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A New HIRS in Wake County Streamlines HR

May 1, 1994
The Wake County personnel department in Raleigh, North Carolina, was trapped in a 40-year time lag. Each day, staff members reported to work, only to find that the day's agenda demanded more of the same: long hours of shuffling enough papers to keep the department just above water. There was no time for anything else, because the home-grown personnel and payroll system kept them mired in outdated technology. It couldn't develop, so neither could the department. "We were operating under 1950 technology," admits Brenda Martin, systems administrator.

How bad was it? Employees were receiving pay for unearned leave because the personnel data base wasn't linked to payroll, health-care records were kept manually, requiring the benefits division to reenter the same information for each new mailing, and the recruitment division was relegated to filing applications and hiring without an applicant tracking system. The department couldn't even offer employees direct deposit. "Every time upper management wanted to do something, we were in the unfortunate position of having to say, 'Gee, we can't do it,' and it wasn't because we didn't want to do it, it was because our outdated technology wouldn't allow it," says Martin.

The department is backed into a corner.
It became increasingly obvious that personnel couldn't continue along the same road. The constantly evolving field of human resources put the pressure on the department to get with the times. "The personnel and benefits field has gotten complicated in the last decade. There are all sorts of options that people offer that just weren't true in the '60s," says Martin. For instance, Wake County offers its 3,000 employees three separate health-care plans, and with the advent of options such as flexible benefits, manual tracking made it almost impossible to administer programs efficiently.

Outside forces raised the stakes as well. As the economy worsened, the number of applicants to Wake County doubled from approximately 15,000 each year to nearly 30,000. The four staffers in the recruitment division were overwhelmed, spending most of their time simply scribbling down which applicants met minimum requirements, who'd been interviewed and who'd been sent selection letters. "It took a lot of people to get things done; it took a lot of time to fill positions. Just moving the paper and keeping up with the paper was all we could do," says Deborah Gyant, recruitment supervisor. Martin is even more to the point: "It was a manual nightmare."

Push came to shove when the department decided to move to a position-driven system, which would ensure that, in the large amounts of hiring for a wide variety of jobs, no one would be hired unless there was definitely an open position. In the absence of an online applicant tracking system, Gyant had relied on management to submit an order form when there was an open position. Each position was indicated by a code number, which Gyant depended on to tell her for which position she should recruit. However, after being passed through so many people and entered so many times, the potential for the code to be entered incorrectly was great. And when Gyant received the incorrect code, she was exposed to the possibility of hiring someone for a job that wasn't open. Even when she did receive the correct code, the lag time in paperwork made it impossible to check to see if a position was available. One misplaced piece of paper could cause Gyant to offer someone a job that already had been filled. "It has happened," Gyant admits. In the fall of 1988, the department decided to take action.

The personnel department puts its plan in motion.
It wasn't difficult to get management's support. "We were in a fortunate position; they had felt the constraints of our old system," says Martin. When the staff suggested buying a new computer system, management readily gave them the go ahead.

To ensure that the concerns of each personnel function were represented, the department assigned supervisors from every division to the implementation team. The personnel director didn't join the team; because so many supervisors would be involved, the department decided someone was needed to hold down the fort. The team's members did, however, include staff from classification and pay, recruitment, benefits and payroll. This way, no needs or potential problems would be overlooked.

"Personnel couldn't continue along the same road. The constantly evolving field of human resources put pressure on the department to get with the times."

However, despite this well-rounded group, there remained one problem: No one on the team had any computer background. Martin had been the benefits manager before assuming her position as systems administrator after the automation, so at the time, she was as in the dark as everyone else. Fortunately, the department wasn't afraid to ask for help; it employed the services of an accounting firm to put together a needs assessment. This would help the team get a more concrete glimpse at the system for which they were looking. To complete the assessment, each function outlined what it hoped to gain from the new computer system. The team then put the combined needs into their Request For Proposal (RFP), which included very specific questions about which features of an applicant company's product could respond to the department's needs. The desired characteristics varied among divisions, but some aspects that all agreed upon were:

  • The system must be position driven
  • The system must cut down paperwork and manual labor
  • It needed to integrate the various functions, so that all divisions had access to the same information at the same time
  • Most importantly, the system must be flexible, to be able to grow and change with the department's needs, and to allow personnel to design and redesign it when and how they wanted.

Personnel narrows the choices with a little technical knowledge and a lot of common sense.
Ten companies responded to Wake County's RFP. The team reconvened, and each ember scored the proposals according to the level at which that function's needs were met by it. The staff tabulated all the points and ranked each company according to positive response. "It was interesting, because pretty much down the line, there was a consensus about who the top two were," says Martin. She attributes this to the fact that there were no factions in the group; they had a fairly cohesive viewpoint on the type of system they needed.

