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New tools offer HR support

First it was customers. Now it's employee relationship management

Special to The Globe and Mail

William Gibson of the Toronto Police Service is on the verge of cracking a very tough case.

Armed with new software, the director of human resources for North America's sixth-largest police force believes that he will soon be able to solve the logistical problems of a department that has long been handcuffed by old technology.

As in other organizations in the public and private sector alike, the technology needs of Mr. Gibson's human resources department have long been forced to take a back seat to higher priorities, such as the task of making systems Y2K-compliant and the need for the latest tools to support front-line operations.

Human resources personnel therefore have had to make do with standalone systems that do not talk to one another easily and technology that ties people up in paperwork.

Mr. Gibson says he hopes all this will change with the introduction later this year of a Web-based application from Workbrain Inc., an Atlanta-based company that operates mainly out of Toronto.

It is one of the pioneers of a new kind of integrated human resources software known as employee relationship management (ERM), the counterpart of the more widely known customer relationship management (CRM) technology.

By bringing different HR functions together and making them available through Web browsers on desktop computers, the Workbrain software will give managers and employees alike real-time information about work schedules, overtime, vacations, sick leave, weapons, vehicles, court appearances and a host of other details, according to Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Gibson says that it will provide his staff with the flexibility they need to support the needs of a very complex organization that must be able to respond immediately to new and unexpected situations.

"We would hope that, at the end of the day, it will give us real live data so we can look at the system and not only know where our people are today but also anticipate tomorrow," Mr. Gibson says.

ERM represents the latest frontier in the advance of Web-based technologies in business and other organizations, according to Alden Cuddihey, a partner with the consulting firm Accenture.

Mr. Cuddihey says that CRM provides tools for understanding customers and serving them through various channels, whereas ERM links workers, supervisors and managers, tying together numerous functions, such as performance management, compensation planning, time and attendance, scheduling and career planning.

Many organizations are in a similar position to the Toronto Police Service in that they see a big need for ERM.

And it makes sense as the next big project for them to undertake, says Mr. Cuddihey.

Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., predicts that the market for this type of software will grow to as much as $53-billion (U.S.) in 2005 from approximately $12-billion last year.

By 2006, Gartner predicts, the technology will have been adopted by 80 per cent of all companies with e-business applications.

David Ossip, the founder and chief executive officer of Workbrain, says that improving human resource management is also a good way for organizations to cut costs by tightening up internal operations in today's tough economy.

"When CRM came in, in the late '90s, there was a booming economy and companies were focusing on increasing their top line. Now companies are looking at ways to drive performance through existing resources," Mr. Ossip says.

Scott Saslow, director of ERM at San Mateo, Cal.-based Siebel Systems Inc., says that ERM is one of the company's fastest-growing product lines and its sales rival its flagship CRM software.

HR management involves many important functions that companies have approached until now with individual solutions, he says. "Now we have the capacity to tie a lot of this activity into large goals and objectives, provide some insight and bring it to a new strategic level."

It is incredibly complicated to apply integrated e-business technology to human resources, says Michel Brisson, president of SAP Canada Inc., a subsidiary of SAP AG.

"With products you have SKU numbers and typically a product does a certain thing which is very well-defined. People are much more flexible and they do so many more things. . .So it's like an infinite bill of materials. The challenge is to be able to manage this infinite capability in an optimal manner.

"This is the next leap in functionality that the industry has been looking for. This is what companies have been dreaming of for the last 10 years," Mr. Brisson says.

What the technology will mean to employees and managers in the workaday world is that it will make it much easier for everyone to handle arrangements such as vacation requests.

Toronto police officers and civilian employees, for example, will soon be able to open a computer screen that will tell them what vacation time they are allowed, enter a request, see in an instant whether the schedule permits them to take that time off, then send their request to a supervisor and check on the status of that request in much the same way as a customer can track the travels of a courier package on-line, Mr. Ossip says.

Shift changes are another example of a mundane activity that can be very complicated to manage, says Mr. Cuddihey.

In a paper mill, for example, when a third hand doesn't show up, a fourth hand may fill in but the two functions carry a different pay scale. This creates a burdensome transaction for a supervisor to process but if he or she has tools to track the changes, he or she can focus on managing the operation, while the employee can see in an instant exactly what the payroll system is going to pay.

This kind of software will be especially useful to the Toronto Police Service in handling the complex human resource demands created by special events, such as the city's annual Caribana festival, which involves co-ordinating the work of police officers, administrators, volunteers and off-duty officers, Mr. Ossip says.

In the long term, Mr. Gibson says he hopes that the new system will provide him with the ability to predict the resources required to handle various events and identify potential gaps in order to devise long-term strategies.

"We're trying to reinvent ourselves in HR and this is one of the tools for us to do that," Mr. Gibson says.

© The Globe and Mail

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