HIGHER ED INSTITUTIONS have developed a reputation for being slow adopters of technology, specifically the self-service kind. Although self-service technologies have been around for more than a decade, some human resources officers still don't put much stock in them. They claim the technology is unreliable, that employees won't use it, that they're too busy with other transactional tasks to change existing systems. The list goes on and on.
It's time to stop making excuses. Look around. Some HR departments at colleges or universities that aren't stuck in neutral have capitalized on self-service technologies in ways that would even make Bill Gates proud. Campus employees are being empowered to do all sorts of things, ranging from conducting benefit transactions to accessing documents, that help them become better managers. There's virtually no limit to what employees can accomplish online and how HR can spend the time- savings for important strategic tasks.
At the University of California, San Diego, employees use self-service to review job descriptions and classifications, says Tom Leet, assistant vice chancellor of HR at the school, which supports about 14,000 employees. His HR department developed task matrices to help supervisors determine which classification best matches a new position.
Likewise, UC San Diego no longer uses paper-based paychecks. With automatic deposit, employees simply print off their monthly earning statements. The same holds true for hiring. By mapping out the entire hiring process and placing it online, Leet says HR saves roughly 30 hours of staff time with each new hire.
Other areas of employee self-service involve a business portal called BLINK- Business Link to Information, News, and Knowledge-that organizes hiring, compensation, education, and training in one spot. For instance, if managers have questions about the hiring process, they search the topic of hiring and find every subcategory from reference checking and building diversity to a grid that guides them through each step of the hiring sequence.
Leet says his staff has mapped out every single HR business process. Through BLINK, they're also building a portal devoted to succession planning, which will include information about training and internship, work experience, and employee rotation programs. Over the next year, the department will roll out a new learning management system. Managers will be able to research training that employees need for job promotions, create a training history, and document how employees are performing in training programs.
But don't be fooled. Changing to self-service is never easy. HR staff must often do double duty between their jobs and transitioning HR processes to self-service.
"It's hard to do the planning and harness the energy for the change," Leet says. "Go to a rudimentary electronic process. Then you can start mapping and build on that to build something more sophisticated. Take the baby steps first."
There can be other issues too. A good example is inconsistency. If employees are allowed to enter their own contact information, they may enter a nickname or inaccurate abbreviations for streets, cities, or states. So the HR department's standards on how to maintain such information suddenly become very blurred, says Richard Gartrell, director of HR at the University of Denver (DU).
Despite the downside, Gartrell's department formed an electronic processing workflow group in January, composed of five HR and IT employees. Its goal over the next two years is to transform every single HR activity into an online, self-service process. So far about 25 percent of HR processes, including benefits and training enrollment, have already been converted.
The group is currently working on terminations- a complicated project because there are so many benefit implications. More than likely, Gartrell says, managers will complete an online form to terminate an employee; that action will trigger other electronic activities, such as automatically sending that worker COBRA information.
While DU's HR department is similar to those at other schools-short-staffed, dealing with limited resources, and struggling just to keep up with the flow of business- he believes the end result is worth the sacrifice. "We all started very late and were slow in the process," says Gartrell, adding that his school employs 2,350 staff and faculty. "Even though it's a big job to get there, we're not going to have available resources to put toward new, creative things until we get some [relief] through this process."
Art Brooks often meets HR administrators at universities or colleges who haven't yet made the leap to self-service. As vice president of sales at BeneTrac, which provides online benefits management and enrollment tools along with employee self-service portals, he has noticed some common myths about why schools are reluctant to change. In some cases, HR decision-makers aren't comfortable using technology and they believe their employees won't be either. Other times, they assume the cost is out of reach or that employees won't be able to figure out how to access a self-service portal.
Now for a big dose of truth. Brooks says the national average for self-service technology ranges between $3.50 to $4.25 per employee per month, while the start-up cost is equivalent to two months' worth of those fees. Many of his clients also report that their school's return-on-investment for the technology exceeds 100 percent the first year of implementation.
Another consideration is that a new generation of tech-savvy employees has already entered the workforce. Technology is as much a part of young workers' lives as radio and TV were to the generations before them.
In the future, self-service technologies will reap even more benefits for highered institutions, Brooks predicts. In five years, employees will be able to use automated self- service tools that evaluate their lifestyle so they can make more informed benefits decisions. The applications will prompt them for their age, gender, or last doctor visit, and then provide an analysis of which plan-such as an HMO or PPO-would be most appropriate for their lifestyle and health status.
Some institutions are currently using self-service technologies to distribute wellness surveys to employees to better understand their personal health habits, preferences for insurance plans, and what they do and don't do when it comes to interacting with HR, Brooks notes.
But self-service isn't the ultimate panacea. There are times when one-on-one contact with HR is needed, says Michele Mocarsky, HR manager at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which supports approximately 300 employees.
Employees can now view policies and benefits updates from the college's insurance broker online. And roughly 70 percent of Chestnut Hill's job applications are completed online. Mocarsky hopes that benefits and training enrollment, all job applications, and applicant tracking will become self-service, but she says HR activities such as interviewing job candidates, firing employees, addressing employee performance problems, and evaluating employee progress will still require a face-to-face sit- down.
Some institutions are using self-service as a strategic planning tool. An example is the California Institute of Technology, where administrators are building a self- service, online utility that will provide Caltech's approximately 10,500 employees with valuable information about managing people resources. The institute already supports self-service benefits enrollment and performance appraisal systems, which require supervisors and employees to interact with each other on an ongoing basis, says Thomas Schmitt, associate vice president of HR.
Managers can access this information to evaluate or review utilization and expenditure patterns over time, project planning processes, and necessary funding sources that keep research going and talent strong at the school. As Schmitt explains, there's often a gap between the end of one research grant and the initiation of another, which can cause a strain on the institute to float employee salaries.
In the past, he says, that fl oat was pretty costly-between one and two percent of the school's overall payroll. But since this process has been automated, it's dropped to two-tenths of one percent of payroll. He says managers are using the information to anticipate where their sources of income will be coming from, adjust planning and recruiting patterns, and become a bit more forward thinking.
But before reaching this strategic level with self-service, higher ed institutions must focus on perfecting the basics. If you can't process an electronic paycheck correctly, Schmitt says it's unlikely your school's leadership team will take you seriously as a strategic partner.
"As schools develop self-service utilities, they need to think about how they assist their institution with their strategic plan," says Schmitt. "Putting in a utility that enables employees to change their name and address is not strategic. However, it's exceptionally important to do those things very well. It's hard to be taken seriously from a strategic perspective if you don't do the tactical stuff well."
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.