Small HR department? Don’t count out big tech changes

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Some of the most dazzling technology advances can perform amazing feats … particularly if you’re in the Fortune 500. But what if you only have a few hundred (or fewer) employees? You don’t need to feel left out, as Tracie Sponenberg, vice president of HR for The Granite Group, explains. She joined the Concord, N.H.-based regional distributor of plumbing and HVAC products two years ago, and has been on a journey to help the 500-employee company modernize its HR system capabilities. She recently described that experience to Employee Benefit News. Edited excerpts of that conversation follow.

Employee Benefit News: Is there a typical tipping point at which HR executives conclude they need to make upgrading their HCM technology a top priority?

Tracie Sponenberg: People are different, but sometimes it just comes when people see solutions that are so much better and faster that they didn’t even know existed. Or they might have had service quality issues with a current vendor. But people have also learned that you can’t find a perfect all-in-one solution for our human capital needs.

EBN: You have to use an a la carte menu?

Sponenberg: Yes, over the last few years I have seen people going with best-in-breed solutions and putting it all together on their own.

EBN: So for smaller employers, the enterprise solutions don’t have what you need?

Sponenberg: Those aren’t necessarily scalable to us. Technology is so different now than it was even five years ago that you don’t need to have an all-in-one, because you can have code operating in the background that will bring in the things that you need.

EBN: What technology was in place when you joined TGG a couple of years ago?

Sponenberg: We had ADP with payroll time recording. And we had a separate system for performance and for learning management. That was pretty much it. One of the first things I did when I came to TGG was to visit all of our 34 locations and talk to everybody about what was working in HR and what wasn’t. I heard everyone was comfortable with ADP. They loved it, actually, but they did not like the learning management system, and we have a real learning culture. So that was something we wanted to fix first.

EBN: Did you use a consultant to help you figure out your options?

Sponenberg: No. I leaned on my HR colleagues. I go to trade shows to research the different options that were out there. But I decided first that we needed to build upon ADP because the prospect of training 34 branch managers and almost 500 employees on how to use a totally new system was really daunting for an HR team of three. We did pick a new learning management system, Bridge.

EBN: So you’re pretty confident about your process for picking new technology?

Sponenberg: Don’t get me wrong, I am not a tech expert, but I do love it. I look at it as a means to solve business problems. I wasn’t just bringing in cool new technology for the sake of having new technology. The business problem was that our managers were spending an inordinate amount of time on HR paperwork. So we set out to solve that problem by using technology.

EBN: When you took the job at TGG, did you already know that a major technology upgrade was going to be a top priority?

Sponenberg: Not really. When I came in as a new hire, I was handed a 51-page packet of paper, and I thought to myself, “Is this our new-hire experience? We can’t be doing this.” And there were lots of repetitive tasks. So in my first week, I talked to our CEO and said, “I’m going to look into this,” and asked if he supported this effort, and he was supportive.

EBN: Was cost an issue?

Sponenberg: There were other technology plans in the works that I was able to get us out of, so I was able to pull money from other areas.

EBN: So far we’ve been talking about improving the efficiency of basic HR administrative functions. Have any of the tech upgrades given you any new capabilities?

Sponenberg: Our new applicant tracking system has given us some new capabilities. But a better example is our new learning management system. Now we can easily create our own content. So our director of HVAC systems is creating content online without really any training necessary. You could build a simple course in minutes. That’s a huge change for us, and a game-changer in terms of the learning function.

EBN: What kind of HR content are you using the LMS for?

Sponenberg: There’s general labor law compliance training for managers. Then there’s some leadership and development training which is new to us. And then there’s the third piece that we had no good way to do before, product training. For example, our people who interface with customers need to know the basics of how to install a toilet, so they can tell a customer what parts they need. Also, each person has an individualized learning plan that’s built in there too.

EBN: What’s the next level you’d like to take this?

Sponenberg: In a year or two I’d like to tie competencies to our positions, and change the way we do performance assessment, moving away from the annual review and more to regular conversations that are built around competencies that can be built for career development.

EBN: What else is on the horizon?

Sponenberg: Something we rolled out at the beginning of the year is an app-based wellness solution, and people love it. Unfortunately, though, they’re not using it as much as I would like. But on the horizon, I’m really interested in engagement and recognition solutions. I’m looking at one, but it’s expensive so we decided to concentrate on the wellness solution for now. We did build a simple recognition solution in-house that will have to do. I have to balance “this would be great for our people to have” with not throwing too much technology too soon at people.

EBN: It sounds like, overall, your CEO has been very receptive to your appetite for new technology.

Sponenberg: Yes, if I’m proposing something that is really going to help our people and support our strategic goals, and cost-justify it even if I can’t give a precise ROI forecast, he’s extremely supportive. I have a really terrific CEO who has positioned HR on the executive team and really looks at HR as a strategic partner.

EBN: What lessons have you taken away so far from your experience with HR technology needs prioritization, acquisition and deployment?

Sponenberg: One is to be careful not to just jump on the biggest, shiniest new thing out there. Make sure that your people are ready for it, make sure that you don’t throw too much too soon at them.

Another is digging into the systems you’re looking at to find out what is actually new, and what is old. One of the learning management solutions that was on our short list is a good example. We decided not to buy it. When I told them, they said, “Yeah, our technology is pretty old and hopefully at some point we’ll upgrade that in the future.” But they’re not going to tell you that if they think you might buy it. You’ve got to ask a lot of questions, and get your IT people involved. If you’re not a techie yourself, that’s absolutely critical.

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