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Christian Severin


HR & IT: Interpreters wanted - how software projects can succeed

The digitization of HR continues to move forward. When it comes to implementation, however, it is more important than ever to get all parties on board from the outset. Otherwise, companies run the risk of high costs and frustration for all parties involved.

„HR and IT are worlds apart.” Those who think this way will fail to align processes and structures to the needs of employees. Similar to the so-called customer experience, i.e. the experience of the customer in the interaction with the company, the employee experience should also always be considered in internal support functions such as HR and IT. In plain language, this means that employees also expect digital and simple processes and structures when interacting with their company.


A mobile app for employees is an important component in the digitization process.

One example: a mobile app for employees is an important component in the digitization process. But in many companies, employees criticize their apps: either they cannot find the services they want or handling of the app is too complicated. The company's management team is also frustrated, as neither the time frame nor the budget are adhered to in many development projects. As a result, the image of the two corporate divisions often suffers. Studies show, for example, that IT is seen as a service provider that offers standard services for day-to-day business operations. The image of the HR department is similar: it is often still seen as a mere administrator, for example, of employee’s salaries. Trouble quickly arises when things go wrong in this area.

Development projects require open communication

Such views prevent cooperation in a spirit of partnership and lead to poor communication in development projects. This factor, however, is crucial. In its study on what makes projects successful, the Project Management Institute (PMI) points out that 30 percent of failed company projects do not lead to success because of poor communication, for example because potential hurdles are not openly identified. 

This creates an overly optimistic perspective on the development project. On the surface, it seems easy to tackle. HR has already established processes for leave requests and sick leave notifications. Assignments are made using a ticketing system. Personnel files are available and can easily be scanned. Therefore, a product backlog can be quickly made available. Then it's off to talks with the social partners and the concept gets implemented.

On the IT side, too, the job seems a comparatively simple one. Personnel data, holiday applications and sickness notifications are already recorded via the IT systems. For the development of an employee app, there are standard frameworks that allow attractive user interfaces to be developed in a short time. All that remains is to integrate the existing systems via an interface. And the employee app is ready.

Simple-looking functions are often complex

However, these initial preliminary considerations fail to take the actual difficulties on both sides into account. It is easy to include "single sign-on" (SSO) in a specification sheet, for example, but it is not so easy for the IT department to implement it. The larger and more interconnected the company, the more difficult. Internationally operating groups such as Telekom, use different HR applications, depending on the company's history and worldwide location. The implementation of SSO may well cost several weeks of development time, as the corresponding routines have to be tested extensively.

Conversely, the IT management lacks insight into the specifics of HR processes. Compliance aspects, for example, must be considered for the employee app: data protection, employee rights and legal Social Partner regularities. The final functional scope of the app is influenced by the social partner and contractually defined in a company agreement. Any change requires an update of the company agreement and is therefore not easily implemented.

Such hurdles lead to higher costs and delays: many requirements cause complex programming and previous HR applications need to be updated or extended. This results in distributed IT systems that do not use standard software. Additional data layers are therefore necessary to establish communication between the systems. This also increases the administrative effort.

Overcoming the cost spiral

The consequence is that with every digitization project, the IT infrastructure of the HR department becomes more complex and more expensive – and the costs spiral out of control. It is imperative that companies find a way to overcome such a situation. An important key to this is the communication between HR and IT, because, if the only link between the two is a specification sheet, misunderstandings are bound to occur.

Therefore, HR should involve their IT colleagues in the decision-making process to develop an employee app, and they should form an overarching team with them. Ideally, software developers, HR experts and the social partner are all part of the team that designs the app. A jointly completed product backlog helps to avoid misunderstandings.

In this way, HR experts realize the impact their decisions have on IT. This way, they do not unconsciously block the digitization process and unnecessarily produce high costs. The IT department gains greater insight into the decision-making criteria of the HR department. It can inform the workers council about the complexity of the software project. The social partner, in turn, informs the developers about the requirements of labor law so they can better take his or her perspective into account. This enables a stable and meaningful digitization process for HR products and services.

Avoiding misunderstandings between stakeholders

Telekom's new employee app was created based on this approach. “At Telekom, the IT and HR departments work closely together in teams so that misunderstandings do not arise in the first place,” emphasizes Christian Niederstrass, who is responsible for HR/IT at Telekom. “This is how we improved the delivery capability of HR and integrated products & services into our employee app.”

By working closely together, all stakeholders understand the consequences of a decision in favor of or against a certain technical solution. They align dependencies and requirements with each other which reduces the cost risk. By involving the works council, subsequent costly changes can be avoided.

In the long term, this reduces the complexity of a company's IT infrastructure. Therefore, IT costs are also reduced. The management board has now more leeway to invest in digital solutions for its employees. They can perform everyday tasks such as processing holiday applications or expense reports quickly and easily with their smartphones. Ultimately, the simplified processes will increase the satisfaction of employees.