crucial feature for an HR function that is notoriously time-starved. “Recruiters can immediately see how many days a job has been open and what stage of hiring candidates are in,” Churchman says. They also can view all current candidates and their resumes on just one screen, he adds, rather than having to click on individual candidate profiles to open resumes. Hiring managers also use the system to review and rate job candidates.

The notion of personalizing content extends to analytics as well, Beebe says. A manager who hires only two or three people each year might not need a time-to-fill metric on her dashboard, while that measure would be of great value for someone hiring hundreds annually.

“Those in HR no longer have to have a data science degree to use some of these tools,” Beebe says.

Change Management Required

The evolution in the user experience hasn’t come without costs. The downside of SAAS vendors delivering regular software updates designed to improve usability can be change fatigue. Each new version requires an HR implementation team to conduct software testing and plan end-user support.

“Everyone likes the idea of continuous improvement, but every new update that arrives requires HR to assign a resource team to it, test it, decide which of the new features to turn on and decide what level of support employees need,” Hanscome says.

LeBlanc of CareFusion confesses that he was relieved when his vendor reduced its schedule of software updates from four to two annually. “That was a lot of change to throw at people, and the new releases were designed to close gaps in functionality,” he says. “The reduction to two releases has really helped us.”

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

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