Out of the valley: Wake-up call for HR pen-pushers

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The Independent Online

At a recent conference in southern California, a panel of experts from across the US were invited to give a brief presentation to Human Resources managers about the challenges facing them in today's business world. Speaker after speaker stood up to discuss the new dynamics brought about by the internet, the impact of rapid organisational change, the difficulties of outsourcing, and the harsh realities of implementing enterprise-level software applications.

It was fascinating stuff. But when the discussion was thrown open to the floor, only one person put her hand up. Would someone, she asked, be good enough to tell her what the conference session was called, as she was having problems filling in her evaluation form.

Clearly, it's going to take decades of self-awareness therapy before HR sheds its bureaucratic image. Big changes are, however, on the way. Human Resource Management is creeping into the consciousness of boardrooms around the world and, in software terms, is staking a claim to be the next Big Thing. Today, all eyes are on business strategies such as customer relationship management. Tomorrow, good employee management will be just as vital.

All of this centres, of course, on knowledge – that invisible asset that sits inside your employees' heads and has a nasty habit of disappearing when they switch jobs. Few companies have got to grips with what that asset really consists of, beyond a broad understanding that the best employees have a combination of great market intelligence, excellent contacts, invaluable experience and specialist skills.

Traditional HR software systems focus primarily on processes such as payroll. Most of that stuff is terminally dull, and the sooner it's automated the better. The interesting applications are in the field of analytics: assessing the human factor in the context of overall corporate performance or even in relation to industry norms. For example, this allows organisations to calculate the effectiveness of recruitment strategies and training programmes, or to analyse workforce productivity and the success of specific retention programmes.

The key point about these kinds of applications is that they no longer view HR as a departmental, self-contained function, but as an enterprise-wide issue. Just as successful customer management requires companies to pull together data from a wide range of systems, so HCM systems rely on data feeds from across the organisation and beyond. This argument is a powerful weapon for software vendors like Peoplesoft and Oracle, both giants in the field of HR, both armed with suites of applications that span the enterprise.

It's somewhat ironic that employee retention should get any airplay right now in Silicon Valley, where people with jobs are becoming as rare as bars that let you smoke. The point is, however, that even in a downturn, effective performance management is critical.

All of which, of course, is great news for HR professionals – and for the rest of us. Those practitioners who can work out how to leverage the new technology will find themselves newly empowered. Pen-pushers and form-fillers, meanwhile, will get automated into oblivion.

Keith Rodgers is a technology writer based in Silicon Valley