Putting on the IT hat

by 13 Dec 2006

HR and IT are not that dissimilar in some ways, however, there are a number of areas where HR can better partner with IT within many companies. Craig Donaldson speaks with a number of CIOs about these areas and how HR can make a more meaningful contribution to the IT function

What are your general impressions about the business effectiveness of HR?

Darryl Warren, CIO, Lion Nathan: I think they play a very important part in helping us deliver the business benefits that we’re looking to deliver from our function. Within some organisations it’s a strong focus, and I know that in others it’s less strong. So I guess I’m fortunate that I’m in an organisation where there is a strong focus on what HR brings.

Larry Howard, CIO, IAG: HR is improving. It’s probably not dissimilar to the IT function itself, as a service function, and the HR function is on a journey of understanding and discovery. Here at IAG, I think HR’s got it right from a business perspective, so I would say we’re above average in terms of our HR capabilities and operations. Generally speaking though, HR is still very policy and procedure-oriented. I’ve worked in a couple of organisations where HR has been pretty dreadful, to be honest.

Steve Coles, CIO, Allianz: There are two sides to HR. There’s the operational day-to-day management of HR issues, and there’s the more strategic HR issues. In terms of operations, personally I think IT works well with HR to try and drive through efficiencies in processes such as recruitment, absences, holidays and performance reviews. We’ve worked with HR to put in place self-service solutions to make HR a lot more efficient and effective around general operational stuff. That’s had a knock-on impact to us as well, in terms of making better use of the intranet, because employees are now performing their own day-to-day HR functions. That’s probably had some broader benefit to us.

Where could HR make a more strategic contribution from your perspective?

Coles: HR is moving forward here – it’s spending less time on operational issues and more on strategic HR alignment. We have pressures in terms of having resources in place, with the right skills and numbers to respond to the IT needs of the business. We clearly need to work with HR colleagues to make sure that we’re taking necessary steps to get those resources in place.

Warren: I think HR is already making quite a strategic contribution in Lion Nathan. In organisational change, HR has been helping us through that. The role that they performed is one of coach and mentor, so that myself and other managers within IT have always been the people who have been in charge of the specific process we’re leading. So they don’t take over, but instead give us the coaching and mentoring to help us lead in our own work.

Howard: There are probably three areas HR could work on. In IAG, one is around what I would call capability development and renewal of capability. As technology evolves in an organisation, certain skill sets come into play. The combination of different types of skills is what determines the level of capability in the organisation, and that’s one area where we’re certainly working with our HR at the moment.

The second area is in specific career planning for technology-focused people. These aren’t people who are in managerial leadership roles, but people who want to be technologists in the organisation. How do we map out career paths for them, without forcing senior people to become managers, so they get the recognition they deserve? We’re working on that in conjunction with the capability development plan.

The third area is matrix management, and using that to make a distributed IT function work more effectively in the business. We need to understand the implications of how IT works in other areas of the business. As part of that, we need the right people in the organisation in order to support IT across – and really be in – the business.

What holds HR back from making a more strategic contribution?

Howard: There are a couple of things. One is they don’t know what we do in IT well enough – that’s a bit like the criticism that IT people do not understand the business either. When people want to support an IT function in an organisation like ours, they need to understand both our business in IT and the broader business. IT is very much at the core of our financial services business, so it’s important for HR to understand both and how they link to business outcomes. HR needs to take the time to understand and know what it is we do.

The other thing that holds HR back is that it can get stuck in the past. Rather than focusing all its time on policy and procedure, HR needs to look at the way it applies its services to the business and how it can make the most meaningful contribution in a broader business sense.

Coles: We have similar challenges in IT, in that we have an operational side and a strategic side. If the operational side is not running smoothly and efficiently, then we really haven’t got any capacity to even start thinking about the strategic side.

I guess there’s still some way to go on the HR operational side of things. We’ve worked with our HR team to automate a fair bit of that, but there’s still some way to go. I do sense, given we all have limited resources, that their resources are still distracted by HR operational issues. If we could work together in trying to relieve the strain on those resources, then I would anticipate they’d be able to spend more time on some of the broader strategic issues that we have.

