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Implementing a Human Resources System - Lessons Learned

Donna Keener, Diane Heard, and Michelle Morgan, SPHR

February 2000

Once the new Human Resources software application has been selected and purchased, you are now ready to begin with the implementation process right? Maybe, and maybe not. There are many factors to consider prior to commencing with a system implementation. When embarking on a project of this magnitude, necessary measures should be taken to ensure a successful implementation. So how does one go about the task of ensuring a successful implementation process?

One of the first considerations is to clearly identify and document what the underlying objective is for implementing a new Human Resources system. In other words, you will need to determine what key pieces of the system must be implemented, versus pieces that would be "nice to have". Initially it will also be necessary to determine the size of the organization, total number of employees and overall scope of deliverables you want to implement. It is also beneficial to seek the advice of other professionals who have experienced major implementations first hand.

The following guideline is a listing of key components to be taken into consideration when developing an implementation project that is comprehensive and realistic.

  • Management Support
  • Project Management/Leadership
  • Decision Makers
  • Selection of Team Members
  • Outside Consultants
  • Location of Team
  • The Project Plan
  • Duration of Project
  • Scope Creep
  • On-Time, Within Budget
  • Team Espirit de Corps
  • Team Recognition
  • Communication
  • Change Management
  • Setting Customer Expectations
  • Technology Management
  • Equipment Needs
  • Customization
  • Documentation
  • Data Conversion from Legacy System
  • Turnover of Team Members
  • End user Training
  • Production Support/Help Desk
  • Looking forward to the Future

Management Support

Most likely the business case for purchasing and implementing a new system was endorsed and supported by an Executive of the company. While this support and initial approval is extremely important, it is equally important to obtain management's support during the implementation phase. Undertaking a project of this magnitude without support from upper level management can make implementation more difficult and limit the potential for attaining overall success. Sufficient management support is required to help ensure proper resources and funding are allocated to the project. Depending on the size of an organization, the Executive sponsor may be a single individual or a group within the organization who represent a cross-section of management. Identifying and obtaining an Executive sponsor also requires having them actively and continuously involved through the duration of the project. Management support will assist in identifying project initiatives, priorities, as well as serving as a project advocate to other upper level managers within the organization. Once the implementation process begins, then management's role shall be to effectively assist in removing obstacles; help to gain consensus on key decisions, and work towards helping the team meet key deliverables throughout the implementation process.

Project Management/Leadership

Depending on the size and duration of the project, it is recommended that a leader from a functional side and a technical side of the organization be selected. The role of these individuals is to plan, organize and assign work, develop a project team, estimate numbers of hours for task completion, track status, manage project funds, and more. By selecting a leader from both the functional and technical side, the two individuals are better equipped to effectively work together to cover all areas which may have an impact on the project.

Project leaders also serve a more proactive role by acting as ambassadors for the entire project team. They can help disseminate information to all who will be impacted by the new system, as well as engaging management in helping remove obstacles, put closure to outstanding decisions and support change.

Decision Makers

Who will be selected to be the decision-makers for your project? There will be plenty of decisions that will need to be made, and often, these decisions may have to be made within a 24 to 48 hour period. Will Project Managers be empowered with the authority to make all decisions? This is probably unlikely, particularly if it involves changing company policies. Typically, a Steering Committee that is comprised of key stakeholders will meet with Project Leaders on a regular basis to assist in removing obstacles and make decisions which may have an impact not only on implementation schedules and deliverables, but the entire organization.

Selection of Team Members

Putting together a quality team is essential. During the selection process, it is important to try and obtain the appropriate resources from both the functional and technical areas. The functional team members will know the organizations processes and procedures by job function and can determine whether or not policy or procedural changes need to take place. The Project Team members will work directly with sub-team members as well as others to help define system requirements; review proposed designs; and help build tables which will drive the system.

Technical team members will be key in working with the functional members to pull together and program system requirements. They will serve as valuable resources in knowledge of the legacy system's programs and functions. They will also be involved in overall infrastructures such as networking between locations, setting up workstations, etc.

The blending of functional and technical resources will allow for a collaborative approach in designing, constructing and implementing the system.

Since this will no doubt be a new role for team members selected, it is important to understand that initially there might be a period of adjustment and settling in to their new roles. For the most part, they are being asked not only to take on a new job, but a job which they have never done before. This in itself can cause anxiety at times.

