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Human Resources

Tech Talk: What Has HR Done Lately?

Examining new and more traditional technologies for increased efficiencies
University Business, Sep 2009

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME your human resources department explored new technology or brainstormed creative ways to maximize existing software? Many months ago? Last year? Maybe longer?

Ironically, employees’ resistance to learning new technology is often the villain, forcing HR to stick with manual or outdated processes. Other times, budget cuts or software solutions that don’t fit a school’s criteria are to blame. Administrators at some colleges or universities even try to enlist tech students in creating software. Since they lack an HR background, their efforts often fall by the wayside.

Some HR departments aren’t sitting still. By adopting new technologies or experimenting with current software applications, they’re streamlining processes, offering value-added, online services for employees, or working their way toward a paperless department.

Take a look at what other HR departments have done, then do a little comparison. Is there room for improvement at your institution? Is it time to reconsider, reconfigure, or rethink how your own department should operate?

At the very least, HR needs a bare-bones compliance reporting system and an employee tracking system. “You can’t effectively or efficiently track your faculty and staff, particularly from a compliance perspective, using hodgepodge, homegrown systems or local databases,” says Steve Boese, an adjunct HR technology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y). “It just doesn’t work.”

Yet many colleges still operate this way. Several years ago, when RIT implemented an online employee self-service portal, he says the faculty “hated it, couldn’t believe they were being made to use it, and were just outraged.” Only after everyone was trained was the portal considered a valuable tool. Even now, he says, certain faculty push back when it comes to adopting new technology.

Some HR professionals are in the dark about how to maximize free social networking sites.

Some HR professionals are also in the dark about how to maximize social networking sites, like Twitter or Facebook, and collaborative tools, such as Yammer and wikis. While Yammer, an internal microblogging service, can be a great way for HR to send quick messages to 10 to 20 people, a wiki uses server software that enables open editing, Boese explains. Employees can create and edit webpage content using any browser. HR can use it when developing documents, such as creating, modifying or editing workforce policies. Instead of e-mailing the policy as an attachment to 2,000 employees, he says HR can post it on a wiki site, then invite specific staff to provide feedback.

Boese believes more HR departments need to strategically deploy such platforms across their school.

Chances are, most staff and faculty are out there on Twitter or Facebook sharing information anyhow, says Boese. “HR should try to leverage that energy and try to build upon it to meet their organizational objectives. That’s really the challenge of the future.”

Some HR leaders scour the market for software or create in-house programs to help meet institutional objectives.

Last year, the application process at Calvin College (Mich.) became paperless, explains Deirdre Honner, associate director of HR. For the past three years, the school has been using PeopleAdmin, a vendor-hosted software service.

Honner says the service’s licensing fee paid for itself within the first year due to reductions in copying expenses and labor required to manage paper documents. The program was so successful that HR went paperless in other areas. Staff post job openings, college news and events, alumni information, and local events on Twitter. They also use ImageNow by Perceptive Software, which scans and indexes documents attached to employee electronic files. The software is compatible with Colleague HR, the school’s enterprise resource planning system by Datatel.

Calvin uses the same system to communicate with new employees, not just applicants. New hires receive electronic documents on a variety of topics, including benefits enrollment information.

Other institutions turn inward for solutions. At The University of Iowa, almost 90 percent of the HR forms that affect an employee’s pay and benefits are paperless, says Larry Meyer, associate director of HR. The exception is UI’s talent management suite. HR is exploring ways to track employee skills, certifications, training, and compliance as well as to centralize the onboarding process. “We would like to automate the first few months of employment to keep the communication lines open,” Meyer explains.

It’s too soon to tell if the university will buy or build a program. While HR can build exactly what’s needed, Meyer says there’s a point where it no longer becomes cost-effective. But it’s also difficult to convince employees to change a business process or learn new software.

Don Penrose grew tired of waiting for vendors to create a batch wage program. As director of application services at Ohlone Community College (Calif.), he says his office was in “full geek mode” recently while developing a program for its Datatel ERP that updates employee wages based on salary tables. Up to now, Penrose says, whenever employees hit an anniversary date or moved to the next grade or step, HR had to manually adjust those entries. This program did away with that and, hopefully, carpal tunnel syndrome.

“We don’t have a lot of money for additional software” beyond the ERP, he says. “Some software vendors do not provide the basic functionality specific for HR, such as tracking applicants or online benefits enrollment.”

Likewise, the University of Kentucky developed an online dashboard for its employee suggestion program, says John Buzzard, HR’s communication officer. It took six months to create and was implemented in January. Beforehand, he explains, an HR coordinator used a spreadsheet to manually handle suggestions and reviewer input. Ideas first had to be screened and checked for appropriateness and duplication, then packaged, rerouted to certain people on campus, and finally stored in a three-ring binder. Buzzard says the coordinator’s office shelves are full of binders. But now he e-mails the ideas to the appropriate evaluators, monitors their progress online and, at each juncture, notifies employees about their status.

The idea review time has been cut in half. “That was a point of contention with our manual system—folks didn’t feel like they were followed up on,” Buzzard says.

Meanwhile, software that targets communications to select groups of employees was built in-house. Buzzard believes it is a “game-changer.” Here’s why: Without much effort, HR recently distributed a survey aimed at clinical employees in the school’s health care facility. Previously, he says, the process would have been extremely challenging, cumbersome, and time-consuming.

The decision whether to buy or build is not driven by cost but by functionality and flexibility.

The university explores all sorts of free or open source technologies, mishmashing or marrying them with existing hardware or software at the school. Buzzard says the decision whether to buy or build is not driven by cost but by functionality and flexibility.

“There are some e-mail programs that approximate what we’re doing right now, but there is typically some catch,” says Buzzard. “We’ve found that the market is not as flexible as it needs to be.”

For institutions that lack the in-house expertise to build custom software, there are still plenty of options in the marketplace. To help kick-start the search efforts, consider these programs and how institutions are using them:

  • PaperWorks Plus, eCopy. Convert electronic and paper documents, such as employee resumes or contracts, into searchable, secure, and editable Portable Document Format (PDF) files. HR staff can also add signatures to files without printing and rescanning documents, as well as edit scanned documents and e-fax images to avoid illegible, rescanned documents.
  • Redact-It, Informative Graphics Corp. Block or censor sensitive information like an applicant’s name, sex, or age to avoid hiring discrimination and identity theft. Candidates for interviews can be selected by qualifications only. Likewise, schools can redact Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and other data on documents so employees—internal and external—can’t access private information.
  • Mentor Scout, Nobscot Corp. Help mentees and mentors find and connect with each other online. HR can also track participants, ensuring that mentorships are effective. An enterprise version was recently introduced for the higher ed market. Also new is FirstDays, an online survey system that focuses on the onboarding experience. It creates charts and graphs that aggregate survey responses and customizable questionnaires.
  • Broadcast Studio, Create training videos without the need and expense of hiring an external producer. This web-based platform allows trainers to narrate the presentation, draw directly on it, and automatically update it.
  • CareerScribe. Invite job candidates to create an online profile using this free software, which includes a video introduction. Hiring managers can get a glimpse of their personality and presentation skills without personally meeting them.

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