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Human Resources

Make Smart Technology Decisions-Involve IT

Know what to ask about upgrades and new technology, and HR will be better off.
University Business, May 2007

WHEN THE HR DEPART-ment at Western Michigan University wants to upgrade its software, the process is not as simple as placing an order with the IT department. Even if the cost is budgeted for, HR's request must be prioritized and weighed against those from other departments or administrators by a change control committee that meets monthly to review each and every IT change on campus.

"The days of buying technology by IT staff are long gone," says Viji Murali, vice president of IT and chief information officer at WMU in Kalamazoo, which supports approximately 25,000 students and 3,500 faulty and staff.

The committee was formed about eight years ago, when most, if not all, tech requests were honored without thought to their future impact. Therein lies the problem. A software program may be great for HR, but not for the school's technology infrastructure. Likewise, HR's request could impact other departments or delay implementation of an important project.

For nearly 20 years, selecting technology for any department at some colleges and universities has been a team effort involving IT. Yet there are still departments that rarely cross borders, due to limited staff and resources or old-fashioned thinking. While each institution's technology processes or controls may differ, HR professionals have learned a very important lesson: IT must be involved from the front end to the back end of the selection process. Otherwise, HR leaders can expect problems that may compromise long-term goals and even dent colleague relationships.

This advice may sound simple. And it has become painfully obvious at schools with more rigid walls, both between departments and among staff who work together. Art Brooks, vice president of sales at BeneTrac, a San Diego-based technology and services company that specializes in HR, says some university HR departments he has worked with rarely mix with IT. They still cling to old paper-laden processes, don't understand basic tech terminology, and have confused expectations of software. Worse yet, they sometimes base tech decisions on inaccurate information because they don't ask the right questions.

Some HR departments cling to old paper-laden processes.

Before HR even considers an upgrade or new technology, Brooks says, its leaders need to analyze current practices. Then they can begin to look ahead: What are the technology's hard and soft costs? How does it impact employees? What is the bottom line? What is the return-on-investment?

ROI is something many schools don't measure. But it can help HR professionals objectively determine how well their current systems are working. Compare the costs against the ROI for the latest technology products offered by vendors. Although vendors' numbers may be skewed, at the very least they can serve as a guideline.

"Know what you're doing now-the cost or benefit of it," advises Brooks. "Compare apples to apples." His company offers an online ROI calculator that can be adapted for schools.

And don't forget to ask vendors about timelines. For example, who's responsible for the implementation of the software? How long will it take? What additional resources will be needed? How much HR involvement is required? If implementation or even maintenance is labor intensive for HR, you may decide to look elsewhere.

Back at WMU, Murali explains that its change control committee was developed to avoid potential problems. Each of her 105-member staff is an expert on certain software products. For instance, the three employees assigned to HR are responsible for knowing the ins and outs of each product used by the department. When HR has a tech request, someone first approaches any of these designated HR-IT employees. The request is discussed with an HR supervisor and an IT director who oversees HR, who then addresses the issue at the next change control committee meeting. The committee, which has approximately 15 people representing different departments, also gets involved in defining requirements for new software, exploring options, and helping departments work through the licensing, contracting, legal, testing, and validation processes.

However, the committee's decisions are not binding. HR can appeal them by contacting Murali or the school's chief financial officer. If agreement is still not reached, HR's request is bumped up to the university president, who is the final arbiter.

While appeals are not that common, they still happen. Murali says, "Some of the discussions take two to three [meetings] before they're ironed out. There's a lot of give and take and discussion."

Spend some time understanding how each department across your campus uses technology. In some cases, it can avoid duplication of services, offering chances to share pertinent data or create ways in which different administrators or departments can work together to achieve university goals.

At higher ed institutions with minimal IT resources, every department may need to fend for itself, except perhaps on campus wide projects. If this is your school's scenario, consider hiring a technology consultant and creating a "triangle of ownership," composed of HR, the consultant, and the vendor, says Charlene Gross, senior vice president of technology and operations at Precept, a benefits consulting firm.

Define the responsibilities of everyone in this triangle. Gross says everyone must be clear about each other's role, responsibilities, and expectations, such as who explores the different applications on the market, manages the vendor relationship, or oversees the licensing agreement.

And there are always questions-lots of questions-to ask, especially if a vendor hosts the application. These types of applications, also referred to as browser based, are usually accessed via the vendor's website. The advantage: Users never have to worry about implementing upgrades or accessing the latest software version, which the vendor does on a routine basis.

Considering browser-based software? Gross suggests asking the following questions that HR sometimes overlooks:

- What's the vendor's disaster recovery policy? What is the uptime guarantee?

- Will data be replicated to another data center somewhere else in the country? How safe is it and its storage facility?

With vendor-hosted applications, IHE users never have to worry about accessing the latest software version.

- How does the application's security model work? How many tiers does it have and what are the capabilities within each one? Can you assign read only rights to certain employee groups? Can management modify certain sections? Or can only HR make changes?

- What are the log-in requirements? A complex log-in method is best, experts say. You may need to, say, change the password every 60 to 90 days. Ideally, passwords should be at least eight alphanumeric characters long and include a symbol or capital letter. While the average user at the institution may want to get onto the network as quickly as possible, complicated log-ins are better in this case for security reasons.

Still, not every HR staffer feels comfortable speaking the language of technology. Break down the barriers. Invite an IT representative into your department to get a better understanding of current software and expectations of future applications. Or consider appointing an HR-IT translator.

At Oklahoma State University-Stillwater, HR employs four people dedicated to information management who translate HR's ideas on how to improve its systems to the university's IT department. "We're really not IT people," says Alan Shryock, director of HR Information Management. "[We] understand how HR does things, what its philosophies are, and what it's trying to achieve. Our primary [goal] is to bridge that gap between HR and IT so that each side understands the other."

The department also bases tech decisions on a handful of criteria created by HR over the past two decades, adds Anne Matoy, chief HR officer and assistant vice president of administration and finance. For example, each technology piece must empower OSU departments, employees, or students. Likewise, it must integrate information or avoid data duplication.

Matoy says HR has to know and communicate its needs. "You can't walk into IT and say, 'Get me a system that works.' " She believes these translators have significantly helped her department leverage its technology and processes. What's more, everyone in her department is expected to understand HR's core systems. "Success comes from doing legwork up front," she says. "We have an excellent rapport with IT and try to round up ideas and possibilities to come up with the best application."

Even if there aren't any policies governing technology purchases at your school, working with the IT department in any capacity is good for both HR and the institution as a whole. The more informed you are, the better your choices will be. Don't make decisions in the dark. Work with IT to turn on the light.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.