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When it comes to tech solutions for HR, not all are created equal. HRD talks to Michael Howard of Frontier Software about the benefits of an integrated HR solution.

IN THE year 2020, tech-based solutions are an integral part of every HR professional’s working life. Across the HR hire-to-retire cycle, there’s no question that many functions have been made far easier by purpose-built technology. That said, not all solutions offer an equal quality of service for HR professionals. Michael Howard, founder of Frontier Software, cautions that buyers need to be aware of the specifics of their purchase before signing a contract.

“Since I started working in IT in the mid-1960s, there have been two critical considerations,” says Howard. “Security and auditing – they were important then, and they’re important in 2020.”

In the past, manual HR systems were time-consuming and lacked transparency between departments. There was little insight into how and when records had been adjusted, which created additional problems. “It was much easier for departments to hoard information, but this created a siloed environment,” says Howard. “These days, it’s totally unacceptable. Relevant stakeholders must share data, and their actions on that data must be captured. So when businesses decide to adopt a new solution or change providers, security and auditing should be among the key considerations.”

Central to security is compliance, Howard notes. Solutions should enable secure access protocols and ensure that organisations are ISO compliant (for example with ISO 27001 and ISO 9001). Transparency is also critical; while not all staff will require access to the information stored within the system, it is essential that HR can see when records have been added, modified or removed. Systems must have an audit capacity that ensures a record is kept of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ state when data is changed.

“Agility is a critical consideration these days too,” says Howard. “Your solution should be easy to customise without requiring extensive IT support, and vendors  should be able to move you from cloud-hosted to in-house – or vice versa – depending on business conditions.”

Integrated vs multi-vendor

With these considerations in mind, Howard favours integrated solutions for businesses. But he also cautions that not all ‘integrated’ solutions are actually that, and says buyers need to do more investigation before making a final decision.

“We need to be clear what integrated means because we are very often referring to interfacing instead. ‘Interfacing’ means that two or more different systems can communicate with one another in very limited ways,” says Howard. “What a number of providers are doing, however, is describing a combination of disparate white label software as ‘integrated’ when the solutions can actually only interface with each other.”

A properly integrated solution should be end-to-end and built into the very core of the system. So if an employee exists in the payroll, they also already exist in the time and attendance or performance management systems, because the solution is a single one. Interfacing with other programs should be a standard feature for any solution, but it shouldn’t be a requirement for operability.

“The big advantage of seeking an integrated solution is commonality,” says Howard. “Integrated solutions will have common interfaces, reporting tools, menu structures and security access methodology.”

Perhaps most importantly, integrated solutions use a single database, significantly reducing the potential for error and data duplication when compared to a solution that requires multiple databases.

“The big advantage of seeking an integrated solution is commonality” Michael Howard, founder, Frontier Software

“Once again, it comes back to security,” says Howard. “Who really ‘owns’ the data? Where is the ‘source of truth’? When you’re working across multiple databases, it’s pretty easy to see how issues can creep in.”

Similarly, an integrated solution enables transparency audit controls can easily identify who did what and when, rather than having to scour through multiple programs and providers to get to the root cause of an issue. Howard also points out that white label solutions will have different user interfaces and potentially separate help desk contacts, which can be problematic.

“Disparate reporting tools, disparate security implementation methods and disparate audit controls all present real risks in multi-software solutions,” says Howard.

White labelling is also inherently reliant on the multiple vendors’ products being compatible with one another at the time of the solution being offered,  Howard notes. A change of technology platform from any one provider can cause disparities into the future. Data structures also change along with their interfaces – integration software must then change, and there’s not necessarily clarity around who is responsible for the costs associated with amending and paying for enhancements to both systems.

Acquisition is also an oft-overlooked risk. “We’ve all seen small businesses picked up by bigger companies – the branding often stays the same, but the product focus can totally shift,” says Howard. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll have continued support post- acquisition, which in turn creates risks for your business continuity plans.”

“As an HR professional, you are a business leader. So you need to think in those terms when you’re approaching management for an investment” Michael Howard, founder, Frontier Software

Pitching projects

Of course, Howard is well aware of the challenges that HR leaders face when selecting HR systems. Cost is a huge consideration for any business looking to implement a solution, and it’s entirely possible that business leaders will be simply looking to opt for the cheapest one, irrespective of other considerations.

“HR outcomes are frequently built around relatively abstract concepts such as employee experience and morale. While they definitely have tangible effects on business finances,   it can be challenging to nail down exactly where they’ve contributed in dollars and cents terms,” says Howard. “Accordingly, approaching management for funds to invest in a new solution can be challenging; not everyone is necessarily on the same page in terms of outcomes.”

Nonetheless, Howard strongly believes that outcomes can and should be measurable when tech solutions are involved.

“As an HR professional, you are a business leader,” says Howard. “So, you need to think in those terms when you’re approaching management for an investment – you need to be able to demonstrate that there is an ROI.”

Time frame is also crucial, too. Given the current environment of the global pandemic, Howard notes that the ROI needs to be demonstrated in rapid fashion.

“You need to be able to pinpoint the weaknesses of the shortlisted vendors and perform an audit that highlights the benefits of change,” says Howard. “Additionally, you need to highlight efficiency savings, along with actual cutbacks on current expenditure.”

Ultimately, Howard believes, the critical factor is to ensure that you will have a solution that benefits the wider business as a whole.

“There’s no point in investing in a solution if it’s not going to deliver according to the needs of the business,” says Howard. “You need to ensure that you’ve got the right tools at hand for the long term, and I’m a staunch proponent of integrated solutions being the best means of achieving that, provided you’ve got the right partner alongside.”

Originally published on HRD Magazine August 2020.