Employee Onboarding - An HR Technology Seeking a Definition

Employee Management Software Article Summary -

On the aisles of the expo hall at IHRIM '08 in Orlando last month were no less than a dozen employee management software vendors with an onboarding product. It didn't take much more than three booth stops to come to the conclusion that there are as many definitions of onboarding as there are vendors selling onboarding products. For that matter, there are additional definitions for each consulting firm and HR industry analyst that writes on the topic of onboarding. So what, then, is onboarding? Can a universal definition of onboarding be written?

Ask a vendor with an onboarding product what onboarding is, and their answer is likely to be skewed in the direction of the strengths of their own product. Instead, ask an HR professional what onboarding is and they will universally define onboarding simply as moving a candidate for a role into that role. The candidate can be new to the organization, or may already be participating in the organization as an employee, contractor, partner, or in any number of peripheral capacities. The role the candidate is moving into may be any working relationship with the organization, most typically an employment role, but the role may also be an expansion of duty or responsibility, either permanent or temporary.

Onboarding technology vendors offer products that address a myriad of aspects of the above definition, all claiming their approach is the most important and therefore the only approach that matters. It's not surprising, then, that all of the vendors with onboarding products at IHRIM '08 showed off widely varying approaches to onboarding. A closer look at each of the vendors and their products reveals that there are two basic approaches to onboarding: transactional onboarding, and acculturation.

Transactional onboarding focuses on automating the data transactions and processes related to moving the candidate into their new role. Data transactions generally include the collection of data from the candidate and the generation of forms, such as tax and benefits forms, as well as employment policy acknowledgement forms. Transactions may also include the data integrations between other systems, such as talent acquisition and HRMS, or between the organization and their third party partners such as background testing vendors. Basically, transactional onboarding seeks to automate and perfect processes associated with onboarding, processes that are defined through a combination of the organization's business policy, industry best and accepted practices, and by regulatory bodies.

Acculturation focuses on making the process of moving the candidate into their new role as quick and as efficient as possible. Acculturation is about making sure the employee understands their new role and organization and helping them achieve productivity quickly. Acculturation is about making the candidate's transition as smooth and painless as possible. If it seems that acculturation is the right-brain, artistic-thinking side of the onboarding persona to transactional onboarding's left-brain logical-thinking side of the onboarding persona, this is for good reason:. there are many ways to smooth a candidate's onboarding transition, while there is only one way to maintain compliance on an I9 form.

Acculturating a candidate (known also as socializing a candidate, or more big-brotherly as indoctrinating a candidate, a term more often heard in Europe) can be achieved in many different ways. Some vendors implement acculturation in the form of a new employee portal, where candidates can access information of interest to newbies, though many HR managers might question the need for another portal in addition to the ESS and company intranet. Other vendors implement acculturation through benefits modeling (helping the candidate wade through their complex benefits package options), and yet other vendors provide structured training plans (not surprisingly integrated with those vendor's learning management systems).

Obviously the two approaches-transactional onboarding and acculturation-are not mutually exclusive. Some organizations will benefit more from one approach than the other, while many will benefit from both approaches. With the best-of-breed approach as prevalent as it is in HR, it is quite conceivable that organizations may elect to implement more than one onboarding vendor to address different requirements, which are typically driven by specific organizational goals or objectives. These objectives are often influenced, or completely defined, by the company's strategic objectives, such as reducing costs, quickening effectiveness, compliance, or even by corporate green initiatives.

Reducing costs in onboarding is most often approached from the transactional onboarding side of the fence. Eliminating paper processes reduces not only paper, printing, and duplication costs (supporting an organization's green initiatives), but also reduces costs associated with processing the paper, such as shipping, long term storage, and accessing the forms (for efficiency in the office, and for audits). Automating processes generally entails integrations between systems: if the data is collected in electronic form to begin with, it makes sense to eliminate data entry (keying) labor in favor of integrations with the organization's other systems.

Quickening effectiveness is obviously approached more from an acculturation perspective, but may also entail a technology known as requisitioning, which is software that allows the organization's HR or management staff to request items or material needed by the candidate to perform the responsibilities of their new role. For example, a manager may need to requisition a cubicle, desk, chair, and computer for their new employee. While this is a relatively common technology associated with onboarding, it's interesting to note that requisitioning can be thought of as an employee life cycle process, even starting before the candidate has been identified and the offer extended. Wouldn't it be useful for a manager to request a desk and cubicle for an employee as soon as their open position has been created? Then requisition the employee's badge and network access as they are onboarding? Then requisition a replacement computer 3 years after they've been employed? While most vendors offer requisitioning as part of the onboarding process, far fewer offer it as a lifecycle process.

Human resources processes are rife with regulatory compliance issues, which are more typically addressed with transactional onboarding than with acculturation. From taxes to employment verification, and from enforcing the organization's internal business policy to addressing industry best practices, achieving and maintaining compliance is almost universally a goal of an onboarding effort. For good reason: non-compliance can be expensive, particularly when compounded by risk factors and business dynamics such as high turnover and alien labor. Organizations who must contend with these business conditions should consider an onboarding system to help mitigate their risk.

Organizations considering an onboarding effort should focus on establishing and prioritizing their objectives. Those with business dynamics such as high turnover (such as hospitality and fast food companies) and utilization of alien labor (construction companies) are probably better served by a transactional onboarding system. Organizations with highly professional workforces that are difficult (and expensive) to recruit and retain might be better served with an acculturation-based system, though should be forewarned that retention processes continue long after the onboarding process ends.

Organizations considering an onboarding strategy should also focus on leveraging their previous technology investments, as onboarding is rarely a standalone system. How does the vendor provide for system integration? Have they embraced standards like HR-XML? Does their approach, such as best-of-breed versus comprehensive HR suite, best match the organization's needs? Does the vendor have off-the-shelf integrations relevant to the organization? Does the vendor's application require a completely new user portal, or does it run in the organization's existing ESS, HR portal, or Intranet?

And finally, organizations evaluating onboarding technologies should focus on the flexibility of their solution options. While transactional onboarding must naturally adhere to regulatory and industry best practices, it should also be flexible enough to accommodate the organization's own business policy and procedures, both now and in the future (because it's certain to change). When considering an acculturation technology, does the vendor's platform meet the organization's requirements-including not only business policy and culture, but also HRIS infrastructure such as ATS, HRMS, and employee communications portals-or do they prescribe their technology as what the organization should adopt as best practice?

A sensible approach to defining an onboarding initiative starts with the organization identifying their objectives, prioritizing their goals, and carefully evaluating the technology options. Such an approach will inevitably lead to a successful onboarding implementation.

Chuck Ros is Software Consultant, based in Alpharetta, GA.