For many organisations this is still something to aspire to rather than a reality. While HR information systems (HRIS) are now widely used – according to the CIPD's 2005 survey, People and Technology, around 77 per cent of all organisations use some form of HRIS – it is unclear whether they are having the desired effect. Are HR professionals employing the technology to its full capacity?
More importantly, are organisations using the information provided to make data-driven decisions? If, as is so often the case, the introduction of an HRIS is justified by cost savings via a reduction in headcount, is the growth of technology simply leading to smaller HR functions, rather than more strategic ones?
A new research project, sponsored by the CIPD and conducted by Cranfield School of Management, is attempting to answer these questions. It will also consider the impact of technology on the efficiency of HR processes and on employee communication and engagement. The completed research will consist of around 10 detailed case studies, covering a range of organisations, to provide a comprehensive analysis of the impact of technology on HR's role. Too often, the effect of HR technology is considered only in larger, more "high-tech" companies, so the aim is to cover as broad a spectrum as possible.
One of the first organisations to be examined is from the voluntary sector – Cancer Research UK (CRUK). As one of the world's leading independent organisations dedicated to cancer research, CRUK's objectives are to carry out world-class research, develop effective treatments, provide authoritative information and work with the government to ensure that cancer stays at the top of the health agenda.
CRUK has around 3,500 paid employees, including more than 3,000 doctors, scientists and nurses that are all (bar one) based in the UK. Funding comes almost entirely from public donations, with the help of more than 30,000 volunteers, a network of 650 shops and 1,000 local fundraising groups.
CRUK is in the process of adopting three main technology-enabled systems: an online recruitment process, a number of spreadsheets to carry out complex calculations, and a comprehensive HRIS that will eventually facilitate self-service. While implementation is not yet complete, the organisation is already experiencing many benefits. In the past, its recruitment processes were largely paper-based – described by members of the resourcing team as "slow" because of the reliance on the postal service, and "cumbersome" because of the need to process and store large quantities of paper. In addition, candidate details were manually entered into a computer database, leading to a number of mistakes.
Now these processes are conducted entirely online and communications are carried out via email. Candidate data is entered by the candidates themselves via the online application process, which not only speeds up the process but allows for greater accuracy. Closing dates for applications can be maintained because of the speed of communicating via the online system, applications are sent immediately to line managers, and the data is readily accessibly via the recruitment portal. At a higher level, the head of resourcing has access to faster, real-time information, can monitor who is applying for jobs and use this information to make better decisions.
The use of spreadsheets for performing various HR calculations – for example, redundancy payments, maternity pay and annual leave – has led to similar improvements in terms of speed and accuracy.
The HRIS is still in the early stages of implementation, with limited data being provided. Nevertheless, the provision of reliable information has already led to an increase in the perceived credibility of the HR function, allowing it to take on a more advisory role. Brett Terry, head of employee services at CRUK, explains that the information "reinforces HR's credibility through ensuring transparency and consistency". Members of the HR team can now take information with them into discussions with managers, and are able to provide remedies to problems as they have the necessary information at hand. "HRIS visibly connects HR to the business and allows it to act as a strategic partner that can make a greater impact on the organisation," says Terry.
Aside from giving HR increased credibility, the new technology systems have also started to affect the roles of individuals working in the function. With less time spent on administration, the resourcing team has more time to be proactive and take greater responsibility for vacancies. Essentially, its role has shifted to one that is more customer focused, as the team is spending an increasing amount of time interacting with managers. Even individuals whose jobs may have been made redundant by the new technology have benefited – former data-entry staff are now responsible for producing information for management and acting as systems administrators, a far more senior and rewarding role.
So while the organisation is still in the early stages of its introduction of technology, the benefits are already obvious. Not only are HR processes faster, more accurate and more efficient, but the administrative burden on the HR team has been reduced and credible HR data can be produced. As yet, this shift is relatively minor, with most of the HR role remaining the same, but as the use of technology develops, HR practitioners may learn to use both their time and the information produced in a more strategic manner, moving closer to achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a fully functioning business partner.