Project Leaders will want to work with team members on accepting and enjoying this new experience. The reporting relationships to the Project Leaders must be clearly defined to prevent problems. If 100% of team members time is being to the project, then they should probably report to Project Leaders instead of their managers. The opportunity for one to gain and expand skill sets during a project of this nature is often viewed as a valuable and rewarding endeavor.

Outside Consultants

Before embarking on a new system implementation, it should be established whether or not the organization will require the assistance of outside consultants. If the organization has never gone (or has not done so recently) through a major software implementation, then strong consideration should be given to obtaining outside help. If the skills sets necessary are not available in-house, then outside consultants should be used to compliment your current team's skill sets. Again, this decision should be made prior to commencing the implementation process, since costs associated with utilizing outside consultants need to be included in the project budget.

Prior to hiring an outside consultant, be sure to interview anyone who is being considered as a member of the project team. Obtain their most recent job assignments and details of their overall qualifications. Ask for references and check them thoroughly. Spending the time up front to select the most appropriate outside consultant will pay big dividends in the end. Act as if you are hiring the consultant to be an employee of your organization. You will want someone who is qualified, experienced and committed, and who can contribute the necessary resources for a successful implementation. Accept no one who does not meet your expectations.

If the decision is made to hire an outside consultant, then the company should spend the time needed with them to ensure they have an understanding of how the organization operates, makes decisions, handles changes, etc. It is also important for the consultant to understand the culture of the organization. This will help them gain a better understanding of what the expectations are, how they should approach the project and how flexible they will need to be.

Location of Team

The project may be better served if the entire project team is moved to an off-site location. At a minimum, they should all be relocated to a common work area. By not doing so, the company is running a risk that project team members will be pulled back into their "old jobs". This can result in team members not having sufficient time to work on project assignments. Providing team members with the ability to focus solely on priorities and job assignments for the implementation process is an absolute necessity.

The Project Team

Establishing a comprehensive project plan which includes the objectives of the implementation is key to meeting all required deliverables during the project. There is usually quite a bit of time spent in the beginning stages of the project just pulling together necessary components of the project plan. The project plan is a living document in that it will change and get updated almost on a daily basis. The project plan will become an everyday tool used by all team members. It will help to clarify the who, what, when, where, and why's. Without a good project plan, the team will not know what is expected of them and important deliverables may be missed altogether.

Duration of Project

Project size, complexity and resources available will be the beginning points for determining a completion date for the project. Ensure the approach taken is one that produces a manageable project. Having a project that is too long and drawn out will have an adverse impact on everything from level of motivation amongst team members, available funding, scope creep and more. Once you start down the road of moving out your Go Live date, you will suffer from lack of team motivation and sense an urgency to complete the assignment on time. Therefore, be sure to set a realistic Go Live date and stick to that date. The only time where you may wish to consider delaying your Go Live date is if testing results are not favorable. Meeting a deadline is not worth the risk of an incomplete and faulty system.

On-time, Within Budget

One way to help ensure funding and support for future HRMS initiatives is to deliver the implementation on time and within budget. With a project of this size and nature, it is very easy to get side-tracked. Don't let scope creep happen to you. The term scope creep is often used in large projects. Scope creep is typically defined as allowing or agreeing to additional work requests that were not part of the original project plan or objectives. Be careful - this can happen easily in any size organization. When you recognize scope creep, be firm but fair when others try to expand the project. Taking on additional work that was not part of the original plan can and does cost additional time and money. Keep in mind the extra effort needed to take on new work can quickly spiral out of control.

Team Espirit de Corps

Unlike other project teams, this will no doubt end up being a special team and will espouse a need to have its own identity. You will want others who are not on the project to know what it is you will be delivering to the organization. In order to develop and keep alive the level of motivation and dedication required, different ways to engage team building and comradery throughout the life of the project will need to be thought up.

As the project begins, look into having team members' work together on designing a team logo, team name, or work on creating a vision and/or mission statement. Be sure to use the project logo with every communication that goes out to others regarding the implementation.

Adequate marketing of your project will help to further identify what your key deliverables and objectives are. Other ideas are to have t-shirts; sweatshirts, pens, etc. made with the team logo and/or name.

