At international resource firm Falconbridge Ltd., the success of the company’s new human resource systems may be determined several hundred feet underground at its mining operation in Sudbury, Ontario. There, as the shift supervisor waits for the cage that will take him and his crew back to the surface, he may take the time to electronically enter details of the work just completed: information such as the location worked, the amount of ore removed, the equipment and materials utilized, and data on the individuals who worked the shift.
“The last thing that shift supervisor wants is to be given additional work to capture the data needed to feed our labour and other human resource applications,” says Lloyd Dunham, Director of Information Systems. “An extra screen, for example, creates an extra burden that takes time away from a line person’s normal responsibilities that create value for the organization. When that happens, people quite rightly begin to question whether or not the information systems function is really contributing to achieving the company’s overall business objectives.”
Falconbridge now employees 4,500 Canadian employees out of five different locations. Two years ago, when it started up its new Raglan operations in Northern Quebec, the company had the luxury of building from the ground up when it implemented a full set of leading-edge systems. Now, as it upgrades the existing back-office functions across the rest of its operations, the new systems are being implemented in long-established operations and coming up against some well-entrenched work processes.
Dunham and his ERP implementation team are well aware of the dubious reputation new systems have for changing familiar work processes, something line employees abhor and resist. Without some process reorganization, however, the company’s new systems would merely be replicating existing processes without providing added benefits or improvements. The challenge, of course, is to determine exactly how and where processes should be improved and to ensure that employees accept and make use of those changes.
THE NEED FOR VISION
The key, says Dunham, is beginning with a strong vision of the organization – its objectives, and the way it operates and creates value – and recognizing how its information systems should enable and enhance those objectives and values.
Vision is an important guide for any back-office systems project, but it is particularly crucial for HR systems. “Even after customization, most financial systems are basically similar. That’s because accounting processes and structures are virtually the same from one organization to the next,” explains Susan Mikulicic, Chief Financial and Information Officer for the Toronto Association of Community Living (TACL), which provides services for individuals with developmental handicaps. “There is no such common base for HR systems. Each one reflects the company’s unique HR policies, pensions, union contracts and other needs. Because there isn’t a familiar road-map to follow, a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish is especially important in an HR system implementation.”
Mikulicic knows of what she speaks, as the TACL is currently implementing new HR, financial and core business applications across its operation of 1,100 employees and 70 locations in the City of Toronto.
BIG DATA CHALLENGES
HR systems typically present a variety of challenges from a data perspective. Those challenges arise out of many things: large data volume; complex data extraction; voluminous data mapping; the need for detailed data cleansing and reconciliation; not to mention the often unwieldy patchwork of multiple legacy or outsourced systems for HR, benefits and payroll data.
Given these factors, it is clearly advantageous to make all the configuration decisions first, before undertaking any data conversion. Similarly, the new data files should be checked for accuracy and completion before they are uploaded into the new system. TACL did this by defining the business rules and running exception queries against the data. Once the data was uploaded to the new system, a combination of manual reports and automated queries was used to reconcile the converted data with the expected results.
It all sounds like good common sense, but it’s surprising how often these crucial steps are given short shrift in order to hasten the process of bringing new systems online.
For the TACL project, Mikulicic is supported by three implementation teams: one handling the financial and HR applications, another overseeing the core business functions, and a third that acts as an overseer or bridge between the other two. The third team’s role is one that is increasingly important given the growing consolidation of most company’s back-office functions, where the objective is to capture data once and share it between applications. When that data capture can be tied in to processes that add direct value to the organization – those that are used in line or plant operations, for example – so much the better. Not only is that more cost-effective, it also provides line employees with the most visible demonstration of the real value of the data they are being asked to input.
HR ON THE WEB
Clearly, it takes a team with a solid understanding of all the company’s systems, and the data being collected by each of them, to eliminate all the requests for duplicate inputting. No less tricky a task is ensuring that data adjustments made in one application are reflected in all other applications that share the data. This is a challenge foreseen by Falconbridge in implementing one of the most visible aspects of its new HR systems: its intranet or web-based HR sites, which a large number of the company’s employees are accessing.
“Some web-based information is easy to develop. Administrative tables, where employees can update their addresses, information about their beneficiaries and so on are relatively easy to implement,” says Lloyd Dunham. “It’s much more difficult to handle information about vacations or sick days since it ties in with other reports and systems. For example, we don’t want someone electronically filing their work time or vacation dates through the website and not having that information reflected in the production applications where we use information on labour availability to put together work teams.”
Complicating matters for Falconbridge is the fact that as many as one-third of its workforce doesn’t have direct online access, making it difficult to fully automate all HR, labour and other employee-related functions. Until those problems are resolved, the company will continue simultaneously using some of its existing systems, including paper-based ones, which is a relatively common practice when bringing new HR systems online. Of course, the objective is to minimize the period of simultaneous runs as much as possible.
“We may need to introduce online kiosks or create electronic buffers at critical points,” Dunham says. “Eventually, though, we’ll extend the reach of our online HR systems to everyone.”
Perhaps the bottom line on HR systems is that they are a breed unto themselves, and carry with them there own set of challenges. Not to be taken lightly.
Nat D’Ercole is a senior manager with Deloitte & Touche Management Solutions in Mississauga, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com