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This Time, It’s Strategic

Technology has streamlined the human-resources department. Can it be pushed to do more?

Yet most HR departments are so steeped in their dual roles as administrators and employee advocates that it can be difficult for them to shift gears and begin to analyze how employee practices affect the bottom line. “You’re talking about a department that is often best-known for communicating details about the company picnic,” says one consultant. “To go from that to offering high-level strategic input that no one has expected from them before is not easy.”

But plenty are keen to try. At Premera, the HR staff is working to automate the hiring process, which had been completely manual and therefore prone to human error. “Paperwork gets lost,” says Magusin. “Forms get passed from one manager to another, and if they get buried under other things, they may not surface for days.”

The company invested in software from Webhire Inc. to speed the hiring of employees. An example of the emerging field of talent-management software, Webhire’s product automatically routes information from one manager to another, links to external recruiters, and enables a job opening to be posted on more than 2,000 career sites. It also screens initial applicants, provides sophisticated search capabilities across an applicant pool, and generates reports with key HR metrics, such as time to fill and cost per hire.

“By reducing the manual labor,” says Magusin, “recruiters have more time to meet with managers and discuss what skills are needed. We want to guide them away from that ‘I need someone quick!’ reaction and instead consult with them about things like whether the job has changed and the skill profile needs to be updated.” The goal is to bring in the best possible person, someone who will be productive immediately and inclined to stay with the company longer because his job matches his abilities.

First, the Easy Stuff

Most people agree, though, that before companies can begin to develop HCM systems like Premera’s, they must automate the more mundane aspects of HR, including payroll, benefits enrollment, and the collection of personal information for tax filing. This frees HR staffers from manual processing, allowing them to focus on such emerging facets of HCM as talent management, succession planning, and the search for metrics that capture exactly how HCM improves the bottom line.

Here again, technology enters the discussion, as a host of new products address everything from recruitment to E-learning (computer-based training that often replaces or augments classroom sessions) to systems that more closely tie compensation to performance. Some analysts, including Michael Eck of The Segal Co. in New York, say that even in the relatively mature realm of employee benefits, new kinds of software will emerge, including programs that guide workers through the complexities of consumer-driven health care.

Most of these products sit on top of the same centralized, core system that provided the first wave of automation (typically an ERP system). Because such systems contain reams of data about employees and corporate operations, they provide a valuable foundation for newer software that can track additional sources of information (training an employee has received, managerial evaluations, career development plans) or analyze links between employee data and corporate performance. For example, a company would be able to determine if an increase in the training budget at a specific division improved its performance.

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