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The accidental occupation: HRIS administrator

There is no direct career path for becoming an HRIS professional. People in HR and IT are assigned HR systems responsibilities, which eventually become their full-time occupation.

College doesn't prepare people to become an HRIS administrator. It's a role they evolve into once they enter the workforce, according to Jim Pettit, the chair of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management, or IHRIM.

IHRIM began in 1980. It grew from informal networks of HR, IT and finance professionals who were being tasked with managing payroll and HR systems in the early days of automation. These HRIS professionals recognized that they had distinct networking and education needs and took steps to organize themselves. Today, IHRIM's membership is between 600 and 700. The organization offers a certification program for HRIS professionals.

Pettit, HR systems consultant at Halyard Health, a medical device maker, discussed the HRIS profession and the trends affecting it. The shift to cloud-based technologies is changing the occupation, making it more strategic to the business, he said. 

Who does an HRIS administrator report to: IT, HR or some other department?

Jim Pettit chair of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management, or IHRIM.Jim Pettit

Jim Pettit: I've been in organizations where they've actually moved [from departments] three or four times throughout the relationship. In many organizations, you'll see payroll reporting up to the HR side of the house. And in the other half of the organizations, you'll see payroll reporting up to the finance side of the house because of the financial impact that the payroll has on the business. No one can really decide. Where does payroll go? Is it an HR function? Is it a financial function? HRIS has been the same way. It really doesn't have a home. That's why it's kind of unique, and that's why we have created this industry forum, this association for people who are finding their way into this little unique space.

How big does an organization have to be before it has employees identified as HRIS-specific workers?

Pettit: An HR person supporting 300 persons is going to do compensation, recruiting, change management, analytics and what might be labeled as HRIS. As the organization gets bigger and you start segregating those duties, different organizations will create a job called HRIS analyst. Large organizations have a whole HR technology team that might have project managers and program managers that are implementing, managing and supporting new technologies. Many times, you have one person supporting the HR system and IT, but they're supporting other systems [for other departments]. As the organization grows, it takes up more of their job to support HRIT, and the next thing HR says, well, that person is working 100% on just supporting my system, why don't they just report directly to me?

How many people are considered HRIS professionals? Do you know if this occupation is growing, shrinking or staying the same?

Pettit: This is what I call a pass-through profession. People wander into it. It's always interesting to hear the stories. Well, how did you get involved in HRIS? Many times, on the HR side, it's people who were happily working in HR as a recruiter, or as a benefits analyst, or a comp analyst, and somebody came along and said, 'Hey, we're going to change our technology. We're going to implement a new technology for our human capital management system, and we need a subject matter expert to work with the technology people, to work on this project.' And then that's where they get introduced to the world of HR technology.

People on the IT side, they're just the computer science person. They go to a company, and they could be working on a finance system, a supply chain system, or assigned to support the HR system -- kind of a random thing. And over the course of time, that's what they become an expert in.

It's an interesting thing, because there's no real direct [HRIS administrator] career path.

Many HRIS professionals are working at firms that are moving from on-premises systems to cloud-based systems. How is that changing their jobs?

Pettit: You still need project management. You still need change management. You still need all those things. You still need to test things out. You can't just throw away all those years, and years, and years of experience that the IT department has brought, in terms of deploying and implementing the supporting systems.

What skills and expertise does an HRIS administrator need in a cloud environment? What are the core skills?

The core skill today is, and has always been, to really understand and be able to speak the language of the business.
Jim Pettitchairman, IHRIM

Pettit: The core skill today is, and has always been, to really understand and be able to speak the language of the business. It used to be you'd go in and ask the question, 'What data do you need, and what report do you need, and I'll format a report and here is your data.' Because of analytics, and because of the tools, we now have to say: 'What questions need to be answered a year from now, 18 months from now or 24 months from now that will impact the business?'

I've got to be forward-thinking. I have to know enough about the business to be able to work with the business leaders, to understand the questions that they're going to be asking 18 months, 24 months, two years from now, so I can set up systems, and data gathering tools and techniques to gather the data that they're going to need to make those decisions.

What you're describing now sounds like a more strategic role. Is that how the HRIS administrator role is evolving?

Pettit: I need to know what questions you need for us to help you answer [either] through analytics, regression analysis and data analysis. And once I understand the questions, then I have to go back and figure out how I'm going to configure the tool to be able to provide me those answers, or the data to be able to provide those answers. So, it is more strategic.

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