How the CIO can Build Bridges Between HR and IT

Human resources have long been dismissed by IT and line-of-business departments. But it’s time for that to change, says former CIO and HotTopics contributing editor Laura Dawson.


Enhancing collaboration between HR and IT

  1. HR Technologies
  2. Decreasing HR services
  3. Getting to know HR
  4. Being a strategic partner
  5. Leading the HR director to water

“Human Resources are the Ryanair of departments. You get the overwhelming feeling they would prefer you never use them.”


The above quote, from a technology leader last year, resonates and disappoints me in equal measure. I know what they mean, but it also makes me think: there, but by the grace of God, go technology teams, and…how did we get into a position where almost all of our peers despair about their relationship with HR?


Over the years, it must have felt like a non-stop barrage of criticism and complaint for our colleagues in Human Resources.


In my experience, the individuals responsible for ensuring we have the people we need to deliver our aims and strategy, and to make sure that little gets in the way of them delivering at their best, are the most under-invested and under-valued within an organisation.


It is time to start respecting this team for their expertise, understanding their pressures and working together with them. Because HR should be the bastion of change, after all. 


HR Technology is just a poor relation….


On a peer networking group, a CIO was recently asking if people used a particular HR system. What followed was a river of cries for help from CIOs across all industries about how poor HR systems implementations were, how difficult they were and how often they needed to be changed.


The general consensus was that, yes, there are bad companies out there, but the bigger issue was the lack of standard processes and procedures for HR.


Unlike Finance, where the practice is literally formulaic, HR processes have nuance.  Yes, there is employment law, but often this is interpreted and implemented through the lens of the risk appetite of your organisation. That means, for software providers, the processes they are seeking to automate differ from one organisation to the next.  It doesn’t seem to matter that organisations are all processing the same transactions (annual leave, joiners, leavers and movers, absence recording, pay or disciplinary/grievance processes), the lack of a formulaic approach means something that should be pretty standard is not, and implementations go wrong as a result.


Within an organisation, the implementation of the chosen product can be over-complicated and compromised because policy is driven by multiple others, rather than by the HR Director, with local practice trumping central control.  This can be partly driven by the erroneous belief that HR is not a specialism, can be done by anyone and even the suggestion that ‘I can do it better than they can’.


That might sound familiar. You can replace the term HR with Marketing or Technology - and we have all been there before. 


Ever decreasing services…


As with all internal service provision areas, HR colleagues need to focus on multiple levels of delivery: 

  • Strategy
  • Tactical (projects)
  • Advisory (unplanned, unpredictable), and
  • Operations (planned, predictable)

In my experience, the focus seems to be on Advisory and Tactical with Strategy usually forgotten or not wanted by the board. Operations is so poorly fed and watered – and cost cut regularly – that it, inevitably, leads to even more advisory work as mistakes are made and development is cut back.


HR teams have been subject to cost containment for years, preventing them from moving beyond delivery of case management support and often making them more inefficient, rather than less.


The inability to have the right resources to deliver strategic workforce development and planning usually results in significant ‘unplanned’ casework. This approach of cutting back on the resources for planned work creates the worst possible scenario for HR.  Not being able to coach, guide, and develop leaders means casework balloons. Some HR teams go down the route of payoffs and non-disclosure agreements just to get the cases out of the door, fuelling even more the distrust CFOs may have towards HR as a strategic partner.


For CIOs, the opportunity to assist cannot be underestimated;  first, as a leader and good citizen in an organisation and secondly as a strategic partner to collaborate on efficient processes and reducing risk of rework and unplanned work. There is then a final opportunity to ensure HR is at the technology-enabled change table and has a voice.


Getting to know HR


Early in my career, a mentor said: “read the finance manual, it’s important”, so I did. It turned out, apart from the CFO, I was the only member of the senior exec team who had. 


It meant I was able to build trust and get approval where it may have been more difficult had I not. The same applies to HR policy.  Know them, understand them. You might not always agree, but don’t discard them on that basis.


Secondly, understand why you have the accountability for performance and behaviour. One reason HR relationships appear fractious seems to be a complete misunderstanding, if not wilful misunderstanding, of the role of the line manager in leading and managing people.


For years I have heard leaders bemoaning that HR won’t let them ‘fire people’. With a bit of digging, you find that the line manager has done very little to nip in the bud the behaviour they don’t like.


They have avoided leadership development, because it is too ‘touchy-feely’ and so they have neither the language nor confidence to say what needs to be said in a way that is objective, supportive but ultimately makes the point.  To be a good citizen leader, you and your teams need to understand and follow the policies and procedures of the organisation, act promptly to nudge people onto right behaviours when they stray, and get to know your HR colleagues; if you don’t know them when the time comes that you need them, then getting up to speed will be more onerous than it needs to be.


Being a strategic partner


The management of people and the data about people is as intrinsic to an organisation as the management of money and technology.


If your people data sits in a centralised, often inaccessible database, it is safe to assume that duplicate data is rife. This increases risk of accidental disclosure as well as increasing admin costs through reconciliation and manual handovers.   


As a technology leader, it is your job to pull out of the weeds, provide the skills necessary to design the processes, data structures and definitions to be as consistent and “vanilla” as possible. Managing people is vital, but the processes around it should not be complex or unique.


To be that strategic partner for HR:

  • Ensure that you and HR have access to the right skills in the right places. Good business analysis, data design and change management skills are essential, not “nice to have”.   This means you need to champion why those skills are needed, but make sure you put them in the right places.     
  • Have humility. Your HR colleagues are experts in what they do.  By all means challenge the process, but recognise the expertise and encourage HR to reciprocate. 
  • Encourage cross-organisational networking.  HR transformations can fail if the wrong people are in the room at key points, if your colleagues are not engaging at a senior level and instead sending their operational staff to the project meetings. Be bold.  If that does happen, then suggest the project pauses until the right people are available. 
  • Ensure there is a strategy driver that is commonly understood and agreed.  
  • Get your governance right.  If you have a technology steering group or a transformation governance body, is the Director of HR in those groups?  If not, then I suggest you go and get them.


Leading the HR director to water


Finally, with your Director of HR on your technology board, do they engage? Just as people don’t understand the nuances of HR’s world, many are still stuck with old views of technology as tin rather than a strategic partner.


You have to open the door, make it easy to engage. That means learning their language and what drives them.  What is on their risk register?  What pressure do they get from others?  How can you help?


But, I will repeat, spend time with them. Go to a conference together, organise team events, build bonds across all levels of the team, social or work focused - it doesn’t matter.


Finally, stamp on bad-mouthing. If someone bad-mouths HR, be ready to defend not double down.  Be an ally, don’t walk past.  And ask HR to do the same for you.  After all, 99 times out of 100 the problem with HR will be they were called in far too late to help properly. (Sound familiar?)


Join the HotTopics Contributing Editors Network

HotTopics Contributing Editor Laura Dawson is a Fractional CIO, Trustee, Non-Executive board member and a global technology executive with over 30 years of experience in digital transformation and technology for good roles. She was formerly the CIO at London School of Economics and Political Science and CIO at the British Council.

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