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The HRMS Tune Up Keep Your System Running Smoothly

July 13, 2001
Related Topics: Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Featured Article
You’d think that maintaining a human resource management system would bethe sole responsibility of the HR department. It is, after all, the system thatmanages the functions of HR-report generation, employee data storage, and oftenpayroll. Yet, an HRMS is a highly complicated piece of technology that few HRprofessionals have the skills or other resources to maintain. It shouldn’tbe the job of HR to oversee software, even software that ties so intimately intotheir job responsibilities. But too often it is, and when systems break down andmaintenance issues go unaddressed, the tool can’t possibly perform at optimumlevels.

“Large HR systems should be managed by the IT department,” says JohnCaplin, director of professional services for JAT Computer Consulting, a softwareconsulting company in Pleasant Hill, California, that specializes in HR. “TheHR department shouldn’t have to know or care about the technical issues.”This is largely because HR people don’t have the expertise to manage thetechnology. “The user-side doesn’t understand it, so things don’tget done.”

Caplin says, however, that many of his clients still leave HR people in chargeof the systems, and problems crop up. “Backups don’t occur often enough,and no one takes responsibility for follow-through with the vendor on maintenance.”

Lax upkeep can lead to disaster
While HR management systems are designed to automatemany tasks, it takes daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance to keep them runningsmoothly. In the short term, frequent backups of employee data to the servermust occur to avoid disastrous losses of information.

Companies such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. do nightly backups of the HRMS justto be sure a day’s work doesn’t get lost, says Jacqueline Kuhn, seniormanager of HR applications for Sears in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. Many systemscan be designed to do this automatically, but even then the data has to be regularlysaved to tape and stored off-site as part of a disaster recovery plan. Sears,Roebuck’s IT department runs a backup to tape prior to every weekly payroll.

Software utilities on the system also must be maintained, which means runningutility disks and scanning for corrupt data. At Pawling Corp., a plastics andrubber manufacturing facility in Dutchess County, New York, daily maintenanceof the company’s ADP HR system is the sole responsibility of HR.

Fortunately, Deborah Klein, a Pawling HR representative, is a certified payrollprofessional, which means she has HR systems knowledge and has run maintenanceon the system successfully since she joined the company three years ago. Unfortunately,when she left for maternity leave late last year, no one had the experienceor knowledge to oversee the maintenance in her absence, and a lot of work didn’tget done.

“When we upgraded the system, I was the only person paying attention tothe utilities training,” she says. “When I was gone on maternity leave,no one took over, and pretty soon none of the applications worked.”

Reports didn’t get pulled, backups weren’t made, frequent crasheswere reported, and eventually none of the seven or eight users who had accessto the system could get at the data. They couldn’t understand why theywere having all of these problems, says Klein, who was gone for only 10 weeks.When she came back, she had to re-create reports by cutting and pasting datafrom backup reports stored off-site.

“Without constant maintenance, you don’t have a system,” shesays. While she is comfortable in her role as overseer of the system, Kleinagrees that the best person to manage an HRMS of any size is someone with systemsexpertise who can learn HR. “Anyone can input HR data, but to get it backout, you need to be a systems person.”

Make a schedule for long-term maintenance
Beyond daily maintenance, there are long-term issuesto keep in mind that are the combined responsibility of HR, IT, and the HRMSvendor, Caplin says. For example, when a new system is installed, the legacysystem is often left functioning as a storage space for employee history orbecause all of the data cannot be immediately converted.

“Eventually, you need to get rid of that old system,” he says, “whichrequires a decommission plan.” Someone from IT should be responsible forthe breakdown of the hardware and software, and someone from HR should overseethe data to be sure all the crucial information gets transferred before thelegacy system is removed. “When the old system is owned entirely by HR,it often hangs on indefinitely.”

Plans must also be put in place to purge old data as soon as the system isup and running. You should also have a plan to regularly archive certain dataand do regular report review consolidations, advises Caplin. “Every sooften, look at the reports you generate and ask if you really need these reportsor are they a waste of space?” he says. “Often, two or three reportsdeliver almost identical information.”

A lot of long-term maintenance goes undone, and the result is that the databasegets bloated with excess unnecessary information. Caplin suggests bringing inan outside expert to do an audit of the HR system procedures to look for problemsand offer ideas on how to improve them. In many cases, the threat of an auditis enough to make the HRMS team realize they have no procedures documented andforce them to document and execute a plan.

