Fostering staff development and the role of IT

Opportunities and threats in modern HR work

Technology, organization and human resources are no longer separate business issues; linking them is not an artificial exercise. On the contrary, in recent years HR management and employee development in particular have both profited from the rapid expansion of high-performance IT solutions, as well as organizational diversification. These trends offer businesses a number of opportunities but also pose threats to modernizing HR work. Professional support from experts at the Gottmadingen-based TOP Steinbeis Transfer Center (for Technology – Organization – Human Resources) helps provide projects with a framework, overcoming implementation barriers for companies to realize their true potential.

Over the last decade, information technology has been dictating the pace of transformation in the field of human resources. Hardly any area of HR development has remained untouched, from coordinating individual development plans to competency management, the administration of training programs, Balanced Scorecard implementation in the HR department and even complex eLearning scenario setting akin to “Second Life”. The specific nature of IT depends on the individual needs of the business and of course budgets but ideally HR development can be divided into two subprocesses: HR performance management on the one hand (such as skills measurement, performance assessments, goal setting, and development planning) and the narrower sense of employee development on the other. The IT market has plenty of solutions for each of these processes, as well as services and service providers. Solutions vary in terms of depth and breadth. Some packages center on HR performance management and incredibly powerful applications such as SuccessFactors and ET-Web, others are more all-encompassing and intuitive with a leaning towards employee training – “learning management systems” such as Plateau and SumTotal.

The offering has become somewhat cluttered and bewildering. The already saturated software market is expanding, with outsourced solution providers and IT specialists offering a variety of consulting and system integration services. Consultancies with a strong leaning towards HR are also entering the scene. So depending on the location, size or specific functional or technological need, businesses have a range of possible solutions to choose from as well as niche providers and support services. It is precisely here that the specialists at the TOP Steinbeis Transfer Center come in, with a methodical framework for selecting and evaluating IT products and services.

One example of the work carried out by the Steinbeis consultants involved a German company offering a complete range of financial services. It needed an effective IT system to integrate into its HR performance management and training processes. The main aim of the project: to harmonize the extremely heterogeneous application landscape and set up a user-friendly, intuitive
application which would allow employees to carry out many functions themselves (selfservice).

The project involved a number of stages, starting with a preliminary study to assess overall feasibility, budget implications and specific system requirements. The team then drafted an IT and departmental concept before carrying out pre-testing, operation testing and pilot testing. Finally the project was implemented and rolled out. The internal customers and stakeholders were involved throughout the entire process, occasionally supplemented by external experts. The role of the Steinbeis consultants in this complex project was to accompany the process and input with guidance and conceptual support. They also coordinated the results of sub-projects, assessed external notions and tracked progress.

There is no doubt that the process support gained from such IT projects goes a long way towards enhancing the professionalism of HR development and modernizing working practices. This applies in particular to the reduction of media gaps and disparate systems. But it also affects a company’s ability to speed up administration, improve reservation systems, communicate, and provide the data needed for reporting at all levels of management. Finally it can be central to communication with target groups and optimizing learning processes in the workplace. All of this largely depends on system improvements in terms of user-friendliness, utilization levels, improved control procedures and back-checks, and the degree to which self service employee/manager functions can be integrated.

Naturally, the huge potential to rationalize and upgrade IT also poses significant threats to HR development. This applies primarily to the threat of substitution in HR areas through information technology. Sometimes people “delegate” meetings with employees to an electronic system, much needed training sessions are handed down wholesale to web-based training systems, and even recruitment decisions are replaced by eAssessment tools. Of course business needs new systems and technology, of course HR development processes and training programs need streamlining, but unwittingly this has and will continue to result in the means becoming the end – unwittingly HR development will become an issue of technological capability.

There is enough received wisdom to know that this can not be right. One is the subsidiary principle in HR development, according to which HR development is primarily a process between staff and managers and between managers and company bosses. What also needs to be taken into consideration is the functional, process-related dimension of HR development. From this point of view, HR development should be a derived, supporting function within company processes, acting economically and efficiently, conserving time and resources.

It is this HR development aim, within the overall concept of business processes that warrants the type of systems outlined above and the use of service providers. Solutions should provide a homogeneous IT infrastructure, linking media and systems without interruption, dovetailing with ERP and HR systems. Preceding this, another of the priorities is to improve structures, processes and services. Systems and processes should also be made flexible and individualized or personalized. Finally, in the ideal scenario, long-winded peripheral tasks and routines with little contextual relevance should be automated – and everything should be userfriendly.

When companies take these ideas to heart, IT has a meaningful role to play in supporting the aims and requirements of HR development. Whatever the nature or scope of HR, IT can make processes more economical and more effective. Despite this, one should always tread carefully. The aim is not to do this through technology. This might seem desirable from a HR point of view but it should only be done if it makes a tangible contribution to management and HR work and it can be warranted as an investment from an economical point of view.

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