Get the work flowing

Managing workflow is one of the most critical tasks for any HR department, and also one of the most susceptible to automation using technology. But which tasks should you automate first and what technologies should you use? And how can you get a budget to do that in the first place? Angus Kidman reports in the first of a two-part series

Managing workflow is one of the most critical tasks for any HR department, and also one of the most susceptible to automation using technology. But which tasks should you automate first and what technologies should you use? And how can you get a budget to do that in the first place? Angus Kidman reports in the first of a two-part series

Nearly every task involved in people management involves work flowing from one individual or group to another. As a result, every process within the scope of human resources can potentially be improved by using workflow management software to automate and streamline processes, ranging from hiring new recruits through to tracking hours for regular workers. One of the first challenges faced in any workflow management project is prioritising what needs to be done first.

The most common response appears to be dealing with the process of hiring new staff. Because recruitment typically involves dealing with multiple departments – the hiring division itself for recruitment requirements, finance for payroll, legal for contracts, and HR for OHS issues – introducing workflow automation for new hires can help make a large percentage of any organisation comfortable with the concept, without requiring them to spend huge amounts of time on it. As in most areas of technology, the shift towards web-based portal technologies has also simplified the learning curve.

The other main challenge for many workflow projects is to create a cost justification for investing in the new technology. Workflow, however, is more amenable to this kind of analysis than ‘softer’ areas such as values training. In many instances, simply calculating the amount of time saved on electronic versus manual processes and then multiplying that across the appropriate number of staff should produce a conservative and attainable ROI figure.

As with any technology implementation, it’s also important not to put the cart before the horse. There’s precious little point in automating a process without first examining whether that process itself is being carried out efficiently. While there are probably slight speed gains to be had in automating any paper-based process, no matter how cumbersome, the pain and effort involved in doing so are such that it’s worth committing the extra effort to process re-engineering as well.

DFAT goes recruiting

One useful way to improve workflow can be to concentrate on particular HR tasks which are labour-intensive and lend themselves to automation. That was certainly the case in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), which has used internally-developed workflow systems based on IBM’s Lotus Notes/Domino technology to improve service while also cutting costs.

The first target for DFAT was its recruitment program for university graduates. While many businesses invest heavily on the marketing side to attract candidates, that hasn’t been such an issue for DFAT. “We’re such a popular potential employer for graduates, we’re not having to focus too much on marketing,” according to Amanda Walsh, manager of the department’s graduate recruitment unit. “The biggest issue for us is having to manage the sheer number of applications.” Typically, around 2,500 applications are received each year for 30-odd positions. The quality of applicants is typically very high, but the recruitment system needs to be able to sort the good from the outstanding candidates.

Simply sorting through the original applications to produce a smaller shortlist of 300 candidates to take a more detailed test was in itself an expensive process. “We needed to get the cost of processing the applications down,” recalls Darryl Smith, executive officer for the forecasting, recruitment and contractor management section of DFAT.

Moving the application process online was an obvious way of simplifying the task. DFAT’s initial attempt was to gather applications using SEEK Campus. “It was our first try at working with online applications,” Smith says. “We didn’t have enough time to develop our own in-house system.” While moving online in this way had some benefits, the highly specific selection criteria used by the department weren’t easily reconciled with the existing SEEK system.

As a result, DFAT moved ahead with building its own system which could sit on top of its existing Lotus Notes architecture. “It was simpler because we were using the existing infrastructure,” says Smith, noting that staff were already familiar with the environment. DFAT invested a relatively modest amount of money in systems development, including hiring an external project manager. “We actually were fine-tuning the business process as we were developing the application,” Smith says. Payback has been almost immediate, as the average cost of processing an application has now fallen by 80 per cent. “It’s led to a significant saving just in terms of dollars,” he says. “It was a test case in the department – we subsequently used it to manage a separate recruitment process for corporate and finance management trainee applicants.”

Applicants can register to apply and lodge their applications using a standard web browser. They can also track the progress of their applications online, and can change details as needed – a handy feature for students who can change addresses frequently.

Internal users access the system via Lotus Notes, which has the added advantage of allowing them to change relevant cross-candidate information (such as, for example, the universities involved in the program) without needing high-level programming skills.

“We’re not really reliant on developers in our day-to-day operations,” says Smith. The system also makes it easy to quickly complete processes across groups of applicants. “We just have to highlight the applications we’re interested in, and then progress them or decline them.”

One important consideration in any online system is security. “We have to ensure the candidate’s application is kept as secure as possible,” Smith explains. The servers which receive applications sits outside the main DFAT network and can only communicate with an internal server using defined encrypted text systems. As a government agency, DFAT is particularly security conscious.

It’s also important that the server can handle a high volume of applications in a short period of time. “Our web server received 1,000 applications in the last three hours before deadline,” Smith points out. “We need a system capable of sustaining itself when a lot of people leave things until the last minute.”

Another important step was to validate the email addresses submitted with applications; for instance, many candidates mistakenly ended their addresses with hotmail.com.au rather than just hotmail.com. In total, around 300 invalid addresses were entered in the first year of operation, a high enough percentage to justify automated validation.

This kind of workflow automation won’t suit every possible recruitment scenario either. “Online recruitment systems work well where there’s a large number of applicants,” said Smith. “For other jobs, we’d look at more traditional processes.”

Timing across the planet

When companies look to automate workflow around human resources activities, it’s normally the most common and time-consuming tasks that get examined first. That was certainly the case at telecommunications systems integrator 3D Networks, which has introduced a range of workflow technologies into Australian operations. (3D Networks’ parent company, Planet One, is based in Singapore.)

3D Networks has around 130 employees in Australia, spread across five states. Its initial motivation to streamline some of its processes came from a simple business imperative: while it could accurately track physical equipment used in a project, it was difficult to track the allocation of staff resources across individual projects in the same fashion.

“We couldn’t really calculate the cost of most projects,” says Gregg Bakker, senior business analyst for 3D Networks. Timesheets and other employee data were handled using a conventional paper-based system, which made it easy for errors to be introduced as well as slowing down the collation of information from different locations.

To overcome that problem, the company developed an automated system for processing time sheets and leave approvals. Individuals can access the system from within their own web browser, while the backend for routing and handling requests was developed using Adobe Workflow Server. The new system allows much more accurate cost accounting for projects, which in turn helps with profitability across the company.

Having planned carefully before completing the rollout, Bakker says there was little if anything he would wish to change. The biggest complication during implementation turned out to be procedural rather than technical: owing to a company restructuring, Bakker was moved onto a separate project partway through the rollout, which slowed down the overall process but didn’t change any of the fundamental goals.

Despite the long-term advantages of an automated system, Bakker warned that any company should expect to encounter some opposition in the process of rolling out any workflow system. “You will always find internal resistance to change,” he believes.

In the near future, 3D Networks hopes to extend the system to handle online expense claims. “We’d also like to have a new employee advice form,”says Bakker, which would simplify the process of allocating equipment to new hires. Planet One is also exploring using similar technology in other regional operations.

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