How Changes in Technology Are Re-Creating the HR-IT Relationship

By Mark Feffer Sep 29, 2016
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​When Katherine Mancuso joined telecommunications provider ShoreTel as vice president of human resources, one of the first projects she tackled was introducing a new onboarding system.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company wanted to provide its increasing number of remote employees with a system that was easier to use and required less time to administer. Mancuso's team conducted internal research to determine specific requirements then studied vendors until it found Worktap, a cloud-based product that fit the bill.

Then, Mancuso turned to ShoreTel's IT department, which vetted the product before she signed on with the vendor and began putting the new onboarding system in place.

Until recently, it was all-but-unheard-of for HR to take that kind of lead on a technical effort. But the same advances that power our latest apps or analytics packages are putting HR professionals in a better position than ever to lead the discussion—and the selection—of the technology they use to do their jobs.

How the Landscape Is Changing

HR departments often talk about "getting a seat at the table" with the rest of their company's leadership. Not long ago, HR might indeed have been sitting there when its own technology needs were examined, but the tech team would have been leading the discussion.

"The premise used to be that HR was an afterthought" when it came to purchasing technology, said Steven John, chief information officer for AmeriPride Services, a large uniform rental and linen supply company based in Minnetonka, Minn. "HR was generally a low priority to IT."

Today, about half of all HR systems reside in the cloud, estimated Yvette Cameron, global vice president of strategy for SAP SuccessFactors in San Francisco.

That means HR has become more influential in how technology decisions are made, said Steve Boese, the Rochester, N.Y.-based program chair of October's HR Technology Conference. In some organizations, Cameron added, "the reality is that IT is just the enabler of HR's strategy."

In fact, in many organizations HR is more likely to "own" its technology while IT's role is limited to ensuring that it meets requirements in security, systems integration and other technical areas. As a result, IT is often more of a consultant than a decision-maker, said Jeremy Ames, CEO of Hive Tech HR, an HR systems consultant in Hopkinton, Mass.

This new dynamic between the HR and IT departments means relationships can grow tense; IT must adjust to a position in which it wields less clout—not only with HR, but with other functional areas, as well. Even though purchasing processes vary widely from company to company, the success of the relationship between HR and IT depends largely on HR practitioners understanding the challenges their colleagues in IT face—even while the former remain assertive about their needs.

Know What You Want from Technology

"The best path begins with HR describing its talent strategy and how technology can help that," said Dan Schwartz, a partner in Bain & Company's organizational practice in Washington, D.C. "Companies that realize HR's [strategic] role start the process with a clear view of how technology can enable better decision-making and follow-through." In such cases, he said, IT's job is to translate technology into a business solution, to identify the system that meets HR's requirements.

At other organizations—like ShoreTel, where the HR leader reports directly to the CEO—HR may conduct its own product research as Mancuso did, then bring in IT to vet the solution it's zeroing in on.

"I'm looking at things like ease-of-use and employee experience, while IT's worrying about things like security and integration," Mancuso explained. "We've got a good partner within the IT organization who's sat through many meetings with us and before we went to contract [on a system] said there were some foundational issues that IT needed to be satisfied on." In such cases, the HR and IT teams work together to overcome any challenges.

Be Sympathetic to IT's Changing Role

In this kind of environment, building a productive relationship requires two things: Getting to know the people you're working with and learning some of the nuts and bolts of their jobs. In smaller organizations, you may already know the IT team and may have chatted with them at the last holiday party or at lunch. But do you really know what their lives are like?

"It's important to understand their world and plan carefully so as not to infringe on their resources but to maximize their effort," said Kim Ziprik, SHRM-CP, organizational development manager for Atlanta-based Nasco, which provides administrative solutions to Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans across the country.

To do that, take the time to learn about how IT operates, from its workflow to the basic tenets of technical development and operations. This doesn't mean you should know how to code, Ames said, but you should at least understand IT's processes. Too often, he contends, HR underestimates how much time and money technology projects require. Practitioners become impatient with the simple fact that IT is trying to do its job correctly.

Appreciate What IT Brings to the Table

Even if the tech team is morphing into a more consultative role, launching new technology still requires that IT be involved in product evaluation, systems integration and data-handling. For instance, Boese noted, HR isn't qualified to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of how a technology vendor imports data into its tool. "You need to recognize that IT will bring things to the table HR doesn't understand," he said.

"We're not IT-savvy, so we have to go to the people who can help us succeed," added Barbara Bell-Dees, Nasco's vice president of human resources and people services.

This means beginning your conversations with IT early in the process. For example, after Ziprik wrote requirements for an RFP, she asked the tech team to vet the technology-focused portions to make sure they were properly presented.

Once the RFP was distributed, Ziprik worked with a cross-functional team—including representatives from IT, finance, learning and development, business stakeholders themselves—to evaluate the vendors who responded. "You need to know your organization, the business and the technology requirements," she said. "Otherwise, you get sold on fluffy pieces."

That's a real danger when it comes to evaluating technology. The HR team may reach a point "where all the systems blend together in their minds," said Steve Goldberg, an HR technology advisor in St. Augustine, Fla. "Vendors don't do a great job in messaging about why they're unique. At the end of the day, HR's seeing the same message from everybody." IT, he said, can point out the distinctions between products.

Make Your Case in Detail

While the cloud's advent has certainly lowered costs, its products aren't necessarily cheap and HR still needs to make a strong business case to justify paying for them. Of course, the finance department will want to run numbers on the purchase, but the business case can make all the difference if HR and IT ever disagree.

For example, an IT team that's running SAP systems across the company may prefer the continuity of using SAP SuccessFactors as an HRIS solution. What happens if HR has been sold on another vendor, like Workday? "It all comes back to the business case," Bain & Company's Schwartz said. "In that example, HR has to make a counter-business argument to the IT argument. HR has to argue about more than things like the interface and ease-of-use. They have to boil it down to the business impact."

So if IT argues that SuccessFactors will be less expensive to implement and support, HR must prove that its alternative will allow it to handle, say, workforce planning and management in ways that result in greater cost-savings, increased revenue and other financial advantages. "It comes back to HR really having to understand the value they're talking about," Schwartz said.

One thing's for sure: The days of passively waiting for IT to approve HR's technology solutions are all but over. ShoreTel's Mancuso, for one, believes technical knowledge will become an increasingly important part of HR's skill set. "All areas of HR are going to be touched by technology," she observed.

And all signs indicate that HR is less likely to simply sit at IT's table. Instead, HR will lead the discussion around it.

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