Comments are closed. We have the technologyOn 16 May 2000 in Personnel Today HR managers and their machinesThree personnel managers weigh up their systems’ functions,user-friendliness and effectivenessGraeme Kettles, personnel business manager at MOD agency DefenceEvaluation Research Agency, whose People-Soft HR system went live lastNovember.”What is especially exciting about this system is that it supportseight other key business applications, including sales and marketing,financials, and resource recording. That puts HR at the hub of the wheel. Itgives greater visibility to HR assets across the organisation, making it easierto deploy people in the best way.”Measurement and benchmarking is now a practical choice. You canmeasure the relative merits of recruitment strategies by looking at the cost ofrecruitment and success rate. Equal opportunities monitoring can be done attouch of button rather than bothering a lot of people for data.”Making our data much more transparent across the business puts acertain amount of tension into HR activities – if we aren’t up to date the otherfunctions cannot operate properly. But that is healthy tension, and it wasn’tthe case 20 years ago.”Helen Robinson, HR manager at Alenia Marconi Systems, uses a systemcalled Professional Personnel supplied by InfoSupport.”It is good to have a database that is user-friendly; that helps the HRdepartment look professional. Also, the system is easy to modify as the needsof the business change.”We have a long-standing relationship with Infosupport, which isimportant to ensure the constant improvements made necessary by businesspressures and changes in employment law.”It helps that the database provider has approachable help desk staffwho can assist us with simple and complex reporting, and who are responsive toour needs.”We constantly seek to improve the quality of the information we hold.For example, we have invested in a Web-based front-end to provide on-lineinformation to managers, and are in the process of trialling it before launchlater this year.”Annette Dimond, HR officer at Spelthorne Borough Council, which hasbeen using an Intellect Workforce system since 1994.”Two of the modules are for employee statistics and trainingadministration. It is easy to use and it is immensely useful to have everythingat the touch of a button.”The main thing I get out of the system is the creation of statisticalreports that I am always being called on to supply. But we carry out othersurveys as well, analysing employee data and monitoring equal opportunities.”Now we are planning to buy the recruitment module to analyse directlywhere applicants are seeing advertisements and help with ethnicity reporting,which at the moment is being done by hand.” HR systems have certainly moved with the times over the past 40 years: whilechanges in technology have seen administrative functions drift from outside toin-house, the most recent Internet advances could mark a return of outsidesystems provisionHR professionals of a certain age can remember when payroll was alwaysoutsourced and the closest they got to automation was a bit of borrowed time ontheir firm’s mainframe computer. The development of the PC changed all that,providing systems that gave the function independent control over its own data.Now the wheel is turning full circle. Within five years, suppliers expectmany HR departments to be subscribing to application service providers (ASPs),simply renting their system requirements from outside as they are needed.That may seem like a return to outsourcing but the difference this time isthat after nearly four decades of technological development, HR requirementswill be closely associated with the main business accounting systems, not justprovided as an afterthought.”HR used to be overshadowed by the requirements for payroll, with anadditional system being bolted on to the outside,” explains PeterCollinson, managing director of Midland Software. “Then as companies heldmore and more information about their employees, systems became dormant informationrepositories – just records with no real value. But there has been a big-stepchange in the past few years, and payroll is now viewed as part of HR.”Midland Software is one of a handful of companies which has been in the gamesince the start. Another is Rebus, until recently called Peterborough DataProcessing after the town where, in 1963, an engineering programmer used sparecapacity on his firm’s mainframe computers to set up a bureau payroll service(see box, p44).These electronic behemoths could also be used for recording employee data,although accessing it was a cumbersome process. Dave Johnson, business futuremanager at Rebus, remembers as a personnel officer at Kodak in the 1970s havingto fill in a form and send it to IT. “You had to wait a week to get itback, but at the time I thought it was a pretty good service,” he says.A breakthrough came in the mid-1980s with the arrival of IBM’s personalcomputer. For the first time it became possible for HR departments to choosetheir own system from standalone services packages provided by suppliers suchas Pegasus, Sage and Infosupport. That ended the stranglehold of payrollbureaux and gave HR departments the independence to record and manipulate thedata they were interested in without reference to other parts of the business.At Infosupport, sales and marketing director Robert Wyath recalls, “Ourfirst product was a DOS system called Professional Personnel, a database thatenabled you to report easily, write letters and speed up administration tasks.Later versions allowed for easy customisation and include diary features.”A Windows version followed in 1991, with updates that provided morefunctionality. “A major step was to allow the customer to customise thesystem themselves,” says Wyath.Towards the end of the 1980s a new wave of large-scale products appeared,spearheaded by US providers Oracle and PeopleSoft, which started to challengetraditional thinking about UK systems.”PeopleSoft brought a breath of fresh air to the industry,” saysDennis Keeling, chief executive of the Business and Accounting SoftwareDevelopers Association. “Until then the products were built aroundcharacter-based screens and the software was boring. PeopleSoft was the