How can HR improve their own skill set to become more rounded business professionals?

Coles: HR needs to develop a depth of understanding of the IT market, the skills, the competencies and the requirements that we have. I see them more as a partner in the process, rather than a service provider to IT. I want all my managers to make sure that they’ve got the right skills and competencies, both in selection and then ongoing management, to achieve that.

What they can do is work with HR, with their expertise, to turn the managers into better people leaders. I would certainly be very opposed to abdicating a responsibility for large parts of people management, procurement or development back to HR, because I think these have to be owned ultimately by the business leaders within IT operations. So we work in partnership with HR, we involve them in the process. That’s an area that’s definitely improving, and HR needs to take responsibility for their part of the partnership.

Warren: It’s about how HR is aligned with their partners within the business. How do you get HR out from their functional area and how do you align them with the operational managers and leaders? Within Lion Nathan, that happens at multiple levels, from a senior level through to frontline management and team members. Everybody has a clear idea of who and where they’re supposed to go to and seek support from. I can’t speak for other organisations that widely, but I think that alignment model is important.

Howard: From my perspective, the better HR people have probably spent some time working in an IT company. Maybe they’ve worked for an IBM or CSC, so they understand the terminology and the technology better. Or they might have previous experience being embedded within an IT department, providing services to the IT department as business partner to that function. So you can have HR people assigned to the HR function, but they need to understand what we do. They can’t creep around the issues. They need to understand the lingo and understand what our business priorities are. I know how hard that is, on both sides, to make that happen. It’s not a one-way street, but HR needs to do their part.

How could HR better work with IT in managing change within an organisation?

Warren: Within other businesses, I think HR has a seminal role to play in change, both in terms of communication and also support for leaders and their team members who are undergoing change. From an IT perspective, most projects have got pretty significant elements of change associated with them. So it’s important to have a really strong HR partner to help bring about that change. This way, change is not just put on people, but instead change is something they’re truly involved in and they understanding why it’s important and how it’s going to impact them.

Howard: I think HR’s skills in change are patchy. Often, HR are not engaged early enough with IT in change programs. As a result, they get brought in at the last minute, often when a project’s gone off the rails and key people have left. HR needs to be engaged earlier. So do you wait until you’re asked, or if you understand what’s happening in the organisation – and we’re usually talking about big projects that most people would know about – you can make yourself known.

I find HR people an incredibly introverted group of people by nature. By and large, they’re not too dissimilar to IT people. So if they’re asked to do something, they’ll be really responsive, but left to their own devices to go and find out what they need to do, there’s not too many that I’ve met that are proactive and make the effort to make sure a project’s happening.

What sort of issues will HR have to be across in the future to assist from your perspective?

Warren: There are some pretty significant challenges. Over the next five years, most organisations will undergo huge change – if they haven’t already undergone that change – that is partly driven by technology. We’re heading towards a situation where people can work anywhere, anytime. There are huge implications associated with that, with significant impact upon HR issues too. In our case, technology is going to create opportunities for people to work in different ways, and it’s really important that HR be across those opportunities and help us understand the implications for our organisation going forward.

Coles: We’re part of a large global organisation, and we can see opportunities there in terms of leveraging broad resources within the group. Bottom line, Sydney is quite an attractive place for resources. That’s an area where we’ll be looking to work with HR globally, to see how we can tap into resources within the group. Conversely, we have resources in Australia that are part of virtual teams. So we’re adapting to that in terms of how we operate, but I don’t think that’s a major obstacle or a major distraction for the HR function.

Howard: It’s important that HR understand for us, as an internal IT department, what HR-related issues will come to bear. These issues are constantly expanding for HR. For example, what are the outsourcing and offshoring companies doing? How do we manage our people and build their capabilities in all of this? So HR can benchmark what’s happening in the marketplace and look at what’s relevant for their own company – it’s not just about policies and procedures – it’s about best practice and how to make the most of the IT workforce in an organisation.

So, I think HR’s on a journey. Are they travelling fast enough? Well, it depends on the day. In our organisation, there’s a recognition that things need to be done differently and that’s a much better mindset for HR to operate from. HR needs to show a desire to want to change and improve and work closely with IT and the business.