Is HR just an administrivia?

Published on the 16/12/2013 | Written by Morgan Yeates

Gartner’s “Maverick” research is designed to spark new, unconventional insights, in order to deliver disruptive ideas. Here Morgan Yeates offers some provocative thoughts on HR technology…

HR began its slow descent into irrelevancy the first time it heard the phrases ‘cost savings’ and ‘technology’ used in the same sentence. It has dehumanised itself not simply by removing humans from the department but by thinking technology can replace humanity in the workplace.

Too often, this pattern has blinded HR to larger workplace trends — both macro level trends and possibly trends within its own enterprise. In many situations, HR tries to add strategic value but simply does not understand how to do it; consequently, its technology investments do little to enhance strategic thinking. If HR continues down this path, it will never be able to distance itself from its long-held reputation as a support function, and it will obstruct its own quest for that proverbial seat at the management table.

Not all dehumanisation of HR is negative. HR leaders have an obligation to prove their function’s strategic value to the enterprise — not by defining that value in terms of technology, but by using technology to develop intelligence and insights that contribute to the enterprise’s strategy and mission. This effort indeed includes the use of effective technology, but the increasing use of technology must be seen as a tool to accomplish primary organisational goals, not a goal in itself.

HR’s wrong-headed thinking about technology
How do experienced, intelligent HR leaders develop this technology myopia and inadvertently position themselves as administrators instead of strategists? Could HR leaders’ missteps with technology actually result from deeper misconceptions, more fundamental in nature, regarding their own (versus others’) perception of HR’s role in the enterprise? And is outsourcing administrivia the only secret to HR’s adding more strategic value?

Those weaknesses most prevalent in our research include the following:

– Failure to foresee workplace and employment evolution and technological trends. Ask some HR leaders how and when technological changes will impact their workforce in the future, and they draw a blank.

– Focusing on the what but not the how and the why. Most HR philosophies, as well as most corporate cultures, emphasise what needs to be accomplished by employees but not how the work is best accomplished or why certain processes need to be followed.

– Having an exclusively enterprise-centric perspective. Employees see HR’s priorities differently to how the business sees them. When HR can identify those career and work management activities and responsibilities that empower employees and differentiate the employer, employee productivity will improve as a direct result.

– Promoting e-paternalism. Some HR leaders still believe the enterprise should be paternalistic toward employees. But in the highest performing companies, HR leaders have reset employee expectations about the nature of their employment and hold employees directly responsible for their careers, including being responsible for all data, decisions and problemsolving associated with career decisions.

– Succumbing to the tyranny of the urgent. HR does not always distinguish between what is truly mission-critical to the business or workforce, and what can be tolerated as a temporary problem, resulting not only in an administrative focus, but also a reactive mind-set.

– Attempting to automate a relationship, instead of a responsibility. You can’t buy love, and you can’t automate a relationship. HR technologies are sometimes introduced that futilely attempt to build a ‘relationship’ – a personal connection
– between an employee and the company. But automation intrinsically puts distance between humans.

– Failure to analyse data. All major HR administration systems now include analytics and business intelligence capabilities. HR leaders are without excuse for not creating robust, intelligent, forward-looking insights into the directions their own workforce is taking and how the workforce and broader employment trends will impact the enterprise.

– Unwillingness to redesign the HR function. As much as HR leaders strive toward a strategic Shangri-La for their function, many of them don’t know how to get there, how to prepare for the trip or what they would do when they arrived. Strategic HR takes different skill sets than administrative HR, and current staff, collective capabilities, tools and even budget will all need to morph.

– Failure to engage imagination. When focusing on technology exclusively as a cost-reducing resource, HR fails to imagine or plan ahead for the integration required with various other technologies – or even with human interaction.

HR processes that cannot – or should not – be automated

Automating some processes risks alienating employees or managers, creating inefficiency, or running afoul of HR regulatory compliance.

These include:

  • Employee relations issues
  • ‘Career passage points’
  • Some elements of performance management and career development

The path to failure

The following four mistakes are particularly detrimental to HR’s objectives:

  • Automating a process ill-suited to technology
  • Automating a process before improving it
  • Implementing technology/ functionality that is a poor fit or poorly designed
  • Adding process steps

What successful HR technology looks like
HR leaders in companies that have highly respected and influential HR functions recognise that effective technology and its wise use can result in the following gains to the HR function, as well as to the enterprise’s workforce:

– Directly and indirectly supports the strategy, goals and mission of the organisation.

– Saves costs, produces efficiencies and increases the quality of HR services to internal customers – employees, managers, HR staff and executives.

– Results in access to more, and more accurate, individual and broad workforce data – in context and on demand – for future analysis and decision support.

– Improves employees’ and managers’ general employment experience and individual productivity.

– Enables employee self-development that in turn allows employees to maximise productivity, build competencies and direct their careers.

– Contributes to better employee-manager relationships and thus to higher employee satisfaction (since the quality of the employee manager relationship is consistently identified by employees in surveys as one of the top satisfiers in their job).

– Surprisingly, makes up for the loss of human interaction in a process, or in some cases creates a preferred process without the previous human effort.

Ultimately, successful HR technology allows HR leadership to make better-informed decisions, produce intelligence and insights from analysis of trends gleaned from workforce data, and bring the strategic perspective and advice the enterprise needs in pursuing its strategy and mission. An effective human resources philosophy doesn’t really focus on being ‘human’ – it focuses on engaging and empowering employees in the success of the enterprise.

Morgan Yeates is Gartner‘s research director for the global human resources business process out-sourcing (BPO) market. Prior to joining Gartner in 2011, Morgan held leadership positions in HR services and consulting companies, including AonHewitt, Fidelity, HP-EDS, Mercer and Towers Watson.

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