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Tips for automating the performance management process

Whether you have a talent management suite or are doing it in documents and email, you can build a people-friendly, efficient process if you know where to put your priorities.

Many companies continue to see the value of a traditional performance management process, despite well-documented challenges. The advancement of technology helps to mitigate some of these challenges, while, at the same time, allowing organizations to use some of the newer informal review practices. Having a strategy for an effective performance management process is as important as having business strategies to meet organizational objectives.

Today's marketplace offers many options to implement a performance management process -- from basic forms to fully automated talent management suites.

Regardless of the technology, the following considerations may help in developing a review process and considering software for your organization.

Benefits of automation

Automating the performance management process is often easier when using an application designed for managing a performance review cycle, such as SAP SuccessFactors, Halogen TalentSpace and Ceridian Dayforce. Such applications typically come with built-in functionality to control who can see a form, what data can be updated and by whom, and they facilitate using the data in other modules, such as compensation planning.

Today's marketplace offers many options to implement a performance management process -- from basic forms to fully automated talent management suites.

Companies that decide not to invest in a specialized application can still find ways to automate. For example, Google Docs and Sheets make it easy for both employees and managers to update review forms concurrently. Microsoft Excel provides functions to lock fields and limit features to ensure forms are completed correctly. Both Google and Microsoft products include scripting tools that could be used to amalgamate all the feedback stored in individual files.

Another example: You might want to place all the employees of a team into a nine-box grid to help with calibration meetings, in which managers get together to ensure consistent, fair ratings. While you could do this manually, it may not be efficient if you have many of these to do across the organization.

Automating the entire process -- or parts of the process -- doesn't always have to be fancy, but if you want to standardize the process, reduce your admin time and take advantage of all the work your employees and managers put into the review process, it's best to take steps to enable some type of automation.

Forms and workflows

Keeping review forms as simple as possible is important in user adoption. This is a goal that should be set from the start of the project and reviewed on a regular basis. As you begin to develop the form, you may be tempted to implement every cool feature that's available. However, the end result may be a form that is no longer user-friendly.

Anyone using the form should know what fields to complete, what to enter at different phases of the performance management process and what is expected of them. For example, if a section isn't needed at a midyear review, such as a year-end comments field, hide it and only make it visible at the year-end review. Also, try to limit the use of HR jargon or overly complex concepts that don't add enough value to justify the added complexity.

For multi-employee groups with different performance review needs, you may want to create multiple forms, such as one for nonmanagement staff and one for people managers. This can work well for situations where it's unlikely that employees will need to be changed from one form to another, a mostly manual process involving several steps.

You must also consider the extra time required to set up and test more than one form. If possible, develop the most complex form, and process first. Then, copy and delete the sections that don't apply for subsequent forms to reduce testing time.

Avoid using too many steps. It can lead to confusion about whose turn it is to enter data, as well as require users to log in to the application just to move a form to the next person. Fewer steps also cut down work for the system administrator.

You may be able to implement a concurrent step, where the employee and manager can record their feedback without having to move the form along. This can be useful in applications that require the review form to record interim feedback.

Another labor-saving approach is having forms automatically move to the next step after a certain date.

Additional features to consider

It is important to figure out the data reporting scheme before completing design of the form and workflow. It can be time-consuming to fix the form after it is launched. In many performance management applications, the form and data are stored together. If you didn't make a field reportable and you want it to be, you may have to manually copy all the data from existing forms before deleting them, launch the revised forms and then re-enter the data.

Some software allows you to configure eligibility rules to control which employees receive a form. Perhaps only full-time employees or those hired before a certain date complete a review. Having rules eliminates the need for the administrator to determine who should receive a review form.

Security is a critical consideration. You need to ensure that only the people who should see and edit the review are allowed. Role-based permissions can simplify access management.

Rating scales are another important consideration. While they may be useful for quickly evaluating and comparing employees, they can be demotivating for employees. If ratings are included in your form, does each section have to be rated, or is one final rating sufficient? Also, consider changing the label of the rating to something more inspiring than "Meets Expectations," which is often the most common rating, to something like "Great Job." You do need to ensure the rating system is clear so employees understand what their rating means.

Some applications include summaries at the top of the form showing the overall rating, number of fields requiring input and how one employee's rating compares to peers. They can save people time when they first open the form.

Consider enabling features for capturing feedback throughout the year. The feedback may be related to a specific step, such as a midyear review, the completion of a project or employee check-ins. While the feedback may come primarily from the employee and manager, other employees may also have input.

Using the captured data in other processes will help demonstrate that the performance management process is important. For example, SuccessFactors makes it easy to push ratings to the compensation planning form to calculate -- or provide guidelines related to -- bonuses and salary increases.

Mitigating potential challenges

There may be times when you want to change the look of a feature but are limited by the application, such as the location of feedback fields. If the feature is important to your review process, make sure it is well-documented and explained during training. The other option is to evaluate the impact of removing the feature.

Be sure to test the form and workflow thoroughly using multiple use case scenarios, and get feedback from others. Some issues may be subtle.

Before starting the review process, provide adequate training to employees. This may be in the form of documentation, online videos or in person. For the process to run smoothly, employees must know what's expected of them and how to perform the necessary tasks.

Using an application designed for formal performance reviews may make developing the form and workflow easier, but you still need to prepare. Allow time to adjust if you hit a limitation or discover a better way to implement the functionality you had in mind. But try to avoid large, last-minute changes you can't test thoroughly.

Also, make use of the vendor's tech support and user groups and possibly engage its professional services group. These support staff often see review forms and workflows from different companies and may be able to suggest preferred ways to use their software. You should also allow lead time to ensure you can get the feedback or resource assigned in time for your launch.

There are a number of performance management applications that have enabled companies to improve their processes and resolve some historical challenges with performance reviews. To ensure the performance management process continues to benefit employees and the organization, automate manual processes, ensure the form and workflows are intuitive, explore the new functionality provided by your software vendor and -- last but not least -- try to mitigate issues before they arise.

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