Upon narrowing the playing field, the team decided the final selection couldn't be made until after conducting a site visit to see both systems in action. "We were looking for firsthand evidence that the applications and functionality that were promised in the RFP could, in fact, be seen in action," explains Martin. The team picked sites of organizations whose business functions were similar to their own. For their visits, the staff traveled across much of the East Coast and met with users at a government office, a utility company and two school systems. The team thought this would provide an effective comparison because these institutions had similar payroll, benefits, compensation and recruitment issues as Wake County.

Because the team members had little experience in the technical side of computers, they focused more on common-sense questions than on extremely complicated ones. For her interviews, Martin targeted low-ranking members of each work force rather than department heads or VPs, because they were the ones who had to deal with the system on a day-to-day basis. Questions were as simple as: "What do you like about the system and what don't you like?" "What causes you problems and what makes your job easier?"

While the team ensured that each system met their standards as everyday users, several representatives from Wake County's computer center probed technical issues. The two groups then could combine their information to form a fuller picture.

Martin says the site visits were key to making the decision. "You can read all the proposals and hear all the slick sales presentations you want, but none of that is relevant. What's relevant is, when it gets to your site can it do what you want it to do?"

Choosing the system was easier than implementing it.
After all the research, the decision was surprisingly clear cut. In June 1989, the team voted unanimously to implement a Genesys Software Systems payroll and HR planning system. The principal reason for the easy choice was that Genesys would allow personnel to customize its payroll, benefits and recruitment programs without any outside assistance after the initial setup. It would finally give the department the flexibility it needed to position itself to the human resources field of the '90s.

The staff was enthusiastic about the decision. Genesys boasted a variety of user-friendly tools that each section could customize. One such tool was a report writer, which would allow staffers to create a report from information stored in the online system, rather than culling through hundreds of files to find the piece of information they wanted, or submitting a request to Wake County's systems analysts, hoping it'd reach the top of the pile in time for the information to still be pertinent. Now, for instance, personnel could ask for an EEOC listing of names of all female Asian-American employees and receive the list in a matter of minutes, not months.

"To make sure the concerns of each personnel function were represented, people from every division were on the implementation team to select the computer system."

Also important, information would flow forward from data bases in one department to those in another. In accordance with Wake County's desire for a position-driven system, an application entering the data base would be frozen in the applicant pool unless there was an open position. Once hired, the classification and pay division could apply such data as the position being filled and the salary grade directly to information already pulled from the application such as name, address, education and experience.

The information would continue from data base to data base, with each division adding to it, and payroll could be generated directly from the completed information. With everyone connected in real time with updated information, the chance of making mistakes would be reduced greatly, and the time spent keying and rekeying information from each section now could be applied to more worthwhile activities.

Unfortunately, as easy as the automation would make life for personnel in the future, it would be a long, painstaking road from implementation to actual use. Because personnel needed all its divisions to be linked to Genesys at the same time, they'd have to transform every section from a manual work horse to an automated business unit. This meant designing the system to handle applicant tracking, position-driven control, timekeeping, payroll and benefits concurrently. "To do them all at once was a big order," says Martin. "Most people don't attempt that."

It was indeed a big order. Martin says that the actual implementation lasted from January 1990 through the end of that year. During this time, the department continued to work manually, while simultaneously restructuring work flow, designing the program for each division, entering all data and learning to use the system. "It was a major time investment," says Gyant. "We put in long exhausting hours just to get [the system] up and running."

"There were times during the implementation when we wished we were in another career. In hindsight, it was worth it. At the time, it was all a blur."

Training didn't take as much time as might be expected. Martin attributes this to the fact that Genesys is a user-friendly system. "We all knew the business applications of what we wanted to do. All we had to do was learn the tools. It's a lot easier to teach a user to operate a system than to take a programmer and try to teach him your business applications."

The project team and other high-level users from various parts of personnel took about a week's worth of formal one-day classroom training that taught them about Genesys' various tools and how to design their individual programs.

Martin thought the classes were helpful, but emphasizes the importance of day-to-day interaction. Laura Andrews, Wake County's payroll manager, knows for a fact the benefit of hands-on training. Because she wasn't present during the implementation of Genesys, she had to learn the system in a sink-or-swim situation. "I was sort of baptized by fire," says Andrews. "I had a lot of help, but never received much formal training. It's a matter of learning just by doing it."

During the process, the pressure of meeting management's one-year implementation deadline loomed over the team. Martin says that looking back, she wishes she'd taken the advice of an on-site user for ensuring a smooth implementation: "Whatever you think you're going to need in people time, double it."

Personnel, determined to keep costs low, added no extra workers and still made the deadline. But Martin admits they paid the price in 16-hour days, weeks on end. "There were times when our skin hurt and our hair turned gray, and we wished we were in another career... In hindsight, it was worth it. At the time, it was all a blur."

The team's hard work pays off.
When the system finally went live, the personnel staff reaped more benefits than they'd hoped, giving them confidence that the $250,000 price tag, including the software, implementation and some initial outside consulting, was well worth the money.

