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HR, Your Input Is Needed

As companies look for ways to spur collaboration and efficiency, they are naturally drawn to software tools that break down barriers and foster better communication—and human resources needs to be leading this transformation, experts say.

September 7, 2012
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In 2010, an internal survey at Dominion Enterprises showed employees were not happy with the workplace environment. And the software tools they were using to do their jobs were largely to blame.

"We had 20 different systems that didn't talk to each other which made it easy for silos to exist," says Susan Blake, vice president of human resources for Dominion, a marketing services company with 4,000 employees in Norfolk, Virginia. Many employees used their personal email accounts or Microsoft Outlook, and many implemented their own task management and document sharing tools without talking to the information technology or HR departments about whether they were appropriate.

As a result collaboration was cumbersome, and even sending out a companywide email was challenging, and potentially risky, Blake says. "All of our email distribution lists were static so you didn't know if someone was missing, or if you were sending company information to a former employee," Blake says. "Something needed to be done."

So a year ago, Dominion's chief information officer, working with Blake and other senior executives, rolled out an initiative to eliminate the disparate one-off tools employees were using, and replace them with an all-Google software suite, including Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and Google Chat. The company also uses UserVoice, a feedback tool that can be accessed from the Google environment.

"Now we have a global solution that makes it so much easier to collaborate, share documents and get email from anywhere," Blake says.

Employees can now access their company email from their smartphones or other devices, they can auto-populate Google Calendars with dates and events, and they can create wikis and internal Web pages using Google Sites to streamline document sharing and editing in real time. "Instead of seven managers updating seven different documents, they all make changes to the same Google document," she says. "What used to take hours now takes 15 minutes."

Dominion is at the leading edge of the trend to centralize implementation of work-management tools across the organization. As companies look for ways to spur creativity and collaboration, they are naturally drawn to tools that break down barriers and foster better communication.

And HR needs to be leading this transformation, says Yvette Cameron, vice president and principal analyst with market research firm Constellation Research Inc. "HR leaders need to recognize that they can't just focus on technology for HR processes, they need to think about business-centric solutions," she says.

Instead of merely measuring performance, HR should be helping to improve that performance by making sure employees have the tools they need to do their job more efficiently. Whether a company implements a whole suite of productivity tools, or a single product, such as Dropbox for file sharing, Yammer for collaboration or Basecamp for project management, this software helps employees improve performance, which drives better bottom-line results.

"This is an opportunity to bridge the gap between IT and HR," Cameron says. If HR leaders team up with the IT department, they have the opportunity to head up the strategy for this category of tools.

That should be a primary goal for the HR department, says Lexy Martin, vice president of research analytics for CedarCrestone, a management consulting firm in Alpharetta, Georgia. "HR is responsible for productivity, so they need to be more invested in understanding the impact these tools are going to have."

Yet, so far, it doesn't seem as if they are. CedarCrestone conducts an annual survey on HR technology that focuses on companywide workforce management software used for everything from record keeping and service delivery to tracking time and labor, talent management and business analytics. This year Martin added a question asking respondents whether they were aware of work-management tools.

"Preliminary results show HR is not familiar with these tools," she says, and that worries her. "This is a category that HR should own, or at least be involved in the process of deciding which solutions to roll out."

Instead these decisions often fall into the hands of operations, or to individual teams or departments that implement tools that only their small group will use.

Allowing people to use one-off applications may seem like a productivity enhancer, and it can be at first, Blake says. "It starts as a way to improve efficiency, but it quickly becomes an unmanageable behemoth."

Some of these tools can even be counterproductive from the start if they don't have a strong strategic goal attached to them, warns Trip Chowdhry of Global Equities Research. Yammer, for example, the business social media tool, is designed to foster collaboration across the organization by exchanging short answers to simple questions.

"It may be a good idea to spend five minutes on Yammer looking for answers to a specific problem," Chowdhry says. "But without controls or guidelines, it can end up as the Facebook for the enterprise, and gossip doesn't equal insight."

Even worse, these employee-driven applications can increase data security risks to the company, Cameron says. Whether employees are emailing documents to their smartphones, or sharing data using unsecured Web-based tools, when employees implement their own technologies, they don't get properly vetted. "HR has an opportunity here to create a platform that keeps data safe while creating enablers to productivity that drive better business results," she says.

But HR officials can only have an impact if they work together with the IT team and the business-unit leaders to choose and implement these tools, and to define specific strategic goals for their use, argues David Arella, CEO of 4Spires, a Web-based application provider in Half Moon Bay, California.

He urges HR leaders to actively research the tools their employees use today, how they affect productivity, and to work with IT to decide which ones should be rolled out to the whole organization. "Even if they aren't directly responsible for approving the tools, they must be part of the discussion."

They should also take the time to figure out how these tools can improve their own productivity, and provide quantitative data to support training and succession-planning programs, Blake says. Whether it's tracking team productivity to identify high performers or following discussions posted on corporate social media sites to discover training needs or dissatisfaction among employee groups, these tools offer a bevy of valuable human resources data. "There is so much information out there that can be useful to HR," Blake says.

The move to companywide work-management tools is only just beginning, and it shouldn't be driven solely by the IT team. This is a chance for HR officials to take the lead, drive decision-making and link their efforts to improved productivity across the organization, Arella says. "HR people are the experts in creating a culture of communication, and that's the most powerful aspect of productivity," he says. "For them not to be involved in choosing these tools would be a huge missed opportunity."

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

Workforce Management, October 2012, pgs. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!

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