I still remember my first encounter with computer technology – a small green cursor flashing insistently across a small black screen. At first I couldn’t find time to learn to use the computer, but soon enough I wondered how I’d ever done my job without it. Of course, back then, we had no expectations of computer technology other than that it was likely to remain an impenetrable mystery.
However, the Amstrad seduced me and, before long, transformed the way I worked. How different it is now. We expect technology to be intuitive because we have no time for training, online, super-fast, secure and linked-up to the wider company network.
Usability, look and feel are as important as what is underneath. In HR, this developing technology presents us with a great opportunity. We can now manage, measure, quantify, qualify, evaluate, analyse and report on every last aspect of our human capital. Data, which once languished unseen in filing cabinets, is now open to view and able to be selectively edited by employees themselves.
Benefits, once offered up in glossy brochures during induction in the first weeks of employment and then forgotten about until the arrival of the P11D each year, can now be part of employees’ everyday agendas.
Offering flexibility in benefits through a technology platform provides a valuable means for businesses to engage with employees throughout their employment. At Loyalty Management Group, moving to a flexible benefits scheme has enabled us to engage with our employees in new ways and to see them not as human capital, but as individuals. Knowing that communicating the scheme would be our biggest challenge, we started slowly by introducing the concept of total reward before offering a limited facility to flex. Fortunately, there is an ever-increasing variety of products and services to be added, particularly in the area of voluntary benefits. Alongside the government’s schemes, such as childcare vouchers and tax-free bicycles, financial services companies are beginning to pick up technology as a new distribution channel.
Gradually, they are gearing up to accepting online applications for products such as pensions, bringing efficiency savings in administration and removing potential barriers to joining for staff. With the gradual disappearance of occupational pension schemes, many of us are waking up to the frightening realisation of a widening gap in savings for retirement. Any avenue to educate our employees about financial issues should be grasped.
Interactive systems such as pension modellers, which allow employees to generate a pensions forecast and view it graphically depending on different contribution rates and retirement ages, bring life and colour to what has traditionally been an arid landscape.
For marketers, data held by HR systems is likely to be richer and of far higher quality than that from other sources. With it, providers have the opportunity to market – to a captive, receptive audience – specialised products of direct relevance to each individual. Furthermore, where products are offered within a flexible benefits scheme, they come with the added advantage of employer endorsement. But there is a risk.
With our various systems, HR information, benefits admin, payroll, intranet and so on, there is an increasing number of moving parts. Systems must meet the highest standards of security and be able to speak to each other. The IT we choose needs to meet and, better still, exceed our employees’ expectations.
They must be able to trust the data and our use of it. And using technology for worksite marketing comes with a huge responsibility for HR. Our goal is to offer choice at low cost by giving staff access to group rates, but we should never suggest that we can always offer the lowest prices (just in case web wizards find it cheaper elsewhere online).
As always, when crossing brand new frontiers, there are opportunities and risks. We should be mindful of both.