The new system not only saved time, it improved accuracy. In the past, the manual payroll system, so dependent on up-to-the-minute time-keeping for its accuracy, had proved time and again to be inadequate. Cranking out correct paychecks for more than 3,000 employees each month required payroll to have data at its fingertips.

Yet, because time and payroll weren't linked, it was nearly impossible to have a faultless payroll. Employees relying on personnel to track their leave accrual were often in for a disappointing surprise. Pay stubs informing employees on the amount of leave they'd accrued were anywhere from two weeks to two months behind. So an employee might count on 200 hours of vacation time and plan accordingly when really he or she had 40 hours less than that because of a week off that hadn't been keyed in. "It was always a matter of having to play catch-up," says Andrews.

With Genesys, time drives pay, everything's immediate, and if an employee isn't eligible for leave, the system won't issue a paycheck. The same setup applies to FMLA leave. Andrews says that there are clear benefits to the automation. "Our payroll is much more accurate now than it's ever been. Before, time never drove pay, so you had all sorts of room for overpayments and underpayments."

The benefits staff also reports improvements in the accuracy of such programs as retiree health care. Health-care billing for the nearly 200 covered retirees had been mired in manual labor. Any time the staff needed information on a retiree, they had to search through files, hoping they could find the most recent form.

"The recruitment division now can position itself in an advisory capacity, offering employees constructive advice and providing departments with more feedback."

Now an online billing reconciliation report gives them immediate access to employees' names, hospital codes, amount of health-care costs and required contribution. This feature has become increasingly important as the retiree base and present work force grow: The benefits division receives bills from 30 different vendors for short-term disability, life insurance and three different health plans.

Now the department can work in the present—and plan for the future.
Wake County's personnel staff has stopped playing catch-up and is becoming the kind of service provider it wants to be. The recruitment section was a big winner in the automation game. At last they had a system that would enable them to move from a paper-cranking position to one that could truly serve Wake County as a strategic unit. "Automation has given us access to data immediately and improves our flexibility and our ability to respond to applicants and to departments in a short period of time," says Gyant.

Gone are the days when recruitment specialists spent their time hand-writing applicant response cards. Gone are the walls of files the staff had to leaf through to find information. Also out of the picture are the overtime hours and temporary help needed to keep up with the waves of responses to positions at the expanding employer. And applicants no longer are frustrated by the weeks of lag time in which a position had been filled without being informed. Now all correspondence is automated, all updates are quick, and recruitment can focus its energies on more important matters than paperwork.

One such initiative to which the recruitment division has turned its attention is providing Wake County employees with more feedback. The staff is able to position itself in an advisory capacity, steering employees toward open positions for which they may be suitable and offering constructive advice on how to become more competitive in the process.

In addition to providing Wake County employees with job information, recruitment can offer various departments more feedback, such as the number of applicants for a certain position, the number of positions that became vacant in a certain time period and the length of time that a position stayed open. "There's a lot of information kept in this system that if anybody had asked us for before, we probably would have pulled our hair out because we would have had to search through files and pull all the information manually," says Gyant.

Another important result of the Genesys system in terms of helping recruitment pull itself into the '90s is its ability to put the personnel department on real time. As an example of the improvement, personnel previously had handled applications with batch processing, in which large groups of applications were introduced to the system each day, and the information then was released and updated in the system at night. Recruitment never saw new information until the next day.

Now, when information gets entered, recruitment sees it immediately. Gyant is enthusiastic about the flexibility real time gives her staff. "Now we can move on; we can provide a different level of customer service for our departments and do some of the things we never had time to do."

Recruitment has proof of the system's benefits. "We get better quality people simply because we can be more responsive," says Gyant. This is particularly helpful in recruiting positions for which Wake County must compete hard for good people. "Half the battle is getting to those people and getting to them quickly," she adds.

Gyant also reports a cost savings after the implementation. Although the staff hired one data processor, it was able to cut back the two temporary employees it had needed for about six months each year just to keep up with the paperwork.

Other departments also streamlined. Because the Genesys system empowered the personnel department to handle most of its own computer design, the system programming section now employs only one computer analyst as opposed to three before the implementation. Martin says that the extra time the automation has given personnel has allowed them to take on more work, and so has saved the department from hiring more people to keep up with what would have been the ever-growing amount of manual tasks.

The staff plans to continue in this direction, continually evolving to meet the expanding responsibilities and capabilities of the human resources field. Becoming a fully automated unit means no more worries about being trapped in outdated technology. The staff has the power to adapt the system to their needs.

So what are the final business implications of the automation? Less paperwork, lower costs, more flexibility, improved accuracy and a personnel department empowered change the system as they see fit, not when they can find the time. And with all these things going their way, it looks like the Wake County personnel department is ready to tackle the '90s.

Personnel Journal, May 1994, Vol.73, No. 5, pp.137 - 142.