The Strengths — And Weaknesses — Of Automated On-Boarding

Those who have been entrenched in the world of on-boarding know there are two vastly distinct sides to the practice. There is the tactical, systematic side — the act of processing new-hire tax forms, security information, payroll, etc. — and then there is the cultural, need-to-know-to-be-successful-in-my-job and organizational culture side.

I had the chance to sit in on a side education session at the IHRIM HRMS Strategies Conference & Expo, which was in Chicago for much of last week.

The session, “Emory University’s Onboarding 2.0: A Step Beyond I-9s, Tax Forms and Checklists,” dealt largely with the tactical side of new-hire on-boarding — namely the benefits that automating Emory’s on-boarding process had on the university from a cost savings and efficiency perspective.

For an organization like Emory — large, paired with multiple businesses and sub-organizations, like hospitals and other research groups — having a comprehensive, paperless on-boarding system, where both students and new faculty members and HR managers are able to log in to complete the necessary tasks to orient prior to day one, is a must. I imagine most large organizations employ something similar.

While I think boasting an automated system is great for the housekeeping stuff — processing and storing loads of new-hire tax forms, security information and benefits enrollment and education — I think it falls short on some of the cultural aspects that many would argue are equally as important when on-boarding a new hire.

On the cultural side, Emory’s system has a segment that took both students and new faculty through the institution’s history, tobacco-free policy and many other cultural elements. The modules were crisp and well presented, but I couldn’t help but wonder if teaching culture through technology is always the best route to take.

At larger organizations, giving new hires a glimpse into the basic tenets of organizational culture is important. But I would have to imagine that, from that point on, there needs to be more — there needs to be some type of human element to orienting new employees to culture.

I take nothing away from what Emory has done with its automated system; for a large organization of its size and scope, I have no doubt that automation is the way to go (for instance, it saved the school $60,000 in printing costs alone when they decided to switch to the system in 2007, according to the presentation).

With tactical on-boarding, in an age when organizations are getting larger and more complex — and more HR processing is needed, with less resources — technology and automation are a must have.

But with culture — that is, the process of ensuring that the depth and breath of the little details are properly conveyed — automation, in my view, falls short. Human interaction is needed.

You can use a vendor to build a technology to process a tax form or enable vast employee groups to properly sign up for security clearance, network identification or email. But can you automate in a system the lessons and experiences that will fully acclimate a new hire to align and understand the intricacies of organizational culture?