The Bottom Line on HR Software

September 1, 1999
By now, we know it’s impossible tosurvive in the business world without software. It runs our enterprise resourceplanning systems, Web sites, e-mail, recruiting systems and much more. In fact,it’s entirely clear that today’s workplace would be reduced to utter chaoswithout these systems - even though we love to moan and groan about them.

    Fact is, technologyand automation have inexorably changed work processes. And while few of us wouldlike to go back to using typewriters, adding machines and ledger paper -complete with jammed keys, leaking ribbons and pencil smears - we’d like somesense of assurance that our million-dollar-plus software purchases aren’t invain. We’d like to know that we’re not tossing money and time into a blackhole.

    But trying to sortthrough the software jumble and purchase the right applications can proveoverwhelming. It’s one thing to know you need software to operate in a highlycompetitive environment, it’s another thing to find the right set of features- and the right combination of applications - to solve pressing businessproblems and build a more efficient workplace.

    And with vendorsbarking claims and tossing out buzzwords with all the fervor of a carnivalpitchman, it’s no wonder most of us wind up dazed, battered and confused. Evenafter we’ve dutifully researched choices and made a selection, we’re leftwith an array of broken promises and unrealized dreams. Then we’re left toattend conferences, workshops and seminars in the hope of comprehending thelatest jargon-laced trend - whether it’s “competency-based management” or“personal dashboards.”

Realize that your HRMS orERP system is only a starting point.

Hawking software.
   All these irritations are downrightmaddening - and expensive. Unfortunately, the vendor’s marketing personinevitably provides better answers than the technical-support person orconsultant - who is often left to pick up the debris. That’s why it’simportant to keep these unspoken truths in mind when you’re shopping for TheNext Great Software Package. These are the words you will never, ever hear fromthose trying to hawk their applications: 

    “We force you to work our way.”Although reengineering business processes can boost gains and cut costs,there’s no question that simply altering work to fit the idiosyncrasies of aspecific program is a dead-end proposition. Excellent software should change theway you work, but never get in the way of letting you do things. Unfortunately,many of today’s packages lack basic functionality and flexibility, whileoverflowing with features. They simply don’t address the unique needs ofvarious industries and sectors. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figureout that steel manufacturing is far different than health care.

    Bottom line: Make sure you understandyour needs and that the software meshes with them. 

    “We’re really not much differentthan most of the other applications out there (even if we think we are).”Think about your word processing program or spreadsheet. Sure, there are minordifferences in features, design and the ability to customize settings. But atthe end of the day, when you send a document to a colleague in New Delhi or NewHaven, does it really matter what program you use? Does that program create acompetitive advantage? The next time you look at an employee self-service moduleor recruiting solution, try asking the above questions. After all, if everyoneuses the same application, or different applications pretty much the same way,it’s tough to see how you come out ahead. Companies like Cisco Systems andMicrosoft eat their competition alive because they adapt applications - andsometimes build their own - to drive radical internal improvement.

    Bottom line: Recognize what thesoftware will really do for you. Set realistic goals and objectives and find theright solution rather than installing software in the hope that it willautomatically drive improvement. 

    “Our HRMS package is only thestarting point.” These days, choosing the right combination of softwareapplications is a real pain. You either wind up with a vanilla HRMS or ERP thatprovides basic functionality and no real competitive advantage, or you cobbletogether a quiltwork of applications and solutions with integration headachesand IT challenges galore. The problem is that core HRMS typically lag specificsolutions providers by a year or so when it comes to offering key features andfunctionality. Of course, using a ton of third-party solutions can bust yourbudget and test your technical skill. The solution, says Jenni Lehman, researchdirector for GartnerGroup, a Stamford, Connecticut consulting firm, is to viewHRMS as a basic platform. “It’s necessary to understand the architecture andits touchpoints,” she says, “and then use bolt-on products to createbreakaway opportunities” only where they can provide a clear-cut advantage.

    Bottom line: Realize that your HRMS orERP system is only a starting point. You will almost certainly have to addthird-party solutions or write your own programs or templates in-house if youwant to create a world-class solution. 

    “We have plenty of flashycapabilities and cool functions, which may or may not help you solve real-worldbusiness problems.” Let’s face it, we’re all a bit enamored by technology,even if it drives us nuts. We see a piece of software do something amazing, andwe’re immediately drawn in. When a salesperson shows off an application,it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re watching things operateunder controlled conditions. The real world - your business - is filled with adizzying array of variables: computer hardware, software, network protocols andmuch more. There’s also your corporate culture, which can greatly influencewhether an application succeeds or fails.

    Bottom line: Maintain a focus on yourcore needs. Don’t try to tackle everything at once and don’t becomedistracted by all the gadgets, gizmos and capabilities. 

    “Our references probably won’t giveyou a realistic idea of whether our software will help or hinder your businessinitiative.” Software vendors are thrilled to provide you with case studiesand references. And they can be quite helpful, of course. But the true test of asystem is how it works (or doesn’t work) for your company. Only after you’veheard about the good, the bad and the ugly can you make an intelligent decision.It’s also a good idea to check online message boards and discussion groups forHR-related sites, and connect with colleagues and associates that you’ve metat trade shows and other events.

    Bottom line: Obtain a cross-section ofcomments and opinions so you can make a solid choice and understand the truecapabilities and limitations of the software. 

    “Once you install our software,we’ll have a hand in your pocket.” Installing a major enterprise applicationcan be expensive - in some cases it can run well into the millions of dollars.But don’t think the price tag for the site licenses, consultants and internalIT staff is the entire picture. A new program, especially one as significant asan ERP or HRMS, can cause a ripple effect and create a need for all sorts ofhardware and software upgrades. Next thing you know, you’re revamping allsorts of software and systems. And don’t overlook bug fixes, patches andproduct upgrades - all of which add to the cost. Fact is, once you’ve selecteda software package, you’re pretty much stuck on their upgrade path.

    Bottom line: Make sure you understand avendor’s strategic vision before you plunk down money for the software. Also,try to understand how the software will affect other enterprise systems. 

The changing equation.
   It’s not good enough to merelyunderstand the list of features a program offers. It’s necessary to recognizehow a program directs people and tasks, and how various pieces of softwareinteract and affect productivity. Like never before, client/server and Web-basede-business applications allow data to flow throughout an organization. Forbetter or worse, that’s changing the equation.

    And as the demarcation line betweenvarious applications and departments blurs, it’s essential to viewapplications in a broader sense. No longer is a software recruiting systemmerely an HR tool, since managers in finance, marketing and other departmentscan use it to hire directly. Ditto for time and attendance, payroll and employeeself-service. That makes it imperative to work with other departments to build atrue enterprise computing strategy. Today, an ERP system stretches its tentaclesthroughout the entire enterprise, influencing the way people work and interact,and determining what kinds of applications the organization can use effectively.

    It’s no simple task. Sorting throughclaims and counterclaims can prove overwhelming. Trying to understand howvarious systems act and interact can require remarkable expertise and patience.However, in today’s competitive business environment, you really don’t havea choice. Only the fittest will survive.

Workforce, September 1999,Vol 78, No 9, pp. 88-90  SubscribeNow!