How employers can find the right HR tech consultant

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The rapid evolution of HR systems gives rise to new opportunities for employers along with new challenges in leveraging new capabilities. Christa Manning, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting’s vice president and solution provider research leader, laid out the varied and changing role of HR tech consultants in helping employers harness HR tech in a recent conversation with Employee Benefit News. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

Employee Benefit News: What fundamental advice do you give companies looking for a technology consultant?

Manning: More companies today are expecting that the consultant they pick is going to be a partner in the long-term. So they need to ask: Do they share my company values? Should there be uncertainties or change, can they evolve with us and partner with us, as opposed to more of just a transactional service level agreement? It’s important because these are bigger commitments that are supposed to be enabling business strategy.

EBN: Has the typical purpose of an engagement with an HR technology consultant changed in recent years?

Manning: Yes, a lot of the work has shifted quite a bit with the move toward software as a service, and operating in the cloud. In the past, enterprise software often required a systems integrator to implement the technology. They had to understand what your particular business complexities and customizations would require. But with the move to the cloud, all of that started to become configurable, so system developers would build the software for everyone that was using it and then, over time, add new capabilities and options. But now you can’t do that much customization, so the needs are different.

EBN: Of course HR leaders still need support on system selection, or choosing a platform if they’re zero-basing their HCM strategy, right?

Manning: Absolutely. There’s a lot involved in terms of fully understanding the capabilities and the configuration options of cloud providers. As the core HCM platforms get to be more complex and expand in capability, some consultants are having to pay to go through official certification programs to work with them. And lots of consulting firms now have preferred relationships with particular platforms and providers. They may have co-marketing strategies.

EBN: But if I’m open to considering all platform alternatives, I wouldn’t want to work with a consultant who’s in a marketing relationship with one of them, would I?

Manning: There are consultants that only do sourcing and selection — and will not be involved in the implementations — to preserve that objectivity. And then certainly there are plenty that do the implementation work, and some of them will do other work around that like transformation of your processes or your HR operating model.

EBN: What about getting help more at the nuts-and-bolts level?

Manning: A lot of companies that moved to the cloud thought that the software provider was going to be doing a lot of the HR IT administration. They do certainly host servers and do some of the logistics of simply uploading the code, but you still do have to manage the applications. So now some of the consulting firms will also do application management services. After the initial implementation, after the go-live, they will — for their own type of subscription fees — be engaged with the updates that can come every month, you know, certainly every quarter or twice a year.

EBN: That must come as a bit of a shock.

Manning: That’s right. The provider will push the software out there, but it’s still the primary responsibility of the customer to understand what capability is coming down, understand how it needs to be configured for their organization, its policies and its risk profile, and its needs for new capabilities. There’s regression testing that has to go on, integration testing and updates.

EBN: But I assume companies can get help with that from external sources if they want…

Manning: Yes, this has given rise to another area of consulting, which is application management services.

EBN: What typically prompts an HR executive to pick up the phone, call a technology consultant, and say, “I need help” or “I need a new system. Where do I start?”

Manning: What we have seen over the last decade or so, is a lot of companies either didn’t have a single system for their HR department, they didn’t have one that was user-friendly or really lent itself to widespread employee self-service, or they had multiple different versions because of things like M&A or just different countries choosing different payroll platforms, or other things related to talent. And so the tipping point I’ve seen generally is a senior executive can’t get an accurate head count, or they can’t do workforce planning as dynamically as they want.

EBN: What happens next?

Manning: I think we’re on the cusp of another kind of wave of change where a lot of companies have actually done this but they really didn’t get that transformation that they were hoping to in terms of really knowing all of their talent and being able to do better planning and matching talent to their business needs. Now they just know how many unhappy and inept people work for them, and now they have a better picture of all the things they need to do to invest in their workforce to improve the business.

EBN: Do you have any suggestions for HR executives who are having a whole new system foisted on them, perhaps because some other part of the enterprise is changing platforms, to make the transition as painless as possible?

Manning: I’ve talked to a lot of HR professionals that are dying to have an executive come in and champion a new HR tech strategy, because the old strategy has been so siloed and piecemeal. And to the extent that the CEO can really be crisp and clear about what they are trying to achieve, that can be very helpful. So if the goal, for example, is to get better data and analytics, that really helps you home in on the criteria to look at and the types of tools in the new system look at. Ideally you get to participate in the system selection decision-making process and start with the big picture.

EBN: How do you do that?

Manning: There is a term in the industry these days called tier zero, or “phase zero.” That comes from fact that systems implementers begin with phase one — requirements gathering, and phase two would be piloting and prototyping. Phase zero now is doing that due diligence around what are you trying to do and why, and do you even need to select a certain type of technology, or is it more of a niche application, or a reconfiguration, or an extension of whatever technologies you may already have.

EBN: Do HR leaders have to manage expectations of CEOs who might believe that a new HRM system will be almost a silver bullet to solve organizational challenges beyond what they are designed to do, or are capable of doing?

Manning: I do think that companies have to be aware of the phenomenon of when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So you need to make sure you understand where you are in terms of your understanding of the nature of the challenges you are trying to address, and what it will take to address them. You might want to take a step back and think more about that phase zero, because that might be the most valuable consulting you can get of all.

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