The Odd Couple? Why HR and IT Need to Work Together

When Kim Burnsworth became the vice president of human resources at construction firm McKenney’s Inc. in 2006, she had already accumulated more than a decade’s worth of HR experience. If she ever encountered a situation involving technology, Burnsworth said her natural course of action was to consult the unit in the company most knowledgeable on the subject: information technology.

But in her prior jobs, Burnsworth said IT, traditionally treated as a technical adviser on company tech matters, rarely worked together with HR on how to use technology to bolster the function’s ability to contribute to the business’ strategy.

Once she arrived at McKenney’s, things were different. “Our company leaders recognize that technology gives us a competitive advantage,” Burnsworth said. And a large part of that advantage, she added, comes from using technology to attract and train top talent, a talent management function of upmost importance.

To stay relevant, Burnsworth said she quickly realized she needed to build her own technology skills. “If I’m not up on technology,” she said, “I can’t help my company get better.”

Burnsworth isn’t alone. As technology continues to revolutionize business, departments outside of the space will undoubtedly need to become more tech savvy. This is especially true for human resources, as organizations increasingly roll out new technologies centered on human capital management and HR analytics — tools that have garnered more credibility in the C-suite.

It is therefore a smart move for HR professionals to become more educated on technology, according to Scott Klososky, founding partner of Future Point of View, a technology consulting firm in Edmond, Oklahoma. “To stay relevant, HR professionals need to learn about these technology concepts,” Klososky said.

Burnsworth, for her part, has embraced the need to learn more about technology. She has taken workshops on leadership and technology and how to support a technology-driven culture. She has also worked more closely with IT and the business analysts on her own team.

“It helped me gain confidence,” Burnsworth said, “and gave me credibility with company leaders.”

Starting Small

Just because HR’s relationship with technology is growing doesn’t mean professionals necessarily need to turn themselves into software programmers or mobile application developers.

More importantly, talent managers become more absorbed in the larger scope of the new technology-driven economy, Klososky said. “It is about understanding big-picture concepts and how to leverage technology to support HR goals.”

And one way to do this is for HR to develop a stronger relationship with IT. The ideal time to do this is before big HR tech decisions are made, said Derek Beebe, director of HR technology for human resources consulting and research firm Towers Watson & Co. 

“Technology is becoming an increasingly important driver of HR effectiveness and efficiency,” Beebe said. “But if HR and IT don’t work together to choose and implement these tools, they are going to waste a lot of money and time.”

The prospect for waste is compounded by the fact that companies are putting more money into HR technology. Roughly one-third of companies plan to increase their investment in HR technology this year, according to Towers Watson’s 2014 HR Service Delivery and Technology survey. The most popular investments, the survey showed, include HR talent management services, mobile access services and cloud-based software-as-a-service systems. The survey also showed growth in investments around HR data and workforce analytics.

All of these tech-based tools can have a major influence on workforce productivity and talent management capabilities. They can also crash and burn if IT is left on its own to make all of the decisions, Beebe said. This is because in many cases IT teams make choices based on their own goals without factoring in the needs of HR.

For example, instead of looking for an HR system that has features that serve well from a talent management perspective, IT might blindly opt to extend the company’s existing enterprise resource planning, or ERP, system to accommodate core HR functions. “When that happens, HR usually ends up with the short end of the stick,” Beebe said.

On the other hand, when HR goes rogue and implements cloud-based applications or off-the-shelf software without IT, it might create unnecessary complications and data risks. With HR and IT working together to make technology decisions, it’s more likely that the chosen technology will meet the needs of both functions.

“Both sides have to be part of the planning from the beginning for these projects to be successful,” Beebe said.
Sometimes that means working together to build something from scratch.

When Susan Yun joined Austin, Texas-based XO Group Inc. in 2013 as vice president of human resources, one of her responsibilities was to create a new set of talent management processes to support the rapidly growing media company. In 14 years, the business had grown from four founders to 700 employees, Yun said, and it didn’t have the performance management systems to accommodate the new scale.

Rather than investigating and choosing potential HR software on her own, Yun said she partnered with Ryan Gritz, the company’s director of process support systems, to research options. Although they found a number of systems that would fit needs from both functional perspectives, none of them fit the company’s limited budget.
“We are a smaller company,” Yun said, “and we just didn’t have the resources to buy what we wanted.”

Instead, Gritz opted to have IT build a customized platform for HR’s performance management goals at a lower cost. In this case, the HR-IT partnership spawned the creation of a technology platform that would be less cumbersome while also helping connect the company’s other systems, which is always a desired goal from an IT perspective.

At the time, XO Group used Microsoft SharePoint to house employee performance data, along with Automatic Data Processing Inc. software for payroll and an active directory to store other data. “If we bought an external solution, that would be a fourth repository for us to manage,” Gritz said. “But if we built something ourselves, we could synchronize all of those systems. That way we could both get what we want.”

During the development process Gritz’s team kept Yun and HR involved. Yun said HR helped define the goals and user interface for the system; the department also met with IT regularly to discuss project progress, offering feedback every few weeks. The end result took roughly four months to build using three part-time programmers. It was rolled out in June.

“We ended up building a solution that is very close” to Yun’s original vision, Gritz said. Because HR was able to provide feedback during the development period, Gritz said the final system ended up being more user-friendly, with improved interactivity and workflow, in turn making the system more efficient

Building a Lasting Partnership

Not every IT team might be willing or able to build a custom HR management system. But even if HR just wants to buy something off the shelf or tweak or upgrade an existing tool, experts say including IT in the decision-making process is a smart move.

The sooner IT is involved, the better, said Judy Hawkins, director of HR services for Wheaton (Illinois) Franciscan Healthcare, a nonprofit health care network, which also has offices in Glendale, Wisconsin.

Hawkins said she has had a long-standing partnership with the organization’s information systems team. In 2006, for instance, Wheaton’s 15,000 employees spread throughout four states had seven different payroll systems, which were cumbersome to oversee.

Hawkins asked the team for help to make the payroll system more manageable. The result: an 18-month study of the company’s human capital management needs, sponsored jointly by the information systems team and HR. The goal that came out of the study was to move all of the company’s payroll and financial information to a single HR system.

“We co-led that project,” Hawkins said. “The IS leader handled the technology, and I was the functional leader for HR, payroll and finance.”

Since that first partnership, Hawkins said she has partnered with IS on multiple projects, taking joint responsibility for decision-making. Now, whether the function is upgrading its system, rolling out a new benefits program or implementing any other HR technology, Hawkins said she works with IS to craft a detailed project plan that includes schedules, budgets and project milestones. It also involves leaders from across the company in the process to ensure delivery dates don’t conflict with broader business activities.

“When we all collaborate, we find solutions that everyone can live with,” Hawkins said.

And the relationship isn’t just a one-way street.

As XO Group’s Yun put it, IT has the skills to solve a lot of HR’s problems, and HR has the strategic vision to help make IT align its tech savvy with the wider goals of the function and the company at large.

“We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without IT’s help,” Yun said. “By working with them, they helped us become the talent management experts we needed to be.”

To learn more about how to make friends with the IT department, read the sidebar to the feature here.

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area. She can be reached at