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Basic planning, data cleansing seen as crucial to HR system integration

Sue Hildreth

Greg Newman recently spent four months integrating a Software as a Service (SaaS) performance management application with an on-premises ERP human resources system.

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Then he spent another three months working out the bugs.

That’s because Newman, a technology consultant for a multinational company, knows it’s not always the complexity of HR system integration that takes up time, but the mundane yet critical task of matching up data and processes between the HR and ERP systems.

The key challenge for Newman and his colleagues wasn't some complicated coding problem, but the basic mapping of data fields and functionality from one application to the other. Because the SaaS performance management application had fewer fields for many functions than the ERP HR system -- such as identifying who an employee reports to -- they had to combine some fields and weed out others.

For example, with the ERP HR system, employees could have many levels of supervisors and collaborative relationships as well as short-term project team leaders. In the SaaS system, each employee could have only one supervisor.

"We have thousands of employees and we've had to identify the main line of reporting for each employee," Newman said.

Start HR system integration with process planning

To effectively manage an HR system integration project, IT and HR professionals should start by collaborating on the processes and people involved.

For more on HR system integration

Review a guide on integrating systems with ERP

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Find out when to integrate SaaS HR with ERP

"Itemize the HR process steps during design -- when does this process happen, who is involved in it, who should be involved but isn't, et cetera," said Steven Rosario, principal consultant with human capital management consulting firm, Jeitosa Group International. For instance, he recommends involving end users when conducting preproduction testing as they’re likely to have insight into what processes tend to break and where testing would be most useful.

Naomi Bloom, HR consultant and founder of Bloom & Wallace in Fort Meyes, Fla., says cleaning up data and inventorying all the system components are critical. “Clean up your HRM [human resource management] data -- including organization data, people data, competency models, business rules and data granularity. Your data [should be] sufficiently reliable, granular and properly structured to support the most demanding use,” she advised.

As part of that process, companies also need to decide which system is the "one version of the truth" for all the records flowing among applications, Newman said. Otherwise, people update records in a downstream application rather than in the main system that propagates changes to everything else.

“You want as few redundancies in the landscape as possible. Determine which system is the one that holds the final data and then close down fields in other systems so people aren’t updating multiple systems. It’s amazing how quickly that can start causing trouble,” Newman said.

As part of that, companies should spell out processes and policies for updating data. The processes should be simple for employees to follow and should include information about how long it takes for the corrections to show up in the system, Newman advised.

"What happens if they find an error, such as they're listed with the wrong manager or old address?” he said. “And will it be an overnight batch process or should it show up right away?”

Plan ahead for change

Finally, be sure to consider the future needs and business strategy of your organization. As Rosario noted, change is a constant with HR systems and data.

One culprit is the yearly updating of government regulations covering data such as personnel issues, health care information privacy requirements and financial data for public companies. Whenever a law such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is updated, IT professionals must also update data fields in HR benefits applications and their interfaces. The more points of integration in the system, the more places that IT needs to update, Rosario said.

"The big problem is the degree to which APIs and the requirements change. An example is the federally mandated changes to HIPAA and the 834 specification [for transmitting benefit enrollment records],” he said. “Everyone is supposed to be on the new standard this year, and of course everyone is behind. You're constantly playing catch up with moving targets.”

Planning for constant changes means building flexibility into the HR system integration by using modular design and common standards. It also means avoiding aging technologies that won’t be supported in the future.

Languages and currencies can also be a problem as the company grows. Leaving room for additional language support can make life easier should the company decide to expand into new countries.

"Build your interfaces in a modular way so that you can add other languages later, without upsetting those that are already in place," Newman advised.


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