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How to Sidestep Pitfalls in HR Tech Implementations

Implementing a new human resources technology system is one of the biggest challenges any HR professional will face. It’s easy to think the heavy lifting is over after the protracted process of choosing and negotiating a contract with a technology vendor, but implementing a new system on time and budget—and in a way that creates strong user adoption out of the gate—can be fraught with obstacles.

The stakes of technology implementations are high because creating a negative first impression of a new platform makes it difficult to recapture the confidence of now-skeptical users going forward. As more organizations introduce new AI-driven HR platforms, the implementation process has taken on an even higher priority.

HR Software Implementation Challenges

Research shows HR technology implementations continue to fall short of HR buyer expectations in many areas. According to the Sapient Insights Group’s 2023-2024 HR Systems Survey, 32 percent of respondents felt those implementations fell short in user training and 28 percent believed they were unsatisfactory regarding knowledge transfer. One-quarter said their HR tech implementations didn’t meet expected timelines, and 23 percent said resource issues impacted the quality of implementations.

Perhaps the most eye-opening finding of the survey was that only 13 percent of survey respondents believed their implementation exceeded expectations in any facet of the project.

There is no dearth of reasons why implementations fall short of goals. Failure to build user needs beyond the HR function into system buying or configuration decisions; unrealistic implementation deadlines; budget or resource issues; and inattention to crucial change management issues are just a few of the causes.

“Implementations of HR tech systems are intense, grueling processes that entail the coordination of multiple internal and external stakeholders,” said Jeremy Ames, chief operating officer of Coligos Consulting, a HR technology advisory firm in Medway, Mass. “In the end, though, it’s the core implementation team that’s on the hook for delivery.”

HR technology analysts say it can be easy to point fingers at technology vendors when implementations go awry, but internal project teams bear equal responsibility for success.

A chief responsibility of the internal team is to ensure the needs of not only HR staff but also others, such as line managers or employees, who will use a system are built into system configuration and implementation plans. Matthew Brown, a research director for Ventana Research who specializes in HR technologies, said failure to consider those broader perspectives can lead to poor implementation outcomes.

“I’ve rarely seen a HR system implementation that includes representation from a wide swath of an organization,” Brown said. “You need the right voices in the room, for example, so you know the questions people managers will have about the system, questions front-line workers will ask, and what departments outside of HR may need from a system.”

Spending more time upfront gathering input, which can include activities such as conducting beta testing of a new system with different audiences to gather feedback before a go-live date, usually pays dividends downstream, Brown said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on implementation teams to execute quickly and ‘just get it done,’ ” he said. “That can result in problems like buying the right system but configuring it incorrectly because various workforce needs weren’t uncovered upfront.”

Consulting stakeholders from across the organization also helps avoid unwelcome surprises, Brown said, such as when a go-live date for a new HR platform conflicts with other significant projects across the company.

“That helps the internal team understand where it might run into obstacles in terms of access to people or resources,” he said. “Teams need to understand the broader business process impacts their implementation may have.”

Ignore Change Management at Your Peril

Embracing a new technology platform can be hard for employees who’ve grown accustomed to the comfortable features of an existing system. Yet, research shows many organizations devote little time to change management efforts like demoing software benefits or user training during implementation projects.

The Sapient Insights Group survey found that 28 percent of respondents had no change management budget built into their HR technology plans.

Brown said the need for effective change management is often underestimated. “In many cases, it’s deprioritized,” he said. “It’s more about ‘Let’s set the go-live dates, let’s focus on technical matters and just push all the buttons until the new system comes online.’ Oftentimes, internal project teams forget how critical the change management piece is.”

Ames said it’s common for the mission-critical steps in implementations, such as converting data or ensuring key features of new HR software are in place, to take precedence over what are often considered “ancillary” tasks such as change management.

“Ensuring proper user adoption is a key outcome of these projects, and, unfortunately, it’s often assumed that everyone’s in the know” on the benefits of the new system or how to use its key functions, Ames said.

Beware ‘Over-Negotiating’ on Implementation Fees

Some experts say that “over-negotiation” with vendors during the sales cycle can come back to haunt HR and IT leaders during implementation.

“The financial health of the deal can directly impact the amount of support the vendor provides during implementation,” Ames said. “If implementation costs are brought down to an untenable level, for example, the vendor might be inclined to either take shortcuts themselves or send the implementation to a partner that is known for being low cost.”

Brown said because HR’s technology budget is often limited, there’s a tendency to try to negotiate lower vendor costs in areas such as implementation.

“HR often tries to come in with a budget that won’t be shot down upfront,” he said. “But it’s always beneficial if you can plan for a bit more than is needed and then have conversations about what the potential worst case looks like, if necessary.”

Remedies for Missed Deadlines, Cost Overruns

The Sapient Insights Group’s study found missed timelines were among the top areas where implementations fell short of HR buyer expectations. Because every implementation will encounter some unforeseen obstacles, experts say it’s better to set more realistic timelines based on benchmarks such as HR peers’ comparable past implementations or other projects that the vendors have overseen.

“The complexities of an implementation—and the number of possible points of failure at every step of the process, especially as a team approaches going live—are what contribute most to budgetary and timeline overages,” Ames said.

Experts say it’s essential to clarify in writing the responsibilities of both the vendor and the internal project team regarding tasks such as making system configuration changes or integrations; expected turnaround times on vendor service support; identifying a designated support representative from the vendor; and what training resources will be available to end users.

Seek Partnerships, Not ‘Transactions’

Developing a strong relationship with a technology vendor may seem like an obvious component of successful implementations. Yet, it remains the exception rather than the rule, experts say.

“Between vendors and HR buyers, it’s often easy to grow at odds with one another and develop a true ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Ames said. “Both organizations benefit from a successful implementation, and yet it quickly becomes contentious if things aren’t managed well right out of the gate. By unifying stakeholders across the leadership and executive layers of both client and vendor, the risk can be mitigated.”

Brown said seeking to create a partnership rather than a “transaction” with vendors pays off on many levels.

“On many implementations I’ve been part of, there’s a tendency to put vendors on an island,” he said. “In some cases, the internal team doesn’t enter into a vendor relationship with a partnering mindset, which requires inviting the vendor into the business and helping them understand how things work. You can’t just assume a vendor will magically know that. You have to be willing to volunteer information to them from the client side.”

Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing firm in Minneapolis.


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