Expert Insights

HRIS SaaS: Look before you leap?


The right information system can transform an HR function, improving efficiencies and reducing operating costs. But in a notoriously difficult-to-evaluate software market, how do you make the right choices and avoid a costly white elephant? Fergal Harkin is an HR professional helping companies navigate the choppy waters of HR system upgrades. He tells us how it’s done and how the future is in the cloud…

Technology has transformed all aspects of business, and HR is no different. Whether it’s online recruitment, employee data or talent management, information systems underpin the function’s performance and overall business continuity.

But as technology and companies evolve into developing new ways of working, HR leaders may find themselves looking to upgrade their current systems, structures and processes.

With 20 years’ change management experience, Fergal Harkin is no stranger to supporting HR departments through challenging times. And when it comes to new HR systems, he warns companies to tread carefully to avoid expensive mistakes.

“Before making a major investment in a system, the HR organisation has to carry out a strategic review,” he says. “That means analysing HR’s role, structure and the types of services it provides and wants to provide in the future.

“You also need to engage with the wider business and stakeholders at all levels. A single change programme is very difficult for HR. It’s not like, say, finance which has universal processes. The role of HR can vary greatly.”

Once you have a clear, timetabled roadmap for change, the next step is the information system itself.

A Tricky Market

Fergal has seen many organisations get it wrong; making a huge investment on a system that’s not fit for purpose.

“The market is notorious,” he adds. “There’s a multitude of companies out there and a real lack of transparency. Choosing the right product can be a bewildering, time-consuming exercise and there are companies who will sell you a product that simply isn’t right. It’s very much a case of buyer beware. Taking the time to broaden your understanding of the marketplace is a distinct advantage.

“You need to consider very carefully the system’s range of functionality. What are your priorities? Is it resourcing or talent management? How well do the systems you’re weighing up perform in these areas? What are the costs? Pricing is often ambiguous.

“Your IT department will also probably be involved, but it’s important they don’t run the show; don’t be passive.”

Software as a Service

Having been through this process with many companies, Fergal has a good understanding of the software market. He recently helped a FTSE 250 constituent upgrade their system. “The company was moving from individual business units and divisions into a more unified global operation. We decided to implement a global system with standard processes encompassing 50,000 employees. This was challenging as it was the organisation’s first steps into global processes. Running up against the usual local historical processes, compliance and language variations meant significant change and technical hurdles.

“But once we knew what we wanted, we created a list of products that could meet our needs and put it out to tender.”

The system chosen was Workday, which is built for ‘software as a service’ – or SaaS. This is a delivery model based on accessing software stored in the ‘cloud’, as opposed to on your own networks and servers.

“One of the main advantage is cost,” says Fergal. “Having your own servers is expensive. With SaaS all you need is a computer and an internet connection. The upgrade cycle is also more efficient. With SaaS, new upgrades happen more regularly – a bit like upgrading the apps on your smartphone.

“But you do need to consider data protection. Your data will be stored on servers somewhere. You need to make sure that wherever it is, you’re complying with data protection laws and there’s a recovery plan in place.

“SaaS is the talk of the IT world and for many it’s the future. The sooner you consider it, the sooner you can benefit. But don’t forget, you need the strategy in place before you make a decision on information systems.”


HR leaders need to consider:

  • Business strategy and their function’s future role, structure, processes and strategy
  • The software market, understanding which software is right for them
  • The advantages and cost benefits of cloud computing

Fergal Harkin

Fergal Harkin has more than two decades’ experience of working in HR at the highest levels. He is an experienced change manager and has operated across many functions with a range of global blue-chip companies.

Williams Bain

Williams Bain is a specialist interim management provider. We’re trusted by some of the UK’s largest organisations to support the implementation of complex strategies that accelerate results and lead to definitive, positive and measurable change.