The human touch

HR apps foster employee development with self-service, recruitment and analytics

If human resources departments haven’t always emphasized the human element of their work, traditional HR management systems have barely tried.

Most legacy systems, many of them homegrown and outdated, generally support payroll processing and core functions such as benefits administration, and time and attendance.

But in recent years, new applications have supported the kinds of strategic planning and development that HR managers were trying to implement in low-tech ways. Now, that revolution in the corporate world is hitting government.

Agencies increasingly use automated recruiting and resume-processing apps, for example, to quickly find new employees and build individual electronic profiles for managing people as organizational resources.

Performance management processes, once a nightmare of complicated paper forms and tedious job reviews, are now facilitated online, tying top-down agencywide performance goals to the job reviews of the most junior employees.

“You need some kind of strategic management capability that cascades down to people,” said Harry West, a product manager for SAP America Inc., which makes MySAP Human Resources software.

“HR is about counting heads,” says Jason Averbook, director of global product marketing for PeopleSoft Inc., a major HR vendor to government. “Human capital management is about making heads count.”

American Management Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft and SAP—the four biggest vendors of enterprise resource planning applications for government—are the main players in modern HRMS. They provide most of the functionality that counties, large municipalities, states and federal agencies need.

By incorporating business processes such as benefits management, recruiting and training administration that have been the bailiwick of outsourcers or third-party software vendors, the ERP bigwigs are likely to attract more government HR business, analysts predict.

Faster hiring

But a few niche vendors continue to hold sway, especially in recruiting. The Resumix division of Yahoo Inc., for example, helped 130 Minnesota state agencies using a centralized hiring center halve the time they took to fill positions. The Defense Department and NASA use Resumix.

Jim Holincheck, a research director for Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., considers talent management products to be the second major category of HR software, behind traditional HRMSes and ERP products.

The coexistence of soup-to-nuts ERP products with more specifically targeted software causes both cooperation and competition between the two, and requires agency IT buyers to make difficult choices.

Federal HR systems now take their marching orders from recent government accountability and performance initiatives, especially the President’s Management Agenda. “It’s forced them to look at their business processes—something they weren’t doing before,” says John Goggin, vice president and director of government strategies at META Group Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

Anecdotally, the most popular HRMS technology trend in the private sector and government has been the addition of employee self-service apps to existing systems. Usually a separate, optional module to the HR core package but increasingly included in some products, ESS saves time and money by letting employees view and update their personal HR records, such as retirement statements and flexible spending accounts.

It has also, according to industry analysts, provided the first, easiest and highest-payoff means of modernizing legacy HR systems with Web front ends that can also integrate disparate data sources.

Federal integration initiatives, including the Federal Enterprise Architecture, complement agency ESS efforts. For example, the Office of Personnel Management’s Enterprise Human Resource Integration project, another item on the PMA, will create a central repository by September to maintain lifetime records for 1.8 million federal employees. Besides providing ESS features, the repository will let managers perform workforce analytics and planning.

Outsourcing is another major trend in government that complicates the buying decision for anyone upgrading HRMS. It takes two major forms: traditional outsourcing of payroll processing, and outsourcing of several HR functions—often, payroll, recruiting and self-service—to another federal agency, such as the Agriculture Department’s National Finance Center.

Outsourcing, like ESS, fits nicely with the PMA’s goals for integrating business processes and information systems.

Quick payoff?

In fact, OPM’s e-Payroll Quicksilver initiative seeks to consolidate the executive branch’s 22 payroll centers into two providers by Sept. 30. The NFC will be partnered with the Interior Department’s National Business Center, and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service with the General Services Administration.

“Payroll outsourcing will never go away,” predicted Lee Geishecker, research vice president at Gartner.

Perhaps less common is outsourcing to the application vendors themselves, though SAP, Oracle and PeopleSoft all offer hosting options. Florida, for example, outsourced the HR application for its MyFlorida e-gov site, Goggin said.

Trends point to further growth in self-service and in analytical tools that let ERP users do for human resources what they have done for physical and financial resources. HR applications likely will continue to evolve far beyond their early roles as data-processing and connectivity tools.

“In the ’80s it was reporting,” said Lisa Jackson, Oracle’s HRMS solution manager. “Now it’s the analytics.” Not far away are smart bots that will help reassign workers. “You’re going to see applications that are going to help clients make decisions,” Jackson said.

David Essex is a free-lance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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