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Is Technology Enabling HR to Focus on Strategic Objectives?

Experts say it depends on the technology and the definition of 'strategy'

As human resource professionals increasingly take advantage of employee and manager self-service technologies, there’s a belief that HR departments once consumed with transactional tasks are now free to focus on more strategic work.

But does this theory hold up when tested by the realities of the workplace? Experts say it depends on how user-friendly the self-service applications are and how HR groups define “strategic” initiatives.

At Ninkasi Brewing, a 100-employee company in Eugene, Ore., there’s little doubt that implementing a self-service human resource management system (HRMS) has turned HR loose to focus on more strategic work, said Cheryl Collins, vice president of organizational development. Ninkasi employees use the system to change addresses, request time off or access benefits information, while managers use it for tasks like workflow approvals and making employee pay or job changes.

“I was hired here to do strategic work like organizational development but quickly found that all of the administrative and transactional tasks were taking up most of my time,” Collins said. “The self-service system not only meant we didn’t have to hire another person; it also means that neither of the two of us in HR is considered an administrative employee.”

The broad use of self-service has allowed Ninkasi’s HR staff to spend more time on activities such as bolstering employee recruiting campaigns and revamping the company’s performance-appraisal process. As Collins noted, “This year people have goals [and] … a detailed development plan to achieve them.”

Is Self-Service End to End?

While deploying self-service technologies to help HR have a more strategic impact is a worthy goal, it doesn’t always work out that way, said Jeremy Ames, founder and president of the Gaucho Group, an HR technology consulting company in Medway, Mass. Because the transactional workload across HR disciplines is already so high, the time freed up by self-service technologies often just means HR takes on more administrative, nonstrategic work, Ames said.

“It can free HR to focus more on things like performance management or recruiting, but from my experience, it’s not always work in what I’d call the strategic realm.”

Truly strategic work focuses on issues like how the makeup of a workforce affects the bottom line. “For example, a strategic HR or recruiting team might produce analytics on how groups of new hires are performing on the job,” Ames explained. “What do their 90-day, sixth-month or annual reviews look like? What did the hiring process look like? And how does their performance translate to the bottom line?”

Also, he pointed out that the amount of time opened up for strategic activities depends on how user-friendly or intuitive self-service systems are. “If HR still needs to get involved in the middle of self-service processes to help employees or managers with questions … there’s often not the true savings in terms of time.”

Be Like Amazon

Steve Secora, senior manager of HRIS at International Gaming Technology (IGT), based in Reno, Nev., said HR self-service applications should be as intuitive as’s website. “When we talk about self-service technologies, they only save HR time if transacted in a way that’s easy for users to understand and we don’t have to conduct retraining every time someone uses one.”

For example, managers may have to process employee promotions or transfers as infrequently as once a year. “That self-service tool needs to be as intuitive as possible so managers don’t need retraining in things like determining the difference between a promotion and a transfer,” Secora said. “The tool should ask the right qualifying questions—not let managers simply choose if it’s a promotion or transfer—so a manager can accurately determine which action it is. There needs to be a lot of intelligence built in.”

IGT uses self-service for performance management, compensation planning and learning management processes. According to Secora, for maximum efficiency, most HR transactions should be driven by their “data owner.” “The data owner of an employee’s address is the employee, so changing that address should be driven by that employee. The transaction of promoting someone is owned by the manager, so the manager should drive that, and so on.”

The ease of use and on-screen guidance of many next-generation self-service applications has “improved significantly,” observed Sherryanne Meyer, manager of global information technology HR solutions at Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Allentown, Pa. She cites vendors’ increasing use of development platforms like HTML5, which allow employees to access self-service tools across all the operating systems and devices—including smartphones and tablets—found in the workplace.

More Technology, More Time

The use of self-service applications for processes like benefits enrollment and performance management at Air Products creates more accurate data, as “data tends to be more accurate the closer it’s entered to its source,” Meyer noted. Another advantage is that HR can spend less time on data entry or transactional troubleshooting and more time on aligning its services with business units.

“We have more time now to talk to the business units about their strategies, what areas of new business they’re getting into, what they’ll need in terms of staffing for those new areas, and how compensation or incentives might align with that new business,” Meyer said.

Another welcome byproduct of self-service technologies: Their use may change the way the workforce views the HR department.

“An employee came to me one day and said, ‘It’s kind of nice to come to your department and not have to just fill out paperwork,’ ” said Ninkasi’s Collins. “The self-service system, and how it’s allowed us to focus more on consulting and organizational development, is changing the way employees see us. If you’re trying to be a cultural leader and a strategic force in your company, you can’t just be the policy-oriented department that’s constantly saying no to everything.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.


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