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HR executives look to emerging technology to smooth processes

Jul. 1, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments

Robert Buggs, chief human capital officer at the Education Department, needs only to recall his first day on the job in November 2009 to empathize with new hires.

"The stacks of paper and writing my name 10 times and writing my Social Security number 10 times," he says. "The first 4 hours they spend on board is completely paperwork."

Like other federal human resources executives, he wants to use emerging technologies to streamline, automate and integrate the work of HR.

Buggs' office is designing a system that will make all those dreary forms appear online for new hires to complete before arriving. Health benefit choices, life insurance election and Thrift Savings Plan decisions all could be handled in advance. Designed in house, the technology is being deployed in phases through September.

"I can only think this will be a big time savings," Buggs said.

At the Energy Department, Ken Venuto, director of strategic planning and policy in the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, is focused on improving performance review processes.

"We are working on a system that will be able to transmit performance evaluations through an automated process directly into employees' official electronic personnel folders," said Venuto, who is developing the pilot program with Energy's chief financial officer's staff.

The implementation of electronic folders two years ago helped streamline performance reviews, but it didn't fully solve the problem of manual intervention. Managers' paper evaluations must be scanned into electronic files. Rather than settle for this two-step approach, Venuto wants to see evaluations move in electronic form from start to finish.

The efforts at Education and Energy mirror evolutions in the broader HR world.

In its 2009-2010 HR Systems Survey, consulting firm CedarCrestone found 79 percent of respondents are spending time on business process improvement and innovation, and 58 percent are spending time on talent management processes. While most responses came from the private sector, 8 percent of respondents identified themselves as public administration professionals.

A number of other IT trends are emerging in the HR realm, according to Jay Weiss, a practice leader with Rochelle Park, N.J., consulting firm JGI:

Employee self-service. This allows an employee to manage updates to personal information, selection of benefits and other tasks previously handled by HR staff.

Integrated talent management. This is a single process for recruiting, on-boarding, performance management, compensation, development and succession planning. Larger software companies are offering integrated solutions to replace piecemeal systems.

Business intelligence. BI has been around for a while but now is entering the HR realm. It can provide the measurements, reports and analysis required to better manage people.

Social media. HR is wrangling with the implications of Facebook and other social media sites for recruiting, as well as for employee communications and employee development, but there are more questions than answers today.

Leading players in these areas include Lawson, PeopleSoft, ADP, Oracle, SAP and Cetova. Smaller vendors, too, are brimming with suggestions as to how technology can help federal HR do its job.

Based in Irving, Texas, Aquire is developing software to help HR planners deal with the coming tsunami of baby boomer retirements. "Managers need to be able to discover where that retiring work force is within that organization, so they can plan for what is coming next," said CEO Lois Melbourne.

To that end, Aquire's tools take HR data such as age and longevity in the job, and graph them against the department's organization chart, producing a color-coded map of hot spots where pending retirements will likely leave gaps. A large agency deployment can cost between $3 and $10 per employee, Melbourne said.

Melbourne cites IRS and the Housing and Urban Development Department as two federal clients. IRS has developed training plans based on these charts, in order to backfill predicted shortfalls.

Other vendors are looking at scheduling issues. While most federal offices are 9-to-5 operations, there are many circumstances in which more creative work-force scheduling is needed.

At software maker Shiftboard, CEO Rob Eleveld points to the Energy Department's Solar Decathalon conference, where Shiftboard helped coordinate schedules for more than 300 volunteers and staff. It did the same work for a weeklong Treasury Department mortgage lending conference that drew thousands of participants to the Miami Beach Convention Center.

These events call for large numbers of contractors and surge workers. Since this isn't the type of planning typically called for in a 9-to-5 world, Eleveld said, HR managers look to outside IT providers to make schedules mesh.

Shiftboard typically charges $1,500 to $2,000 for a single event. "In terms of federal agency procurement, those numbers are like a rounding error," Eleveld said.

With all the promising tools on the table that might help federal managers better organize and direct their employees, HR leaders say they are to some degree stymied by that inevitable constraint: the budget.

"If I had my druthers, everything would be in electronic form in one way or another," said Buggs at Education. "But there is a cost to it, and I am dealing with whatever resources I have available."

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