firstto deliver HR systems in Windows with a user-friendly modern design, and ittook the market with it.”Being designed for an international customer base, these systems at firstincluded no payroll element, owing to the heavy dependence of payroll on locallegislation. But gradually the big suppliers started to include payroll.A new breakthrough occurred last year when SAP launched an internationalpayroll package that works in most industrialised countries. “It is anincredible feat to build all those complex requirements into one package. Oracletried to catch up but SAP is way ahead,” says Keeling.Major UK suppliers which started out providing payroll services now makethat one element in their product ranges. Midland introduced a product sixmonths ago with the focus on HR administration, responding to a shift in themarket. “Companies want to see benefits from HR solutions that impact onthe bottom line,” says Collinson. “Everything is controlled by aworkflow engine, which streamlines administration processes and ensures thatthings happen when they are supposed to.”Collinson also stresses the importance of knowledge management in the newsystem, to identify the skills and development needed to fill the gaps. Awatershed occurred three years ago when the value of the Internet and intranetstruly started to sink in. “That has been a tremendous change,” says Rebus’s Johnson.”Personnel departments had gone through a stage of independence, in thatthey had control of the data and could do what they wanted. But the downside ofstandalone PC systems is that they tended to isolate HR from the rest of thebusiness.””Since the mid-1990s, HR systems have moved from independence towardsinterdependence. Now it is all about connecting one part of the organisationwith another.”The facility for employees to enter their own data in self-service kioskshas given added momentum to the move from administrative to strategic input byHR, underscoring the contribution of technology to the function’s overalldevelopment.The universality of Web systems is a major element of this shift. “Inthe past, the only people who used the system were from HR but we are seeing abig move towards taking it to the rest of the organisation,” says FrancineGregory, business consultant at Lawson Software. “That means the systemhas to be easy to use. Our product is accessed via a browser, which is likesurfing the Web and minimises the need for training.”Another advantage of Web technology is that it facilitates integration.While big systems like SAP and PeopleSoft combine payroll and HR, mid-levelsuppliers tend to specialise, and this has led to fragmentation. “Thetrend is towards a ‘best of breed’ approach,” says Mick Bow, managingdirector of Trace Employer Services. “Web analysis tools link these data systemstogether, so from the user’s point of view they look like one system.”Another supplier convinced of the benefits of this technology is NorthgateInformation Systems, formerly MDIS, whose relaunched Resource Link productmakes the whole application Web-enabled.”The product was functionally rich but we came up against hurdles withthe look and feel of it,” explains Northgate’s director of HR systemsMalcolm Aldis. “Instead of the standard Microsoft design we saw that themarket wanted a new-era e-commerce product, so we designed our new system witha Web feel.”It has had an amazing effect,” he says. “Whereas mostproviders have rewritten elements of their application to provide a Webenvironment, here every element of the screen looks exactly the same whereverit is being used.”Just as most organisations are finally getting to grips with intranets,suppliers are preparing for yet another seminal change. The hot topic of themoment is the advent of ASP, the supply of software via Net links.One big selling point of ASP is it will make some of the functionally-richapplications provided by PeopleSoft and SAP available to smaller businesses.”They will not have to worry about updating and technical issues,”explains Deirdre Hardy, global HR solutions consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.”A new release involves sending out thousands of CDs with updates andredoing the literature, which is unnecessary with a single centralsystem.”ASP will not become a practical alternative until fast links are provided.That will start to happen next year when high capacity connections becomeavailable. But there is unlikely to be a stampede to the new technology.”Everyone is talking about ASP but I don’t see it being widely used forat least five years,” says Hardy. “Intranets have been around for along time but companies are only now making use of them.”Most experts think, however, that the predicted shift to ASP by softwaresuppliers generally means HR will inevitably follow suit. “Things dochange quickly and it would be naïve to say it won’t happen,” says Hardy. “Technology moves much faster than people, and it is not clients butthe industry that makes the decisions.” The history of Rebus Software reflects the changes in both IT and HRover the past 40 yearsEarly 1960s Ian Evans-Gordon, a programmer at Perkins Engines,Peterborough, sets up one of the first bureau payroll services using sparecapacity on his firm’s mainframe computer. He names the company PeterboroughData Processing.1972 The firm launches Unilist, a software system that enablescustomers to analyse the data held on its payroll programme. The company nowhas 18 staff.1975 Unipersonnel is launched in response to the demand to add moredetailed information about staff and their development. Systems are updated toenable on-line data entry instead of batch processing.1987 PS 2000 is launched, a user-friendly PC system that includesmodules for recruitment, absence management, training administration andothers. This starts a period of rapid expansion for the firm.1996 PS 2000 is updated to exploit emerging Web technology and toenable organisations to gain competitive edge by making staff responsible fordata entry.1999 PS Enterprise, an integrated HR and payroll product, islaunched, including an Intranet-based portal that uses self-service kiosks. Thefirm changes its name to Rebus Software, and is now a global company with 400staff. 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