A human resource information system (HRIS) is defined as a computer based application for assembling and processing data related to the human resource management (HRM) function. As in other types of information systems, an HRIS consists of a database, which contains one or more files in which the data relevant to the system are maintained, and a database management system, which provides the means by which users of the system access and utilize these data. The HRIS thus contains tools that allow users to input new data and edit existing data; in addition, such programs provide users with the opportunity to select from an array of predefined reports that may either be printed or displayed on a monitor. Reports may address any of a number of different HRM issues (e.g., succession planning, compensation planning, equal employment opportunity monitoring). HRISs also generally include tools by which users or system administrators may generate ad hoc reports and select specific cases or subsets of cases for display.
In order to understand the types of applications available to HRIS users, it is best to consider the evolving nature of human resource information systems applications. The HRM field lagged behind a number of other functional areas of management in the utilization of computer applications, but beginning in the late 1980s extensive use of sophisticated applications began to appear. Prior to that time, manual record systems often dominated in personnel or human resource departments. Computer applications used in the field were generally limited to basic record keeping and payroll management systems. Virtually all such systems were based on mainframe computers and required extensive support from information systems professionals. Thus, human resource managers had little opportunity to design sophisticated reports and computer-based analytical tools to aid in managerial decision making. In general, uses of computers in HRM fell into the category of electronic data processing applications, which generally involve the automation of relatively routine tasks (e.g., calculating pay and printing checks).
A number of trends seem to have contributed to a growing reliance on computers as information-processing and decision-aiding tools in HRM. The emergence of the human resource management field (versus personnel administration) gave the human resource function greater credibility within the managerial hierarchy, necessitating more sophisticated use of information, especially as it related to the strategic management function. Firms have experienced increased competitive pressures that have translated into greater cost containment demands from upper management, leading to greater automation of the record-keeping function in the HRM field. The ready availability of microcomputers and relatively userfriendly software means, that to an increasing extent, human resource managers are no longer dependent on information system professionals to develop and implement applications (which might be assigned a lower priority than other management functions). Many HRM departments in larger organizations have also developed internal information system capabilities, so that HRIS units have been established.
Another important factor has been the development of numerous HRIS products by external vendors. There are several full-featured, human resource-dedicated database management systems available, both for mainframe and micro platforms. Perhaps the best known of these is PeopleSoft, although numerous other such products exist. Many of these utilize client-server architectures, where databases reside on a central server and are accessed from individual workstations, connected to a network, via local client applications. There is also a trend toward enterprise-wide applications that integrate information system applications for various managerial functions (e.g., marketing, finance, human resources), which facilitates communication across functional areas, economizes on information system development at the enterprise level, and allows firms to collate information from multiple sources to facilitate strategic planning at the business unit and corporate levels. Examples of commonly used integrated systems that include HRIS modules are SAP and Oracle.
Specialized applications, intended to supplement HRISs, are also widely available. These include modules to aid in such areas as succession planning, benefits administration, applicant tracking, job evaluation, employee performance evaluation, grievance handling, and labor relations. These products, coupled with declining costs of computer systems (especially microcomputer systems) and the increasing user-friendliness of computer applications, have meant that the use of HRISs is increasingly attractive to practitioners.
As a result of the rapid change in computer and software technology, HRIS-related products are constantly upgrading and changing. Advanced Personnel Systems, a California-based HRIS consulting firm, markets a fairly up-to-date database listing a wide-range of HRISs and supplementary programs—along with descriptions of the capabilities of these systems—to guide managers in selecting appropriate products. There are also several conferences and shows held annually around the United States that are dedicated to advances in HRM-related information technology applications, including HRISs. HRIS vendors often demonstrate products at such shows. Leading practitioner-oriented magazines, such as HRMagazine (published by the Society of Human Resource Management), review new products and carry articles highlighting changes in the field. And not surprisingly, a number of web sites document HRIS resources on the Internet. A comprehensive listing of major HRIS sites can be obtained through the "Software and Technology" section of Workindex.com , a comprehensive index of Internet resources related to human resource management.
Perhaps the most significant development in the HRIS area currently is the growing use of organizational intranets as a means of managing many aspects of a firm's HRIS. An intranet is an internal network that makes use of World Wide Web technology (browsers, servers, etc.) to gather and disseminate information within the firm. Intranets may be linked to the external Internet, but are usually secured in a variety of ways so that only authorized users can access the information on the internal components. While it is quite easy to generate static extracts of HRIS data tables, queries, forms, and reports for posting on an intranet, it is also quite feasible to establish live links between an intranet and a firm's HRIS. This allows real-time collection and display of information. Thus employees can complete forms online that enroll them in benefits programs, allow them to bid on job openings, let them submit suggestions, and facilitate filing of various claims. In addition, intranet displays can be tailored to the needs of specific users. The user may check on the current status of his or her fringe benefits, vacation time, training program enrollment, or pension fund. Intranets obviously require extensive security measures to prevent inappropriate changing or accessing of data. The issues seem to have been addressed, however, and HRIS products are increasingly emphasizing their functionality in intranet environments.
Another variant is the extranet. Again, relying on World Wide Web technology, such systems allow organizations to interact with clients in a secure environment that mimics the Internet. Thus a health insurance company might establish an extranet that links to the intranets of its major clients. Employees in client organizations can then connect to the insurance vendor's extranet from within the employer's intranet environment in order to check on the status of their policies, obtain coverage information, file claims, and follow-up on outstanding claims.
All indications are that HRISs will continue to play an increasingly important role in the HRM field. An important driving factor is that HRISs facilitate process reengineering in the HRM area, thus promoting greater efficiency. Functions that once were carried out manually and in many steps can often be largely automated. And the business firm's continuing demand for information to facilitate planning and strategy formulation will necessitate further reliance on HRISs. Finally, the linking of HRISs to organizational intranets is apt to gain in popularity as a relatively inexpensive and appealing means of gathering and distributing human resource information.
[ John J. Lawler ]
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