Team Recognition

Reward and recognize team members throughout the entire project. When major milestones are met - celebrate! When the team has successfully overcome a difficult assignment - recognize their efforts and contributions. Keep in mind that recognition does not always need to be in the form of compensation. A good old fashion pat on the back still works wonders. Get upper level management and/or your Steering Committee to help provide recognition to the team. Sometimes it's the little things that people appreciate like doughnuts, cookies, hats, a team picture in a company newsletter, etc.


Communicate, communicate, communicate! Sure you and the other team members may be fully aware of your goals and objectives, but what about all of the other stakeholders, end users, internal and external customers? Do no underestimate the need to know and the importance of sharing with others in the organization what the implementation will mean for them and the company as a whole. You may want to create a special newsletter that gets published on a regular basis letting everyone know of the projects progress, etc. How about setting up a page on the company's Intranet? There are many ways in which you can and should keep constituents informed about this major project.

Communications inside the project team is another key element that can help to facilitate a healthy team environment. With the amount of activity that occurs, it will be important to establish early on a means for open and effective communication between all team members.

Change Management

Do not underestimate the resistance you will get from end uses and others regarding change! The amount of change that usually occurs during an implementation is significant. You and your team should actively prepare for and become active change agents for your organization.

Going beyond team members, you will want to actively engage others who are not on the project team. For example, you may ask these individuals to attend some of your project team meetings, keep them informed of decisions that are made that may impact them. Also consider, you asking them for their thoughts and input a before making major decisions, and be sure to explain to them why certain decisions were made. As you identify those who show interest in the implementation project, you can engage them in becoming ambassadors for the new system.

Initial acceptance of the new system from end users will be critical during the early Go Live phase, and beyond. Throughout the project, thinking of ways to help ease the transition from the old system to the new system for those who will be using the new system will help to facilitate acceptance and enthusiasm about the new system. Sharing will help to ease the level of anxiety during the transition from the old legacy system to the new system. Keep in mind that end users may have been using the old system or no system at all for many years and their level of comfort is very high. When going to a new way of doing their jobs and obtaining information, a period of learning and settling in is to be expected. Not everyone will migrate and accept changes in the same time frame.

Setting Customer Expectations

Your customers will not only want but need to know what they new system means to them. How will it impact or change the way they do their job? Knowing early on and through out the project what the system can and cannot do for all end users is critical in the overall acceptance of the system. Do not wait until close to the Go Live date, to let people know what you are implementing. If the new system is going to automate a manual process, let them know. If data entry that today is done by payroll will be switched to Human Resources, let them know. Lack of understanding of what the new system will deliver, can result in unrealistic expectations and demands. Setting expectations can alleviate some of the anxiety and resistance that is often inherent in delivering a new system.

Technology Management

When embarking on a new system implementation, one should understand the need for overall technology management. For example, if your organization is moving from a mainframe environment to a client server environment for the first time, there typically is a learning curve involved for the entire IT department. With today's software applications, such as new HRMS systems, leading edge technology will need to be used. Having the right technology resources readily available will enable you to ask the right questions and make good decisions. Here are just some of the areas that your technology group will need to consider:

  • Which database platform will you use?
  • Will you need additional internal support?
  • Who will create the new disaster recover plan for the new system?
  • What type of training will be required for maintaining the new system?
  • Do we have the correct technical skills to support the new system?

Equipment Needs

This is a broad category, but one that often gets missed until too close to one's Go Live date, then the scramble begins. Early on, determine how many workstations will be needed not only for the project team members, but also for all end users. Who will be doing data entry into the new system? Will they need an updated workstation? What type of printers will be required? Will new printers need to be purchased? Will the extra hardware requirements need to be included in the project budget?


Most software packages today are very robust and extremely flexible in meeting the business needs of most organizations and can cover a wide variety of best practices. You will no doubt find they are capable of delivering the functionality you are seeking. Therefore, before you decide to make any customizations in your new package, ask the following questions:

  • Who is going to use this customization?
  • Is there a solid business case that supports the request for customization?
  • Are you prepared to support this customization not only today but going forward?
  • Do you fully understand the current and future costs of this customization?
  • How will it impact future system upgrades?
  • Can we reengineer a process vs. customizing?
  • If in the end you decide that a customization is necessary, be sure that you can quantify the return on your investment (ROI).

