The volume of employee requests to HR help desks continues to grow, fueled by hybrid work policies, new benefits offerings, expectant parents' questions about leave policies and stressed-out employees' queries about paid time off.
To handle employee questions in a more efficient and timely manner, many larger enterprises are investing in integrated HR service management systems, which include employee portals, knowledge management software and case management systems. The idea behind these tiered systems is to deploy self-service tools and chatbots to handle basic employee questions while escalating more complex issues or ones with a legal or compliance component to experienced HR specialists.
HR service management systems represent an upgrade over traditional intranets and can reduce the number of incoming calls and e-mails to overburdened HR help desks. Many smaller and midsize organizations are also experiencing higher volumes of service requests but have yet to invest in these systems. SHRM Online spoke with HR analysts and leaders about which criteria to use in choosing vendor systems and how to maximize the return on investment of these platforms.
How to Evaluate Vendor Offerings
When choosing an integrated service delivery solution, experts suggest comparing what's available in your existing HR technology ecosystem with systems available from standalone or "point solution" providers.
In some cases, a core human capital management (HCM) system will have an embedded service management solution. The 2022-2023 HR Systems Survey from Sapient Insights Group found that 37 percent of respondents use their core HCM system as an employee portal, 27 percent use it for content management and 23 percent use it as an employee help desk.
A growing number of standalone systems are tailored specifically for HR service delivery environments, with a handful employing consumer-grade technology. Examples include Dovetail, Zendesk and Atlassian's Jira.
Stacey Harris, chief research officer and managing partner of Sapient, said HR buyers should evaluate prospective solutions based on how well they can be tailored for unique HR service scenarios, the quality of reporting and analytics tools, the user-friendliness of knowledge bases and the modern functions available in case management tools.
Harris said one of the biggest benefits of these systems is the data they generate. For example, with good analytics and reporting, HR can see which articles in an internal knowledge base are getting the most traffic, what documents or forms are downloaded most often and how quickly service requests are being resolved.
"The reporting and analytics give HR leaders insight into the most common questions being asked or emerging problems in the organization," she said. "For example, during the pandemic, we saw a lot of organizations using calls to their HR help desks to pinpoint COVID-19 hot spots in the company."
When evaluating standalone solutions, HR leaders also need to consider integration issues, Harris said. "There can be a lot of integration points you need to build out, and if your IT group isn't bought into doing those integrations, it can present challenges," she noted.
Making the Most of Product Demos
Experts say it's important to put vendors' systems through the proper paces in product demonstrations. Start by being crystal-clear on your service delivery goals and most important use cases.
"Identify your highest-value and your most challenging use cases for each service tier of an integrated system and ensure the vendor addresses those in its demo," said Kimberly Carroll, managing principal with IA, an HR advisory and research firm in Atlanta.
It's also important to have employees who'll actually be using an HR service system test it during a demo or sandbox arrangement, said Ben Eubanks, chief research officer at Lighthouse Research and Advisory, an HR consulting and research firm in Huntsville, Ala.
"Have a few employees create tickets and do a pilot test of how the knowledge management or case management system works," Eubanks said. "Is the system user-friendly, are there any roadblocks and how long does it take your people to find the right information or receive answers?"
Harris said product demos often impress HR buyers, but they may not reflect reality. "Most demos are done in a clean environment, meaning they don't factor in in how your particular HR function is structured or its unique service challenges," she said. "Instead of just one policy in a category, HR might have multiple nuanced policies, for example."
Harris also recommended doing a thorough evaluation of the chatbots vendors might use to answer employee questions or aid in knowledge base searches. "Ask the provider how much training those chatbots will require for your unique environment, how much you can update them and what kind of maintenance they'll require," she said.
Good self-service functionality in an employee portal can significantly reduce inbound calls or e-mails to HR help desks, experts say. On his podcast "We're Only Human," Eubanks interviewed Nicole Sloane, an employee experience leader with Kimberly-Clark, about how her team implemented a new global HR service delivery system to help simplify and enhance employee service. The system features a knowledge base with 5,000 articles, a chatbot and experienced HR specialists to help with more complex, unique or sensitive cases.
In 2021, Kimberly-Clark employees asked 27,000 questions of the chatbot and completed about 16,000 transactions using the integrated service system, which can accommodate 18 languages. Sloane said her team used a "system agnostic" chatbot from vendor Socrates.ai to create more rapid, personalized interactions for employee service requests.
Evaluating Knowledge Management Tools
A key component of integrated HR service management systems is knowledge bases that contain articles answering a wide range of employees' HR-related questions. But not all knowledge bases are created equal.
The best ones are easily searchable and result in fewer employee questions or issues escalated to higher service tiers because the knowledge base answers the majority of worker questions on its own.
Top knowledge management tools automatically index uploaded content for employee search, meaning HR doesn't have to manually tag content. In addition, they tie content to employee profiles so workers only see the content they should, and they have intuitive search features, often employing chatbots to assist employees in locating just the right article or attachment.
"If you're looking for information about a leave policy, for example, and a search of a knowledge base brings back a list of 25 links to possible answers, why in the world would anyone ever use that?" Eubanks said. "If the user experience is awful and it takes forever to get answers, you've defeated the purpose of using a knowledge base."
Assessing Case Management Functionality
Case management tools allow HR to create a more efficient, centralized way of addressing employees' more complex service requests. Workers with questions or concerns file a ticket that's automatically routed to the right HR service specialist to address. Use of these tools means HR no longer has to rely on shared e-mail inboxes or spreadsheets, which can lead to lost cases or delayed service to employees.
Experts say the best case management tools include intuitive knowledge search features for HR service agents; the ability to add phone or e-mail interactions with employees to case histories; templates with preworded e-mails for frequently asked questions; good audit trail features; and the ability to automatically escalate cases to specific HR experts when needed.
Gretchen Alarcon, vice president and general manager with vendor ServiceNow, said artificial intelligence (AI) plays a growing role in deciding whether to escalate employee cases to HR specialists.
"Based on the words an employee uses when filing a case, AI can determine that the request might need to skip a service tier and go directly to [an] HR center of excellence responsible for things like employee relations or leave management," she explained.
Case management systems also should ensure data security and employee confidentiality, Alarcon said.
"An issue might come in through a case filed by an employee that turns out to be a very sensitive employee relations matter," she said. "You want to ensure there's good security in place so only the people with the right to access that information can see it. You need to protect the confidentiality of involved parties in the case of an investigation."
Next-generation case management systems also have tools that automate and enforce service-level agreements, ensuring that HR prioritizes the most important or urgent cases from among the large volume of cases it typically receives.
"HR departments have a lot on their plates," Eubanks said. "Systems that allow them to easily prioritize incoming requests are very valuable, enabling them to work on the most important things first. That might be a legal issue, a compliance matter or a collective bargaining issue with a union."
Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.