The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

HR Transformation – Leveraging Technology

As we all know, there have been significant productivity gains by companies through the use of technology – with industries such as automobiles and packaged consumer products coming to mind.  By using systems/technology to automate processes, industrial machines (such as robots) do routine work 24/7 with quality built into the automated process based on specifications.  These machines don’t make errors (six sigma standard), aren’t subject to fatigue and changes in attitude, or errors in judgment.  They handle the process in a timely and predictable manner, and do so with little waste and re-working. Other than the initial capital investment and periodic maintenance, they lower costs principally because they don’t draw a salary. Because of error elimination/reduction and the timely delivery of product, technology contains costs and allows companies/organizations to do the work to expected levels of quality and time –both of which are more important than ever, not only in business to remain competitive, but also in higher education to be institutions of choice and to continue to provide quality education in difficult fiscal times.

In my last HR blog post (, I talked about Covey’s 4-Cell Matrix (the most important being “not urgent but important”) and the tie to adding value. In this post, I’d like to expand on one of the items in the Not Urgent/Important listing in that post, namely, devising systems and, while devising systems – that is, leveraging technology – may not be urgent, doing so is important, especially as a major driver in transforming HR.

Part of my interest in systems came about after I read Edwards Deming’s writings that systems (including processes), for which management is responsible, are the source of 94% of the problems in products and services; that human error accounted for about 6% of the problems. Make sense; if a system/process isn’t working properly, you have errors built in.  So a bad system or process will always make errors and no amount (well, maybe a heroic amount) of human effort will overcome the error.  The problem is that so long as the error is built into the system, the error will always be repeated whenever the system is run or the process is activated.

Bottom line:  It will be highly unlikely that any product or service will be of consistently acceptable quality if tied to a bad (or less efficient) system or process.  If organizations wanted to improve quality, systems/technology and processes are essential

This view was affirmed a number of years ago in a conversation with an IT Business School professor who was heavily in business process efficiencies, who said, “Anything that is routine and systematic or repetitious (and that is what most processes are) can be computerized” and that organizations should review what they’re doing to see what can be handled by technology

While the use of technology to reduce costs and improve quality is obvious, one of the best outcomes of a well-designed system is that it reduces the amount of human activity needed to handle the processes.  In doing so, technology reduces errors by people, and also frees up people to do other things

Thus, in the case of HR, where value-adding is found (Huselid – The HR Scorecard) in three areas – selection, training, and employee relations, the question is what systems/technology can be brought in to handle routine tasks so that HR’s capacity to add value can be enhanced?  In the selection area, institutions that are utilizing an applicant system have given high marks to those systems.  HR staff like these systems because they no longer have to handle paper, and search committees like them as well because they organize the material and conduct checks for such things as required information being submitted and done so in a timely manner.

It seems that HR offices using technology are also more heavily involved with activities of a value-adding nature.  They are consultants to departments in organizational development, they have the time to conduct leadership training and more training in general, including employee engagement, and those institutions seem to handle employee relations issues before they spiral out of control.

Undertaking these activities in these value-adding areas isn’t an urgent activity, but they are important because they build the institution’s capacity.  We hire better people, we train our leadership and supervisors to be more effective, we help our employees become engaged, and we minimize disruptive workplace problems.

Just as these activities aren’t urgent, but they are important, so it is with the underlying technology.  We can do without applicant systems, they aren’t urgent to have, but they are important.  And thoughtful leadership seeking to transform HR might look at other software/systems/processes that, while not urgent, may be important because they enable HR resources to build institutional capacity.

Are there other technologies in addition to applicant systems that should be acquired?  While quite prevalent in industry, there are very few installations of business process management applications in higher education.  Think of the steps in onboarding a new employee – from the time an offer is made and accepted.  Those steps are the same for all new hires and much of the work in onboarding can be automated.

Additionally, there are also software for data mining and predictive analytics which organize the data we have in a variety of data files, can tie those data together, and therefore facilitate analysis – helping us see patterns and opportunities that can’t be readily detected by pouring over reports from separate files. (Note again, a prime example of the using technology to do what technology does best – look at a process with repetitious aspects.)

While some might argue:  Aren’t you reducing decisions to a yes/no 0/1 problem – you either do or you don’t. If you do that, don’t you run the risk of making bad decisions if technology is used?  Again, bad systems led to bad results.  So get a great system and make sure it’s working well.

A final point:  I once headed up a major project to select the first user-focused enterprise-wide computer to support email among non-IT employees at our institution.  The committee met and reviewed all the proposals that were submitted by the various vendors.  Through that process, one vendor emerged a scant two points above the other leading proposal.  The Director of IT who was fairly adamantly opposed to my even seeking an email system argued strenuously that we had to go with the results.  Of course, that technology would have locked us into a system which would mean we’d have to tear out all the PC’s and Mac’s on the campus and buy dozens of  proprietary PC’s from the one company.  That certainly was not going to happen.

So I said to the committee and to the IT Director that this was my judgment call and that all things considered, the highest-scoring product was unacceptable.

A process can result in a score, but it is not a substitute for judgment.  If only scores were the final basis for decisions, we don’t need committees or people to make best decisions.  Again, technology supports a process – in this example, the SELECTION of the best technology.  However, just as in choosing technology, there is need for human judgment just as there is need for human judgment in selecting the best candidate.  A thoughtful integration of technology supporting value-adding activities should result in an even more effective HR office as well as better outcomes for the institution and its workforce.