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Whose Data Is It Anyway

September 1, 1998
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Related Topics: Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Featured Article
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Let’s face it, turf battles have always been part of the corporate landscape. You know the drill. You e-mail the controller’s office about some crucial budgetary issue and you’re greeted with a response that might make you feel as though you’ve contracted an incurable form of leprosy. You begin to seethe and you vow that the next time anyone in finance asks you for data, you’ll make sure to toss some heartfelt misery in their direction. Predictably, the situation continues to escalate until you’re suddenly playing out a real-life re-enactment of the Cold War.

Although struggles like this will never completely disappear from the corporate landscape, a new era of technology and thinking is making it increasingly difficult for the data gatekeepers of the world to inflict their misery on the corporate masses. Employee self-service, intranets and more advanced reporting capabilities running off client/server systems are suddenly knocking down the walls and freeing data. Whereas human resources, marketing, operations, finance, sales and the rest of the corporate gang were once islands unto themselves, the modern enterprise is shrinking, flattening and changing at a remarkable pace.

Management roles change in an era of automation.
The problem, as always, is the gap between technology and culture. There’s no question that intranets and HRMS software have become powerful tools for data, information and knowledge management. Modern systems allow managers to view and manipulate data in new and interesting ways, and they also allow organizations to understand the true costs and real value of people and processes.

None of these improvements have made managers irrelevant, but they’ve changed the definition of good and bad management. They’re forcing people, especially those obsessed with hoarding and stockpiling information, to change or perish. This trend is obvious in human resources. For years, HR has dutifully shuffled paperwork and fielded phone calls. Then, during the last decade, the stakes suddenly began to change.

Networked computers and client/server environments allowed workers to swap files and information. Suddenly, web-based tools made it possible to truly automate processes, use workflow and collaboration, and introduce employee and manager self-service.

Consultants and the press have done their bit to trumpet this new era. They’ve reminded you with every other breath just how your HR staff is being transformed from a boring band of bureaucrats overseeing administrative hell to a strategic entity.

Perhaps because HR has simply resisted the idea of linking the HRMS to other computer systems for fear that data won’t be maintained and used correctly, everyone loses.

Unfortunately, one important fact has often gotten lost in the shuffle: Far too many managers have trouble understanding this new paradigm, let alone dealing with it. They stubbornly cling to Industrial Age management techniques in an Information Age economy. And they mistakenly believe that human resources data is the domain of the human resources department.

The fallout can be enormous. Let’s say the VP of sales wants to know which reps are the least productive relative to their income, so that those who aren’t performing well can receive additional training and the department can create new financial incentives. Unfortunately, she isn’t able to tap into the needed information.

Although the sales data resides in one computer and the salary and training data sits in another computer, the fact that the two departments do not share the data undermines the entire process. Perhaps because HR has simply resisted the idea of linking the HRMS to other computer systems for fear that data won’t be used and maintained correctly, everyone loses. The sales department has missed an opportunity to improve performance, and HR has blown an opportunity to become a strategic force.

That’s a recipe for disaster. Building an information and knowledge-based workplace means breaking down walls and learning to think differently. While an intranet and HRMS software can force HR to share data with others, it can’t substitute for the intangible expertise and analysis that an experienced manager can bring to the table—and it certainly can’t help develop the next generation of systems.

Soon, those who attempt to hoard data and knowledge are likely to find themselves pressured on all sides by more progressive thinkers, people who understand that it’s HR’s role to help other departments understand the true human cost and value of workers. It’s HR’s responsibility to help other departments develop products and manage processes more effectively.

Free data transforms company structure.
Make no mistake, such change will rock your world. It’s likely to hit your HR department with all the impact of an oncoming, fully loaded freight train. In some cases, workers’ lives will be disrupted, even shattered, as specific positions are phased out and people find it necessary to adapt or find a new line of work. Learning to use a new computer system or software package is the easy part. You park yourself in a classroom for a day or two and emerge with newfound skills. The incredibly painful task is retraining your brain to think and manage in entirely different ways.

Instead of being rewarded as a center of knowledge, you’re penalized for not sharing that knowledge. Instead of managing data and then doling it out to the thankful masses, you’re reprimanded for not building greater collaborative capabilities into the corporate intranet or your HRMS. This reversal of these poles can prove to be devastating, unless your human resources department has enough vision to become an agent for change. By assuming leadership and participating in the introduction of new technology and new concepts—a process that’s inevitable in the long run, anyway—it’s finally possible to become a leader, rather than a follower.

Yes, HR data no longer is HR data, just as marketing data no longer is marketing data and operations data no longer is operations data. It’s the data of whomever needs it at any given moment. Doug Francone, a consultant for San Francisco-based AG Group states: "Managers don’t care where data comes from, they simply want a business solution." The competitive pressures of today’s global business environment demand that your human resources department responds to such thinking. Adds Mike Gotta, Stamford, Connecticut-based Meta Group’s Work Group Computing Strategies director: "The way that workers view data is radically changing. The Web is decentralizing information and forcing huge shifts in organizational structure."

Making a team out of many departments.
Call it group think, knowledge management or Information Age dribble, if you like. No matter what label you slap on it, the writing is already on the wall. The organization of the future will rally around common knowledge and practices, rather than artificial boundaries and titles bestowed on a group of workers by a senior executive. As a company assembles and disassembles work teams and project teams based on specific skill sets, words like human resources, operations, marketing and finance become far less relevant distinctions.

Navigating through this Brave New World won’t be easy. But if your human resources department understands this emerging model, you have a distinct advantage. It’s suddenly possible to play a role in building systems, both technological and cultural, that can propel your company into the next century. It’s possible to deftly steer past the tumult and turmoil of layoffs, re-engineering and outsourcing by becoming a trusted and invaluable consultant that can help the enterprise recognize the true value of human capital. When this takes place, power no longer resides in data, but from the ability to understand, interpret and use it. And that’s the true definition of a human resource.

Workforce, September 1998, Vol. 77, No. 9, pp. 99-100.

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