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Personnel Connections

IT is from Mars.

HR is from Venus.

Until they find common ground, your IT projects run the risk of being sunk by people management problems.

The project involved creation of a very large system meant to decisively transform the way a particular job was performed within a major Australian organization. Using a highly strategically important piece of technology, it was supposed to enable more transactions at a faster rate and with a greater degree of accuracy.

However, it turned out implementation had an unforeseen Achilles heel. Since no one had bothered to pay any attention to the HR issues a successful project implementation was bound to invoke, data entry people suddenly found themselves expected to somehow magically acquire new analytical skills and specialist knowledge, and to adopt an entirely new way of thinking.

Almost inevitably, the project hovered on the point of collapse as those stalwarts of the data entry shop began to flounder. Sure, they had been trained thoroughly in the new system, but their best intentions were still being thwarted as they butted up against a new culture that demanded they take unprecedented levels of responsibility for the total transaction, employ a far higher degree of analytical thinking, and take part in an entire process rather than one small part of it.

It was all too big an ask.

In the end, it would have been cheaper and easier to get new people straight off the street and train them in the system than to "un-train" and then retrain the existing staff, a severely disillusioned project head told Dr Kristine Dery, a researcher within the Department of Work and Organizational Studies at the University of Sydney.

Dery, who also lecture post graduates in the organizational impact of human resource systems in the department, has recently completed 10 years of research into the strengths, weaknesses and implications of the IT-HR relationship. Having studied in depth the experiences of four major Australian firms as they implemented a strategically important IT project, Dery says there is nothing especially unusual about the case in point. In examining the involvement of the HR function in the planning and implementation of each of the four projects at issue, Dery found in every case the technology had failed to deliver the expected returns because people management issues had been left on the periphery. She concludes that people management challenges are increasingly creating obstacles to successful implementations as organizations seek out new ways to enable greater alignment between the IT strategies and the organizational change process.

"Organizations need to invest in the CIO-HR relationship. The marriage between the CIO and the HR manager is one made in heaven if you want to maximize the returns from IT projects," Dery says. "People management is still recognized as the major contributor in delivering expected results in major IT-enabled business initiatives.

"CIOs need to recognize the value of involving HR early and at a senior, strategic level to ensure necessary benefits are delivered from IT projects. CIOs should not shrink from taking the lead."

That said, Dery concedes the CIO-HR relationship is fraught with challenges and is difficult to get right. In many organizations, minimal involvement in IT projects by HR for anything other than compliance advice means the activities of HR and IT remain unaligned. Instead the critical issues of job restructures, recruitment, remuneration changes and retraining tend to be shunted downwards to line managers divorced from the reality of the actual changes needed. The result is that activities tend to be limited largely to short-term training initiatives.

"Often [what's required is] a completely new strategy with regard to recruitment, career opportunities, the culture of the workplace, rather than [it] simply being a training issue, which tends to be how it is seen when line management take responsibility for the implementation," she says.

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