In many cases you will find that a customization is not required. The functionality of the software may prompt you to reevaluate your process, your forms and your data entry methods. Do not customize simply on the basis of "this is the way we've always done it." It is best to view the implementation as an opportunity to reengineer your work processes around the new software as opposed to reprogramming the software to fit your existing processes.


Do not go through a project of this magnitude without properly documenting the key elements of the project! At a minimum, you will want to document:

  • Outstanding issues in the form of a log that will allow quick review of open items.
  • All decisions made on the project including who approved and when.
  • New procedures that will be used in the system.
  • System training manuals.
  • Technical requirements.
  • Business case presentations.
  • Table set-ups.

Data Conversion from Legacy System

Assuming you have a legacy system, you will want to bring over certain data elements into the new system. Before you decide to bring over every element from the legacy system, conduct an analysis to determine if you will actually need all of the history. Prior to bringing over more data than is needed, ask the following questions:

  • What do we need?
  • What data is meaningful?
  • How much history is required?
  • Who will use the converted data? How frequently?

Do not convert history or other data elements that have no real value. When you bring data over from a legacy system into your new system you will need to match the fields where data is to be inserted. Often the new system will have different field definitions then the legacy system, in the end causing rework. If the conversion history results in the creation of data no one can use and is not meaningful, then do not convert it!

You may want to consider data warehousing of history data you do not currently access on a regular basis but still need to maintain for the occasional or "just in case" situation. Data conversion represents a significant portion of time and cost of an implementation process. Carefully managing this aspect of the project will play a large role in the ability to meet budget and schedule projections.

Turn over of Team Members

Expect the unexpected. Today, with the number of implementations that are occurring, odds are at some point during the project, a team member will leave for some reason (usually at a critical point when you absolutely cannot afford to lose anyone)! Most project teams will lose at least one team member. Don't wait until a team member gives you their two weeks notice to spring into action on putting together a back-up plan. It pays to have taken the time beforehand to ensure cross training of team members. You will also want to strongly consider creating a strong group of sub-team members.

When a team member leaves, job assignments will need to be reallocated to other team members. Prior to a team member leaving, take the time to determine what work has been completed and signed-off on and what work is still in progress. Be sure you have good documentation of any technical and/or functional specifications. Lack of or poor documentation, can set the project back by weeks causing undue delays.

End User Training

How and when will the end users get trained on the new system? How many end users will need to be trained? Have you considered the employment turnover of end users? Be sure to plan early in the project for adequate end user training. If your end users cannot sufficiently utilize the system, you will face multiple problems that could have been avoided.

Also keep in mind that you will need to provide on going training. As turnover of end users occurs, how will the new end users get properly trained? As new enhancements are delivered or procedural changes are made, how will your end users get trained? These and other training related questions will help you to determine whether or not you will use internal staff or seek outside help to deliver the level and frequency of training which will be required to have competent end users utilizing the system.

Production Support/Help Desk

Once you have gone live with the system, who will handle calls from end users for all "how to" questions? Does the system need to be supported around the clock and if so, who will be responsible for providing this support? Will it be the project teams responsibility or another departments? Most likely, the project team will be supporting for sometime; who else knows the system the best? How and when will the project team transition out of supporting the day to day calls?

Planning early enough in the project as to whether or nor you will set-up an internal or external production support and the development of a help desk strategy is very important.

Looking Forward to the Future

Once you have successfully reached your Go Live date and had an opportunity to celebrate your implementation, your focus will begin to change from a tactical to a more strategic effort. In order to help support and validate the value the new system brings to the organization, it will be necessary to embark on forward thinking. Typically an exercise in determining the lessons learned from your implementation and sharing it with management is a valuable and rewarding task. Perhaps you will go out and solicit feedback from your internal and external customers who are involved and are using the new system.

Leverage the investment the organization has made by ensuring the system is used correctly and that data integrity is validated. Expand the knowledge and skill sets of your end users by providing on going training on the system. Developing and implementing knowledge transfer strategy on how to effectively use the system will be beneficial.

Take the time to develop power users of the system. Develop and maintain a knowledge transfer between co-workers and across boundaries. Use the data available in the system to create and produce meaningful data to others in the organization. By providing information that can be used to help make key decisions, you will be assisting in developing an increased Human Resources strategic position within the organization.

As you gain more experience with the new system and gain a better understanding of it's full potential; you will be better equipped and able to make significant contributions to all areas of the organization.


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