This content is part of the Essential Guide: HR mobile apps for employees strengthen HCM strategies

HR help desk reborn as employee experience, analytics tool

The concept is two decades old, but experts say a new generation is leading the demand for employee-centric mobility and ease of use, which are helping HR run smarter.

As HR increasingly becomes central in organizations' efforts to drive growth, it's becoming a busy place to work.

HR departments these days not only oversee traditional functions, such as hiring, payroll and benefits, but they also play a crucial role in aligning employee performance and engagement with the company's bottom line and customer satisfaction. Therefore, HR employees, more than ever, don't have time to answer a simple question, as they juggle complex tasks.

But help is on the way: the HR help desk, an old technology with a new look and functions that aim to assist HR departments with important conventional duties, freeing them up for bigger projects.

A single channel for all HR queries

An HR help desk is essentially a virtual agent, guiding employees through HR materials so they can answer questions and find forms themselves. Many offerings also have a ticket system that gathers employee submissions, like the IT help desk does, so HR can systematically address issues that can't be handled through self-service. The technology also aims to harness HR data so HR staff can gauge which issues are important to the workforce, while providing employees with a comprehensive resource.

"It is a service tool, but it's also for HR to see what programs are being used and what's causing problems," said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics at consulting and IT services firm Sierra-Cedar. The technology tracks questions and other interactions to provide HR with analyzed data that informs their work. "It's evolving to something that's not just a place to put updated information, but something that can answer sophisticated questions about healthcare and benefits and serve as a workforce management tool for HR," Harris said.

At least 13 vendors offer variations of an HR help desk, and the market is expected to grow this year at the steady clip it did in 2017, following years of dormancy. Last year, adoption increased by 11%, and in 2018, it's expected to climb 10%, Harris said.

Large and midsize organizations are using HR help desk software that is marketed either as a separate product or as part of a larger human capital management (HCM) system, according to Sierra-Cedar. Dovetail Software, Neocase Software, LBi Software and Oracle are HCM vendors that offer help desk packages, while Cherwell Software and Salesforce have help desk products for HR as part of larger service delivery options. Some offerings, including ServiceNow and Infor, don't use the tag "HR help desk" and instead say their products streamline "HR service delivery."

Better-suited tool for HR reporting and analytics

Help desks for HR aren't new. In the 1990s, companies integrated HR with IT help desk technology, or they constructed their own systems. Then, the market saw little movement over nearly two decades. But with HCM systems now incorporating HR-specific help desk functions and with stand-alone products, such as ServiceNow, gaining traction, HR departments finally have a range of technologies to consider.

"We had customers with nothing but legacy tools … mainly IT help desk ticketing systems that have been repurposed and are not specific to HR and are also not considering the many privacy standards required for HR," said Deepak Bharadwaj, vice president and general manager of ServiceNow's HR Business Unit.

Forrester principal analyst Paul Hamerman believes there's an opportunity for HR help desk software to blossom. "It's ripe for innovation," he said. Done right, the HR help desk will be part of the larger evolution of mimicking the ease of use and mobility of consumer products. "Employees won't use it if it's a typical in-house intranet and not user-friendly," he added. "The user experience has to be engaging."

That's precisely what HR help desk vendors aim to deliver: technology that will entice HR and employees alike.

If you have an HR help desk, you have better visibility of what was asked and when, and you can track trends, such as people asking about vacation policy.
Gretchen AlarconGroup vice president of HCM strategy, Oracle

"Think about HR service delivery," said Gretchen Alarcon, group vice president of HCM strategy at Oracle. "There are a lot of questions for HR: How do I change my life insurance beneficiary? What's my health insurance premium? When employees have these questions, they call who they know in HR and not so much follow a process. So, you have a lot of talented HR people answering questions."

Besides HR employees halting their work to answer such common questions, another problem is they might be answering them in nonstandard ways, according to Alarcon. "If you have an HR help desk, you have better visibility of what was asked and when, and you can track trends, such as people asking about vacation policy." Tracked conversations on the portal also provide a record for compliance audits and other matters, Alarcon said. (Oracle's help desk will be offered in the company's HR cloud platform in late summer.)

Time will tell how many organizations automate their HR functions, but those that already do claim the technology has streamlined the delivery of services and transformed how their HR departments interact with employees.

Lone Star College, a public community college with six campuses in the Houston area, implemented ServiceNow in 2015 and continues to find efficiencies because of the platform's ability to automate mundane tasks, such as filling out forms or changing the status of a pension plan, said Link Alander, vice chancellor and CIO of the college.

"For us, it was: How do you transform HR and modernize service management?" Alander said. "You're looking at today's workforce and their expectations, so you have to make it simple, fast and mobile."

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