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How to free your business and staff with self-service

Introducing self-service IT can improve efficiency and hand control to the employee – so long as it’s done right

With increasing demand for IT flexibility – from users wanting to access IT on any device, anywhere, any time; and organisations wanting to consolidate for efficiency – online, cloud-based services are the way to go.

For consumers and employees alike it means a shift from long-established and well supported but often cumbersome ways of doing things, to an online, instant access and increasingly self-service model.

This shift will not be welcomed by all. Some will feel the personal touch has been lost; others will miss being helped (or having the work done for them). In all cases, the organisation making the changes has to make sure the process is well delivered, well supported and well understood to be successful, and this typically means choosing the right tools, systems and suppliers.

This is particularly true where the changes affect employees, where essentially the workforce is being asked to pick up and do many administrative tasks for themselves that might previously have been done or heavily assisted by others.

The process typically goes through several recognisable stages, mostly for human and business process rather than technical reasons. The first stage is one-to-one administrative support for the employee. This can be very costly for the service provider, (that is, the employer).

Next is managed service. This is less costly, and may be outsourced to an external provider, Beyond a managed service is self-service where employees take on most of the effort. Then there is self-reliance. This is when support shifts from proactive to reactive;

The final stage is employee-driven, which is service optimised by users to suit their needs.

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A path though employee self-service

Some aspects of employee life lend themselves more readily to self-service, especially when the extra effort required of the employee is low compared with the perceived value, and the benefits to the organisation are immediately noticeable. The routine and regular processes for dealing with simple updates and viewing key private information, such as payroll, without going through a human connection in HR or accounts, is a common and effective place to start.

From a small firm of fewer than 50 employees up to large enterprises, this can be done with software as a service from suppliers specialising in HR and payroll such as Ciphr, Cezanne, ADP, PeopleInc, Cascade or Paylocity. Pricing can be very competitive and delivery as a service will scale proportionately with employee numbers, once particular thresholds are reached; Cezanne, for example, offers a basic people, training and HR portal for £1 per employee per month for companies with 150 or more employees.

Alternatively, comprehensive enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools – such as Deltek, SAP or Oracle JD Edwards EnterpriseOne – will incorporate HR and payroll and many other employee services. These offer incremental as-a-service pricing, but may require greater investment or commitment upfront to wider implementation to fully exploit their broader range of benefits.

It is still possible and perhaps pragmatic for smaller companies to invest incrementally in making administrative services directly available to employees. Once simple information services are in place, the next step is to introduce related transactional processes – still involving employee administration – such as booking holidays and sickness reporting. In many cases, these are offered as extensions or options by many of the HR tools mentioned earlier.

While automating each administrative process is useful, the transactional service that adds most instant and longer-term value, to employee as well as the business, is expense reporting and management. Opportunities exist to use technology – for example, cameras on smartphones, mobile networks while travelling – to ensure expenses information is captured as it happens.

Not only does this increase the accuracy of expense submissions – so that employees do not forget to claim, and employers and the tax authorities can be assured that claims are valid – but it also means the process can be concluded sooner. This helps avoid cash flow shocks in small businesses, as well as ensuring employees are reimbursed faster.

Tools such as Concur (now part of SAP) and KDS travel and expense management allow not only for the capturing and analysis of expense collected after the event, but also the entire travel management and booking process.

When these services were ad hoc or even outsourced, it was hit or miss whether the employee was guided down the path of meeting travel and expense guidelines and policies. Now with self-service tools at their fingertips, policy is clear and enforceable from the start. This keeps things straightforward and fair for the employee and avoids problems later.

Not all expenses and costs are handled that directly and with resources such as communications becoming a significant individual cost – bring your own device (BYOD) programmes, communications tariffs and additional ad hoc Wi-Fi charges – these too need to be managed. Telecoms expense management has come a long way from simply looking at billing after the event and trying to claw back personal usage from employees, and companies such as Tangoe, Anatole and MDSL offer sophisticated expense management tools.

Time is a critical resource too, and shifting employment models including zero hours contracts can mean timekeeping and attendance recording is useful in many sectors to employees as well as employers, where tools from companies like Kronos, Chronologic and WorkForce software enabling mobile and web-based access.

Customer relationship management

Beyond the internal administrative burden, the main shared-need for most employees is information to support their relationship with customers. This is no longer something only applicable to discrete teams of sales or customer service individuals, now the responsibility for maintaining customer relationships affects all employees. Companies such as Sage, ServiceNow and Salesforce offer the benefits of their applications right across any large customer-facing organisation via self-service access, and in particular – either through its own functionality or with partner applications on the Salesforce1 platform – extends this into a huge range of enterprise applications.

Cloud-based self-service applications make life simpler for the IT department with friction-free deployment, and easier for users to access services as and when they require them. But even when legacy applications are not readily available for access by employees on demand, they can be packaged and bundled with others via a single service interface or application portal. This type of distributed application access is typical of products from long-established virtual desktop providers such as Citrix, Microsoft or VMware, to more recent on-demand workspace providers such as Centric Software, Workspot or RES Software.

Benefits, challenges and good practice

Deploying systems so that employees can look after themselves has many benefits for the organisation, in shifting the impact of administration back to the individuals concerned and having them check the details of data that affects them. But the benefits of such systems extend beyond just improving efficiency and accuracy for the organisation.

By giving individuals direct access, employees are in control of the process, including when and how they want to interact. However, if this seems an unnecessary or onerous effort, rather than streamlining the process, it will cause tension and something has gone wrong.

So how should an organisation go about deploying self-service cloud-based tools for employees?

  • Where possible, seek out and talk to others who have been through the process. There are plenty of well-established suppliers, so talk to their customers.
  • Get employee buy-in from the outset. If they’re being expected to pick up some of the task burden, even to gain more control, they need to understand why, and how it will benefit them.
  • Train for a thorough understanding of the entire system, not just the particular application. Most of the systems are well designed for ease of use, but how they are implemented and fit with different businesses’ processes varies. Make sure employees understand how the whole process works.
  • Invest in systems that will allow for wider integration, not point products. Even if starting with one element of employee self-service, most companies will need to have a strategy of doing much more. Ensure all elements can be integrated together into a single employee portal of all services, rather than requiring separate access.
  • Do not think “web” or “mobile”, think “omni-channel”. Many self-service tasks will not be completed in a single session and each stage could be in a different location and on a different device. Make it easier for employees by choosing systems that allow them to switch devices to whatever is most appropriate for them at any given stage.
  • Consider the overlap between customer experience management and employees. Many self-service options blur the line between employee and customer with good reason; the edges of the organisation are porous, but also employees and customers alike expect consumer-like levels of access and ease of use - the experience matters.

Increasingly, control and access to administrative functions is shifting from different internal service departments – HR, accounts, even IT – directly into the hands, desktops and mobile devices of employees. It can increase efficiency for the organisation and empower the individual – but only if done well. Organisations need to ensure that, as they travel this path, transitions are smooth and there is consistency, even across different systems, and employees fully understand how to take advantage and benefit themselves from this control and flexibility.

 Rob Bamforth is a principal analyst at Quocirca.

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