Contributors

Who’s Responsible for Quality?

Once a task is outsourced, quality control has to be addressed.

by Paul Davies

Most people would not quibble with the statement that one cannot outsource responsibility for the quality of HR services. The task of providing and advising on fire protection or payroll can be outsourced, but the responsibility for providing a safe work environment or for paying employees cannot.

This well-accepted concept highlights some awkward difficulties in full-scope HR process outsourcing because the market is not yet commoditized and may never be. It is also highly integrated in the sense of having many hand-offs and direct touch points; performance is not as “measurable” as HR professionals would like; and there tends to be less standardization in professions such as accounting. It is also, in some companies, extremely vulnerable to customer pressure.

In these circumstances, it is difficult to control quality if one is not in direct control of the tasks. HR professionals intuitively struggle with this dilemma when they wonder how HR providers can deliver the same quality ethic as the in-company HR department. In some ways, it is better and in others, worse.

One aspect of HR that outsourcing seeks to improve significantly is accurate and timely administration. Managerial shortcuts are not received kindly; the stockpiling of updates is a thing of the past; and offending procrastinators are shamed into compliance. Another consideration is the definition of best practices and standards. HR is enabled to manage the hydra of best practice, which in the HR world has as many heads as there are aspiring HR professionals.

It is not that HRO stifles creativity. Quite the contrary, it provides a robust framework for improvements to be assessed, agreed upon, and rapidly implemented across the whole organization. What it prevents is self-appointed improvers acting as judge and jury within their own sometimes-large, but often-small fiefdoms.

Additionally there is real-time, accurate data reporting that can be the basis of both performance metrics and quality or cost improvement. This is not to argue that HR service can be measured in the manner of sales or output, but that more can be offered by providers than is often available in HR departments.

Therefore, in an HRO environment, quality is sacrosanct. However, it is the result of standards, reliable data, and controlled processes. HRO does not ignore the customer but does require the customer to define what outcomes are required so that processes can be designed to consistently produce those outcomes.

Therein lies the rub. The method is instantly recognizable to systems or production managers but differs from what managers often expect of the HR function. I hesitate to speculate, but the statement, “This is what I need and don’t care about the process,” is more acceptable to say to HR departments than to systems or production, and it can prove the undoing of an outsourcing accord.

HR is rightly regarded as a personal service. Business partners expect to call with a problem and put down the phone knowing it will be resolved. HRO providers, by definition, are not free and sometimes are not equipped to approach a customer problem this way. Their job is to implement the stipulated processes, scripts, and decision parameters, whereas the internal HR’s job is to “fix” the problem.

Within the bounds of fairness, an excuse such as “It’s not in my job description” or “so-and-so did not play their part” are unacceptable reasons for not solving the problem. For a provider, these excuses may be acceptable. Similarly, providers aren’t empowered with latitudes to come up with creative solutions.

It’s quite possible for a provider to report a one-hour turnaround on a transaction service level that in reality took five weeks because the source document had to be returned several times. An in-house employee would consider herself responsible for the overall outcome and not just the part they’re paid to perform. In
theory, these types of scenarios are manageable through decision trees and escalation rules, but in practice, the unpredictable world of customer-vulnerable HR is not reduced to routine processes so easily.

It is no wonder that HR professionals question the wisdom of retaining responsibility without direct control, but it is equally valid to challenge whether the accepted understanding of quality HR properly serves the business. HRO challenges us to redefine what is meant by quality and to distinguish between the strategic role of HR and administration. “Just fix it” applies to the HR business partner consultant role but does not apply to a late and incomplete transaction. Where administrative processes are concerned, the correct quality approach is arguably that of the providers.

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