The human resources (HR) function, whether in sprawling corporations or small businesses, is quite possibly one of the most misunderstood and maligned of all the traditional head office activities. 

Assailed from the sides of both management and staff, the modern HR professional is engaged full time in resolving competing, and sometimes conflicting, demands to provide a service of value that balances organisational skills and productivity objectives with individual need and circumstances.
Executives increasingly require a strategic approach to resourcing and productivity, while staff continue to complain that the performance of basic HR functions leaves a lot to be desired, writes Paul Bornhutter, product manager: Africa & Middle East at FrontRange.
This tension has been addressed in recent times first through the development of elaborate processes that were part of an attempt to automate essential HR activities with the aim of freeing HR to be more strategic.
Yet, the underlying difficulty of focusing the talent of HR professionals on strategic pursuits seems to persist, even in some relatively sophisticated organisations where the effective performance of the basics still has flaws.
Why? In our view it’s a consequence of the HR priorities that were established some decades ago, priorities which drove attempts to automate HR processes without sufficient consideration of the fact that people – being people – do not necessarily respond to predefined routines in the manner expected.
In line with this approach, (and after the accounting function), payroll was one of the earliest to be automated and integrated into business applications. As it turned out, automated and reliable payroll was very necessary but not nearly sufficient to free up HR professionals to get on with more strategically focused activities.
According to the conventional wisdom at the time, what we needed was fundamental re-engineering and also, wherever possible, the automating of a broad swathe of business processes.
However, what seems to have sometimes eluded us is that virtually every activity in an organisation involves deploying people – the human resource.
While activities were being re-engineered and the role of the individual in each process was carefully defined, there seems to have been relatively little regard that it is exceptionally difficult (and of questionable desirability) to deploy the human resource as simply a step in a process. One of the consequences of this challenge was the growth of training and quality-focused interventions to continually improve the reliability of the human part of a process.
These powerful trends have met with varying degrees of success in different parts of the world. Without question, quality and productivity have, in general terms, improved remarkably over the past decade.
And yet a conundrum remains: We’ve made so much progress and yet so many organisations and their HR professionals are still battling to free themselves of activities that most practitioners had believed were sorted.
If we are to support the efforts of HR professionals to step up more forcefully to the executive plate, so to speak, a good place to start is with a re-examination of some of the basic HR-related activities that could perhaps benefit from a less complex and more workable solution.
For example, the most significant (and least well managed) events involving employees are when they join and when they leave an organisation. When someone turns up for their first day of work, even in this day and age, it is amazing how many accounts one hears of how unprepared the new employer was.
In most cases, it’s not a question of complexity but rather one of consistently orchestrating a range of activities and tasks to ensure that a new employee not only feels welcome but is able to be productive from day one. The questions to be asked are many:
* What workstation will the new employee occupy? Is it currently occupied? Does someone have to be moved?
* Will they use a PC? An existing one or a new one? Has the existing PC been reconfigured? Has the procurement process for a new PC been authorised and started?
* Is the PC allocated appropriate to the job that new employee will be performing?
* Is the e-mail profile set up? Does the new person’s E-mail address format conform to company style or policy? Is there someone else with the same initials or similar name? Does the E-mail profile need to be adapted accordingly?
* What parts of the system and file servers should this person have access to? Have they been allocated a user name and password?
* Will the new employee use other tools or equipment in their job? Have these tools been sourced and allocated? Are they adequate and appropriate to the job description?
* Has security access and parking been sorted? What sort of parking is the new person entitled to? Are there enough of this type of bay (covered, shade netting, uncovered, etc.)
* Has a telephone extension and handset been allocated? Will the line be blocked, unblocked or partially blocked?
* Will the person have a company cell phone? Will the person receive a cell phone allowance? For how much?
* What orientation presentations or training workshops does the person need to attend before they can begin work or become fully productive? Have they been booked on these courses?
The list is by no means comprehensive, but it illustrates the volume of tasks, some of them apparently trivial, that need to be orchestrated to ensure that new hires are productive from day one.
There is thus a clear link between getting the basics right and the strategic objective of optimal productivity.
Another example of the scope of the “orchestration” task is what needs to be done when a person leaves an organisation. Equally, there are many questions to be answered:
* Are we properly tracking and monitoring the process of reversing all the activities that were undertaken when the person started work with us?
* Have we taken steps to manage the potential “vindictive” risk when certain kinds of employees leave an organisation?
* Have we retrieved all equipment or tools that are company-owned? Did we even have a record of what equipment was originally allocated to this employee?
* Did we send the employee on training courses with the proviso that if they left within a certain time they would have to reimburse the company for all or part of the cost?
And then, in between the employee coming and going, every HR practitioner knows that there is an increasing multitude of activities and tasks that require almost daily attention. Things like:
* How good are we at keeping master records up to date? Is there a reliable system to prompt us, or do we rely on people remembering to tackle tasks on a checklist?
* Where are our HR policies kept? Which is the actual definitive version? The one on the intranet? The one on the HR system? The one on the shared file server? The one in the HR director’s drawer?
* Is there a single point of contact within HR for staff enquiries and requests? Or, are we relying on staff to find and access that information through some kind of self-service set-up?
So, the big question is: What can be done in HR to address the challenge that won’t seem to go away?
In our view, there is technology that can help, but loading up new software applications should not be your first step.
Rather, the first step should be to think about all these issues from a service management perspective.
What does this mean? Well, the key ingredient is a service management mindset. A way of looking at these issues as services that have to be orchestrated and delivered, rather than as just a multitude of irksome tasks that someone has to do.
Service management involves setting service, rather than just task, standards. It involves setting service levels and procedures for escalating issues automatically. It involves, most importantly, recruiting or training staff who can deliver this service out of HR itself.
Only then does selecting the right sort of technology come into play. Of course, this is always a critical choice. Indeed, one of the keys to the transformation of HR is the innovative and judicious use of information technology.
In fact, there are places where major progress has been made in automating and integrating a broad range of HR activities. This includes both large- and medium-sized organisations such as Volkswagen SA, Life Health Care and Stellenbosch University.
Indeed, it is really only by adopting the most appropriate information technology that we can hope to both automate and integrate hundreds of different but related processes in a way that enables the HR manager to spend more time adding real value.