No Duct Tape Allowed!: Managing HCM Application Integration

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Application integration is essential. It is not just a technical issue, but also a business issue. Companies require one source of the truth about their people and processes in order to manage, monitor, and measure progress and success. Yet understanding how software solutions that are used in business actually connect with each other remains elusive.

There are many reasons why companies want their HR software platforms to be integrated, including the following.

  • Data and Analytics—In order to run meaningful reports, understand the state of the business, and implement talent analytics[1], companies need the equivalent of a “single system of record”. Well-architected systems integration helps to make sure that all data is coordinated, easy to find, and accurate.
  • User Experience—People don’t want to log into multiple HR systems to get their work done. If systems are not integrated, employees and managers often have multiple systems with multiple user interfaces to use, making HR systems difficult to learn and potentially, not well-adopted.
  • Accuracy and Compliance—Most HR programs have some legal and regulatory requirements. Did a certain employee complete the mandatory compliance training, for example? If systems are not well integrated, then these processes may not be easy to track, and it may be impossible to verify or report on compliance issues.
  • IT Cost—When systems are not integrated by vendors, IT may have to pick up the bill “Integration projects” may be put on the back burner, further complicating HR’s ability to provide services to its stakeholders.

Integration is clearly an essential consideration in deploying an HRIS system. Beyond the compliance requirements of a core HR system, HR professionals may want to integrate data from background checks; competency, skill, or behavioral assessments; benefits administration; payroll and tax services; or, workforce management functions, such as clock-ins/-outs.

Making the Incompatible Compatible

Application integration between unlike products is not trivial. Products created at different times or by different vendors use different data models—basically, they store information in what can be vastly different ways. Consider naming conventions as an example. One application may ask for first name, last name, while another may do the reverse; but it could be that neither has consistency in dealing with hyphenated names. One application may refer to the company name by a three letter acronym, while another uses the words written out; as the data is passed between applications, will it appear as two distinct companies? Therein lies the difficulty with integration—getting the data between two or more points the way the user expects to see and use it. It is for this reason that integration is so important and, without sound practices, analysis of data is challenging across applications.

The majority of HCM software providers have long supplied standard, documented application programming interfaces (APIs) for practitioners to use in connecting to a variety of their custom and third-party products.  APIs are tools that specify how some software components should interact with each other. Generally, an API is a library that includes specifications for routines, data structures, object classes, and variables—all of which are used by an IT staffer or a third-party technologist to create the integration between two applications, processes, or services.  The vendor in these instances has tested and certified the APIs for the use they will serve in the user’s environment.  Some bundle these as “connectors” which can be used to integrate two specific disparate applications—these may be chargeable, as is their implementation for the customer.

Many users today integrate their talent management applications with their HRIS system of record, third-party products, such as other talent products from other providers, and services, such as prehire assessments and background checks, benefits, tax and payroll providers.

These applications or services may or may not also be in the cloud (that is, accessible over the Internet via a browser or mobile device), rather than running natively in your data center. Users have choices in the way they choose to integrate all these disparate applications.

Given the heterogeneity of the technology requirements today, many software providers support a third-party integration partner ecosystem to provide a choice to application users which need to integrate applications to an HRIS, or other third-party on-premise or cloud solutions.

The integration of two very different systems, not only with each other, but with all of the related business applications and services on which HR professionals rely, is complex—hence time-consuming—and has to maintain the accuracy and integrity of employee data. Almost any data can be amalgamated via flat-file data transfer, but that is generally insufficient in providing the degree of integration companies rely on today. Third-party transport and data-routing tools exist, but often they too lack the deep integration that many organizations seek. Mind you, both of these measures serve to move data from one application to another.

Middleware presents another viable option for integration. With the advent of SaaS and the rapid growth of cloud computing, middleware has had to address on-premise to on-premise data movement and consolidations, but also on-premise to the cloud, and even further, cloud-to-cloud integration.

Many of today’s users of Cloud-based talent applications have tools available to ease the task. Documented APIs exist, and third-party applications and tools are available—many of which are certified by the vendors.

Increasingly the vendors—recognizing that few of their customers live in a homogeneous software world, provide packaged integrations that are tested and often certified to address some of the many integration requirements of users today. Because these are not simplistic plug-and-play tools, they are likely to continue to require customizations as they are implemented to meet unique customer requirements. For managing talent, users often seek the ability to efficiently integrate data from their sourcing or hiring management software into onboarding, then to the employee profile, learning, and career preference applications – and then to their performance management and succession planning solutions, to name the more common.

Acquiring all solutions from one integrated suite provider is one way to achieve integration; however, when your requirements cannot be met with that strategy, know that it is not an insurmountable show-stopper; you can look at other avenues.  It may cost you time (and perhaps expense), but the effort in amalgamating your data will likely prove worth the effort.

 

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[1]   For more information, Big Data in HR: Building a Competitive Talent Analytics Function – The Four Stages of Maturity, Bersin & Associates / Josh Bersin, April 2012. Available to research members at www.bersin.com.

Christa Degnan Manning

Christa Degnan Manning leads Bersin by Deloitte’s solution provider research. In this role, she collaborates with Bersin and Deloitte colleagues across practices to identify and analyze software and service providers that support and sustain success in human resources, workforce enablement, and organizational effectiveness. Christa’s research and advisory work helps businesses align their workforce support strategies with the right third-party partners and governance models to deliver functional capabilities and employee experiences that support productivity, engagement, and workforce efficiency. She also helps solution providers map their capabilities and go-to-market activities with solution buyers’ and users’ critical needs. Christa draws on more than two decades of business-to-business market research, operational leadership, and global workforce experience. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College, Columbia University, including studies at University College, University of London.

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