Tools for HR

Buy or build workforce apps? It depends.

Second of two parts. Read part one: Can big data solve government's HR challenges?

Human resources software has been a staple of government agencies and business since at least the debut of Excel, which created a standard way to organize costs, scheduling and other workforce performance metrics.

Fast forward 30 years and workforce software is not only tracking but predicting HR trends. “What if you could predict which high performers were at risk of leaving six months before they walked out the door?” Deloitte asks on its website in describing its workforce analytics services.

Today, HR tools on the market are likely to offer some combination of analytical and predictive features, say workforce software experts.

In fact, agencies looking to launch workforce analytics applications now face a confusing array of products, ranging from modular HR systems from heavyweights such as IBM, SAP and Oracle, to custom Excel-based applications developed in-house or by a consultant to address a specific need. 

Today, workforce analytics is not so much a product category as it is an undertaking. "The very first step is to look at what the overall objectives are, from a workforce perspective," said Lisa Rowan, research vice president at IDC. "That will help drive what you need in terms of measurement."

Carl Bennett, a workforce analytics expert at Deloitte, agreed.  "If anyone tells you that you have to start your workforce analytics effort by purchasing software, you're being misinformed," he said.  "In fact, we actually advise clients not to purchase any new software until they actually understand what it is they need.  So one of the first things we do is use Excel and other tools that are readily available to create reporting solutions to help understand the rest of the issue."

Bennett added that packaged workforce analytics products, with lots of reports and data included, can actually be a distraction.  "If you have no reports available and then you buy a tool that has 4,000 reports, you end up in a scenario in which no one uses them," he said.  "So we advise clients to be very strategic about allowing reports to be added to their library so it doesn't become littered."

Of course, those with packaged solutions, such as SAP's SuccessFactors, argue the benefits of out-of-the-box reports and data sets. Mick Collins, a principal consultant with SuccessFactors, said the application – which already contains workforce data from its pool of clients – can deliver results much more quickly than custom-built solutions. 

“We provide hundreds of metrics out of the box, so an agency doesn't have to start with a blank sheet of paper and create metrics," he said.  "Our implementation is fast – about 100 business days."

Ultimately, Rowan said, for most agencies, there really isn't a choice between off-the-shelf applications and custom analytics, however.

"It's probably going to be a mix," she said, noting that each organization's needs vary greatly.  An organization concerned primarily with retention is going to need different tools than one that is highly concerned about, say, insider threats.  As a result, even workforce analytics tools that are parts of larger HR systems generally have modules that are offered separately and that often need to be tweaked by consultants.

"It's all about asking the right questions with the data in mind," said Breck Marshall, managing director in Accenture’s talent and organization practice.  "Does the agency have the right data in the first place?  Is it clean or dirty?  Can you fuse it together?  That is why it's not just a plug-and-play and push-a-button type of thing."

Marshall said that the available data and the analytic capabilities are both getting better. "We're getting to a point where this information, in combination with what talent you have in the building … is getting clearer.  You're able to count it and quantify it using these tools."

Combining multiple data sets – from internal personnel data to government records to social media sites – brings added power to workforce analytics -- and additional challenges.

Agencies that want to use data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics will have map their occupations into categories that align with how the BLS tracks talent availability, Bennett noted. "There is usually is some amount of transformation you're going to have to do with your data.”

"That is one of the biggest challenges that we have overcome in the last five to 10 years," Collins said.  "That used to be a very expensive process for us.  Today we are able to integrate data from many different systems, whether they are off-the-shelf, purchased systems or homegrown spreadsheets."

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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