Reengineering HR through Information Technology

By Yeung, Arthur | Human Resource Planning, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Reengineering HR through Information Technology


Yeung, Arthur, Human Resource Planning


Reengineering is clearly in vogue. While many HR professionals are effectively utilizing information technology to reengineer their HR processes, others are having a vague idea concerning what reengineering is, what it can accomplish, and what difficulties may be encountered during the design and implementation phases. Drawing upon in-depth case studies of four corporations (Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, AT&T GE Nuclear Energy) and survey findings from 33 corporations, this article discusses and addresses five basic questions related to HR reengineering: Why do companies reengineer HR? How are companies using reengineering? What are the possible outcomes of reengineering? What makes reengineering work? What factors stall reengineering initiatives? The article concludes with a checklist of 12 questions that help HR professionals think through their design and implementation of reengineering efforts.

Reengineering is the hottest and latest management technique in corporate America. Fortune magazine (August 23, 1993) proclaims on its cover: "Reengineering: It's Hot, It's Happening, It's Now." Amidst the strong tide of reengineering, HR processes, along with other critical business processes, are often a prime target of reengineering to improve cost efficiency, customer service, and business competitiveness (Yeung, Brockbank & Ulrich, 1994).

While many HR functions are jumping on the bandwagon of reengineering, HR professionals often have only a vague idea of what reengineering is, what it can accomplish, and what difficulties they may encounter during the design and implementation phases. Indeed, reengineering is one of the most abused terms in the corporate world (Filipowski, 1993). It has been used to refer to a wide range of organizational changes, including downsizing, delayering, restructuring, and process improvement. Hammer and Champy (1993) define reengineering as utilizing the power of modem information technology to radically redesign business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvement in critical performance measures. Clearly, clarification of the concept through practical examples can strengthen the contribution and broaden the applications of reengineering to HR.

Drawing upon in-depth case studies of four corporations (Hewlett-Packard, Apple Computer, GE Nuclear Energy, and AT&T) and survey findings from 33 corporations, this article offers the experiences and insights of these companies in their HR reengineering initiatives. At the outset, a brief note on methodology is needed. All in-depth case studies were obtained by utilizing a combination of interviews, formal presentations, live demonstrations, and company documents. In most companies, we spent one day on site to conduct the study.

Companies were selected as case studies on the basis of their contributions to a broad explanation of reengineering endeavors. In some cases, the unit of analysis is a single HR process; in other cases, the unit of analysis is the entire HR function. In addition, these cases also illustrate how companies can reengineer their HR processes through two contrasting approaches. One is technology-driven; the other is process-driven.(1)

The research was conducted in the spring of 1994 by sending a survey instrument including over 100 questions to senior HR executives in 160 major California companies, representing a full variety of industries and sizes. The questions targeted the companies' HR reengineering efforts and covered a wide gamut of issues,(2) including: Why was reengineering embarked upon? How was it undertaken? Who were the key players? What were the results? What were the major pitfalls? What were the key learnings?

Thirty-three companies responded,(3) constituting a response rate of 21%. In the survey, we requested that either the top HR executive fill out the survey him/herself or that it be completed by someone familiar with the reengineering effort. The result was that 52% percent of our survey respondents were the top HR executives in their corporations, while 45% were HR directors, managers, or specialists. …

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