Building a Better Workforce

Building a Better Workforce

Leading executives know managing talent well is fast becoming an imperative, and that doing it poorly is proving a major and obstinate barrier to optimal business success.

With growing numbers of organizations looking to extend their HCM systems to partner organizations, scalability to support large numbers of users and transactions is just as crucial. But with a push on also to integrate learning management systems, Cohen says few CIOs pay sufficient attention to likely stressors in the system. HR systems are very simple, he says, with a typical system involving a limited number of administrators and transactions that can be done late at night. Learning technologies by contrast can host potentially thousands of concurrent users, putting pressure on both the corporate infrastructure and the individual application.

"And if it doesn't run it doesn't matter. If it can't scale it doesn't matter what the functionality is," he says.

"I will give you an example. American Red Cross uses our applications. They have two million students in their database but they actually have a very low concurrency level, meaning that many times there are only maybe a thousand people using it simultaneously. We have other customers who have maybe only 100,000 students in their database but then have a very high concurrency, like 8000 out of 100,000 people using it simultaneously.

"One of the nice things about J2EE is that you can compensate for that with hardware: you know scaling just the storage or scaling concurrency," Cohen says.

A highly adaptable technology architecture is required to allow tailoring to an organization's specific business operations, and it should be easy to configure changes to workflow and rules-based approvals. The data model should be designed to support the type of skills, competency and job history information most relevant to a specific organization.

CIOs should also consider the user experience to ensure widespread end-user adoption. Ideally the user interface will be readily personalized and branded to support the unique requirements of different business units and workgroups. Application components must be easily deployed within other portals so that relevant capabilities can be embedded wherever needed.

Difficulty of customization is one of the largest implementation risks, so a highly configurable framework is a must to ensure that code changes are minimized as customer-specific capabilities are deployed. This maintains a productive implementation schedule and ensures smooth upgrades to future software versions.

Cohen says CIOs are also expressing a great deal of concern over the issues of standards. "When we do a demonstration we spend a good hour on education on what the standards mean and which ones actually help you and which ones see you just paying extra for to have this pretty little label, you know: the certification. It's important not to get hung up on requiring a standard when it's not something that actually benefits the company."

Plateau Systems' Sparta says the biggest drivers to long-term customer loyalty and satisfaction are vendor implementation and support, as well as the ease with which software can be upgraded over time. "Most companies also spend two to three times the cost of the initial software for implementation. Therefore, a detailed review of vendors' professional services is a critical part of the selection decision. Checking a vendor's track record of technical support and overall support responsiveness is critical to ensure long-term satisfaction and success.

"Ask vendors what percentage of their software is customized on average. What percentage of their customer base is on the most current architecture and release? The ability to adapt software to meet specific needs without modifying the application or database enables the smooth upgrade of software over time. This is a critical success factor to realizing the long-term value from software investments," Sparta says.

"Are end users reaping the highest value from software investments? Learning and performance management solutions can substantially increase workforce productivity. Therefore, it is critical to make sure that software functionality meets business requirements."

Sparta says CIOs must never underestimate the importance of choosing proven technology that is designed to scale and adapt to changing needs over time. Most importantly, check vendor services and support to make sure business objectives will be fully realized, he says. The biggest predictor of future success is historical experience and track record.

SIDEBAR: Strategic HR Metrics a Must

The International Association for Human Resource Information Management recently surveyed its members about the impact and changes related to workforce performance management.

The study confirms HR initiatives must be tied to business results (such as increased sales, reduced customer churn, higher productivity and improved quality) to be valuable to the organization.

However, it found lack of process and systems integration were posing obstacles to effective human capital management (HCM), with most respondents admitting that process and systems integration are somewhat or very limited, leaving HR unable to tie together data or provide executive access to information. They also said data silos were impeding efforts to integrate investments in workers with business performance or to illustrate a meaningful ROI on HCM programs.

Most survey respondents believe HCM will make a difference to the top line. However, HR must identify and solve its business "pain", not just increase workforce performance. HR results must support business outcomes, and use metrics and measures to reach the top executives.