Written documentation of procedures, as well as training guides for the systemand work-flow processes, is crucial. Too often a company has one expert whohas all of this knowledge in his or her head, Caplin says. If that person leaves,the knowledge leaves, too.

Finally, don’t forget the role that the vendor plays in keeping your systemgoing, even after it’s installed. Vendors are responsible for some of themaintenance issues such as installing patches or upgrades. This is an importantpart of keeping the system running smoothly. “Don’t let it get behind,or it will be a nightmare to catch up,” Caplin says. For example, if thevendor has a new product you want, but you haven’t kept up with regularvendor maintenance, you might not be able to use it. And inevitably, you aregoing to want to add products to the system or invest in a complete upgrade,because no system will be effective forever.

Expect to upgrade in three to five years
“You can’t project out years of usage fora system,” Klein says. “Every system has a limited life span.”Depending on your company’s stability and growth expectation, you shouldevaluate the effectiveness of your HRMS at least bi-annually. “No HRMSshould outlive three to five years.”

Klein’s team meets as necessary to discuss the effectiveness of the existingHRMS and to project a plan for the next one. “When a system doesn’tmeet your needs, it’s obvious,” she says.

For example, before 2000, Klein’s team decided it was time to upgradefrom ADP’s DOS system, which they’d used for five years, to a Windows-basedsolution. “It is a higher-level HRMS, with more reporting capabilities,and it is easier to extract data,” she says of the new system. Plus, ADPwasn’t going to support the DOS version after 2000, so Pawling was forcedto make a decision about what they wanted, she says.

But the upgrade solution wasn’t just her decision. She was part of a teamthat included HR, finance, IT, and executive management. They created a wishlist that included broader options for employee data, and expanded field capabilities.They also wanted a vendor that offered a lot of training and outside support,which is one of the reasons why, after reviewing several vendor options, theychose ADP’s Windows model.

“We liked ADP and we had a long track record working with them.”

After the decision was made to stay with ADP, the next task was choosing betweena mid-level system and a full-blown HRMS, says Klein. “Ultimately the choicecame down to dollars.”
Pawling went with a mid-level system that leaves room for upgrades as theirneeds change, which many experts say is the right choice. As with all softwaresystems, bells and whistles can be appealing but often unnecessary.

“The HRMS serves a customer-service function,” says Kuhn, who supportsSears’s PeopleSoft system, which has 3,000 users and covers 300,000 employeeson payroll. “There’s no reason to have features if no one will usethem.” She encourages people to survey the end users of the system to seewhat their needs are and to focus on serving them, versus just keeping the systemrunning.

When choosing a new system, you also have to get out of the mind-set of simplyduplicating what the old system did. Don’t just replicate the past environment;look for new solutions to accomplish the same tasks faster and more easily,Kuhn says. Automating tasks and employee self-service are the most obvious usesof a new system, Caplin says. It takes a lot of the busywork of data entry outof the hands of HR, freeing it to focus on other responsibilities.

Look at the Web-Based Options
For many companies, the next step for their HRMS isautomation and freedom from maintenance, and it comes in the form of a Web-basedhosted solution. “Web-enabled systems are inevitable for the transactionalpieces of HR,” Kuhn says.

“It reduces the administrative work for human resource employees.”

For smaller companies that don’t have the staff or knowledge to maintainan HRMS in-house, a Web-based solution is a simple choice. The company leasesa system from a Web-based solution vendor that maintains all the database connectivityand support off-site.

“There are no servers to oversee, no backups to do,” says Eric Lee,president of Global HRSystems, a San Diego Web-based HR software systems company.“There is no IT involvement for the client.”

Hosted systems, from companies such as Global HRSystems, Progressive HR, orOpus Solutions, typically charge a monthly lease price based on the number ofemployees, along with an up-front fee for converting data from a legacy system,Lee says.

Once it’s up, employees have access to an employee home page where theycan find HR information and upgrade appropriate data such as address changesor W-4 forms. This kind of access not only reduces data-entry tasks for HR butalso reduces the number of calls HR receives, because employees can help themselves,he says.

When a company does make the transition to a Web-basedsystem, it changes the kinds of jobs people do in HR systems management fromtransactional to trouble-shooting, Kuhn adds. They oversee the security andprivacy of employee data. They make sure information is accurate and reportsare working effectively. “The HR role becomes more professional, focusingon talent resources and change management,” she says. “They move intothe role of business partners.”

Workforce, July 2001, pp. 30-35-- SubscribeNow!

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