How to Choose Cloud Systems That Won’t Rain on Your Parade

Experts provide tips for selecting from growing array of HR cloud solutions

By Dave Zielinski Apr 23, 2015
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Whether it’s software-as-a-service, storage functions or networking tools, cloud systems have emerged as the dominant computing model in HR technology. But as the cloud needs of human resource information systems (HRIS) professionals grow and vendors respond by offering new products, choosing the right cloud system is more daunting than ever.

These tips from HRIS managers and technology experts can help you select the best cloud software for your needs.

1) You script, vendors show: Make sure you drive the demo process.

It’s vital that HRIS take the reins in advance of cloud vendor demos, experts said. Without that assertiveness and use of scripted demos, vendors won’t be compelled to demonstrate features of their systems that meet HR’s most compelling needs.

Roy Altman, HRIS manager of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centerin New York City,is employing a new process to select a software-as-a-service (SAAS) system. The traditional process involved HRIS issuing requests for proposals (RFP), HRIS responding to lengthy vendor requirements in those RFPs, vendors responding in turn and HRIS assessing those responses, Altman said.

“That is essentially the vendor telling you what its software can do,” Altman said. “What we have done instead is take a representative set of requirements that reflects the most complex customizations we have done with our on-premise system, so we can test the limits of configurability of SAAS systems” in demos. In other words, vendors will be asked to show, not just tell, how they can meet his key system needs.

Jeremy Ames, president of Hive Tech HR, an HRIS consulting firm in Medway, Mass., agrees that HR too often cedes control of the demo process to vendors. “You might have 10 requirements for a performance management system, but the SaaS vendor only wants to demo six functions of its choosing,” said Ames, who is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Technology & HR Management Special Expertise Panel. “Too often, people just take what the vendor offers rather than using scripted demos,” he said.

Companies also are prone to turning cloud vendor evaluations into popularity contests, said Andy Rice, principal of Black Box Consulting, a talent management consultancy that conducts vendor assessments for clients.

“When people ask me who the best cloud vendors are, my stock answer is ‘none and all of them,’ ” Rice said. “The vendor you choose should be based on your unique requirements. If someone asks me about a certain SAAS vendor, I can usually rattle off three clients who like them and three who don’t. It’s not a good criterion to use.”

2) Determine if cloud software can be configured and if it will play well with others.

How well cloud systems can be configured to meet an HRIS group’s unique needs and whether cloud software can be integrated effectively with other SAAS or on-premise systems are paramount selection issues today, Ames said.

“Regardless of what you’re looking for, be it a cloud-based HCM [or] a recruiting or comp system, there will be some level of integration needed,” Ames said. “The need might be to integrate with a finance system, a benefits carrier or an on-premise HR system. Accurately evaluating integration capability is huge today.”

To evaluate how well SAAS systems meld with others, Altman said it’s important to understand the varying levels of integration and whether a vendor’s modules have been acquired from other providers. With baseline integration, batch interfaces transfer data from talent system A to system B; another level up is the real-time flow of data between two systems; and the most advanced, or “unified,” integration is where systems are organically linked based on the same data or object model.

“Vendors sometimes say they are giving you a unified approach, but it pays to dig a little deeper and find out which level of integration they mean,” Altman says.

3) Evaluate new “hyperconverged” cloud systems.

As customers’ desire for cloud computing solutions has grown, cloud vendors have responded with new products. One such innovation is known as a “hyperconverged” infrastructure, where vendors combine cloud computing like SAAS, storage systems, virtualization functions and other tools in one product.

In a 2014 report from market intelligence firm IDC titled Worldwide Hyperconverged Systems Vendor Assessment, the authors said buyers should look for these characteristics when evaluating such solutions:

  • Software and hardware platform scalability. Both computing services like SAAS and cloud storage services should be able to “scale in performance and capacity independent of each other.”
  • Storage capacity and efficiency. As the amount of HR data grows, there’s a bigger need to be able to reduce data size through compression, by eliminating duplicate data and using other management strategies.
  • Ability to support mixed workloads. A hyperconverged solution should have the ability to include transactional and batch workloads (like analytics files and databases) as well as applications like SharePoint or Exchange.

4) Assess cloud storage providers.

When it comes to stand-alone data storage—where information is stored offsite in cloud systems—Rice said you’ll want to evaluate storage limits, user access issues, ease of downloading documents and data security.

“If you’re storing salary data or Social Security numbers, you have to make absolutely sure you understand the security infrastructure of that cloud provider,” Rice said.

User access to storage systems tends be an overlooked issue. “How do you, on a user-by-user basis, determine who has access to certain data and who doesn’t?” Rice said.

5) Follow the money.

Altman’s experience evaluating HR software has taught him to look at a vendor’s financials as well as technology before inking a contract.

For example, if a vendor’s services revenue is high relative to software licenses sold, it could be a sign that the software is difficult to implement or use. “Remember that you are buying the company as well as the cloud contract,” Altman said.

6) Implementation and support matter as much as technology.

What happens after cloud software is purchased is as crucial as negotiating a good contract.

You should have a good grasp of a vendor’s product implementation approach, know what kind of system configuration is possible post-launch, scrutinize service-level agreements (SLA) and determine how upgrades will be managed, Rice said.

“Determine if the vendor does its own implementations or hires third parties to do it, how long implementations will take, and whether the vendor has references who’ll talk about how their own implementation worked,” Ames said. “If those things aren’t checked off, even if you buy the perfect system, it won’t end up looking perfect for your organization.”

Dave Zielinski is a business journalist in Minneapolis.

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