SIDEBAR: The Twain Shall Meet

Large application vendors prefer J2EE but users go for .Net

Afew years ago, a heated debate raged over the benefits of two competing technologies: .Net versus J2EE, Ed Cohen, chair of the Aviation Industry CBT (computer-based training) Committee (AICC) standards committee, says. Microsoft advocates affirmed that .Net was superior, and likewise Java enthusiasts asserted similar observations about J2EE. As it turns out, both camps were at least partially correct.

The progression has been interesting to watch: both technologies have carved out niches on either side of the corporate firewall. For example, the large enterprise software makers - especially the major ERP vendors such as Oracle, PeopleSoft and SAP - have developed business software applications almost exclusively based on J2EE. However, a quick glimpse behind the firewall shows that application customers are selecting .Net as the internal development tool of choice.

Cohen says although each technology has a set of strengths and weaknesses, the advent of Web services has changed the paradigm because it facilitates communication between the two technologies. What's more, from the enterprise perspective J2EE and .Net are beginning to look less and less like competitive technologies and more like complementary languages working hand in hand.

He says Microsoft's decision to support so many different developing environments to ensure that all are capable of producing .Net code was nothing short of brilliant. For many companies and customers of enterprise applications, this event was the single most compelling reason to transition towards a .Net environment for internal development.

"Microsoft's support enabled enterprises to leverage the existing expertise of programmers with skill sets in languages such as Visual C++ and Visual Basic because these programmers could immediately begin producing applications in .Net. To add to the benefits, Microsoft provided tools and guidelines for taking the entire legacy client/server and desktop applications and porting them to Web-based environments," Cohen says.

"As with many choices in technology, advantages gained generally also come with drawbacks. The adaptation of .Net technology comes with dependencies on platforms, browsers and licences from Microsoft. This fact has been the impetus for application developers to use J2EE more often than not."

Productivity vs Flexibility

What a developer gains in productivity from .Net is lost in flexibility, and the businesses that develop enterprise applications have taken note. Although Java in a J2EE design is a considerably more difficult environment in which to program, once built, the flexibility of the application deployment and the scalability of a J2EE architecture far outweighs the additional development costs.

To put it another way, Cohen says, in order to develop and sell an enterprise application to the widest possible customer base, the application must run on any hardware platform, with any operating systems and without licensing fees. This must include everything from the smallest handheld device to the largest cluster of servers. To this end, there is one choice: J2EE.

So why are these two technologies becoming complementary? The most overlooked component contributing to this trend is the unprecedented willingness of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems to agree to work together on a common standard for Web services. This now allows enterprise application customers - many of whom have already made substantial investments in one technology or another - to easily use both J2EE and .Net. Traditionally, the only choice for enabling various applications, built within these separate environments, to communicate was with extensive - if not expensive - custom development.

While some might argue that Web services is not the best possible solution for every interface, the fact that users now have a convenient method for exchanging data between enterprise applications developed in different technologies cannot be overlooked. For example, with Web services a major ERP application developed in J2EE now has the capacity to communicate with a Web portal developed in .Net.

SIDEBAR: Back and Forth Bonuses

An employee self-service portal makes planning and tracking executive pay easier at Optus

At performance review time, Optus's HR department used to send out spreadsheets where managers were required to detail the bonus payments they wished to allocate to their staff. All data was then imported into a Filemaker database to enable HR to consolidate the data across the organization to allow comparisons of total allocated payments against budget. "This is where it got tricky, especially if payments exceeded budget," says Optus national manager for Remuneration, Benefits and Payroll Andy Payne. "Typically, there was a lot of back and forth adjustments or negotiation for extra funds." It used to take two to three weeks to consolidate the data and ensure allocated payments were within budget.

Now Optus has expanded its EmployeeConnect employee self-service portal solution by creating an online tool for use by managers to allocate incentives and review remuneration. The new implementation has won high user acceptance, and the praise of the HR department. "What used to take us two to three weeks to consolidate, now takes minimal resource to get right," Payne says.

The reviewing managers know their budget and work within it to allocate incentives. Consolidation occurs automatically, saving time and providing data integrity.

Better still, the new EmployeeConnect solution also allows employees to nominate, online, how they receive their incentives. They can choose to be paid in shares, cash, super or a combination. The system also gives employees confidence their nomination has actually been processed.

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