For Michael Sherdian, change is constant.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Perhaps the most important lesson that Michael Sheridan has learned in his roles as customer, adviser, and consultant, is that changes in human resource practices—even sweeping transformations—should be considered business as usual.
“Treat change as just ‘this is the way it is’—you just need a process for managing it,” says Sheridan, now a consultant and the interim resourcing solutions program manager for Care UK, a provider of heath and social services. “There are lots of transactional things being done on an everyday basis, but on a higher level ‘business as usual’ companies should make sure that the transformational changes, as opposed to transactional activity, are planned, managed, and embraced,” he says.
Sheridan started his work life in information technology in 1981, after receiving a degree at the University of Liverpool, where he studied classics. For students in the United Kingdom, that means studying Latin, Greek, ancient history, and some archeology. There are some similarities between IT and these disciplines, he says.
“IT was a growth area, an area of opportunity, and I was attracted to the combination of rigour and discipline, plus creativity,” Sheridan says. “That’s why I liked studying classics —the rigour of learning languages, but there’s also creativity to exploring another historical context through literature, which is pretty inaccessible unless you learn those languages.”
His first professional job was as a business analyst and programer for the U.K. telecommunications company, BT. While there, Sheridan took a computer “retraining” course at the National Computing Centre to learn more about computer software programing, as BT was transitioning its telephone service from analogue to digital.
“In the 1980s, there was a huge growth in the deployment of IT solutions into business, but there were not a lot of graduates who could do it,” he says. “Computer science wasn’t an established discipline in the U.K., so there was a shortage of people with IT backgrounds to support this deployment in business. So it was a growth sector in the retraining of people—in fact, the government paid to retrain me for three months. It was the beginning of my IT career.”
In 1987, Sheridan took on the job of program manager at ICI Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca), leading the implementation of various computer systems.
“I got a little bit more interested in the people aspects of change, rather than the technical aspects of change,” he says. “Maybe it was the time of my life. I had become a project manager, as opposed to a technician, when managing POS [point of sale] was important, but nowhere near as interesting and challenging as managing the people aspect. So I started to develop my expertise around both IT and HR.”
Sheridan spent the next two decades rising within ICI, as it transitioned to Zeneca Pharmaceuticals and then AstraZeneca. He rose to senior level positions in HR, and was instrumental in the implementation of SAP HR across the Zeneca Group in the U.K.
In 1998, Sheridan began to focus on the IS/IT function within the company’s emerging markets in Asia Pacific (APAC), Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. A year later, he worked out of Singapore and Shanghai, directing all aspects of IS/IT within 11 countries in APAC.
In 2001, Sheridan became a member of AstraZeneca’s global HR leadership team. He supervised the establishment of the global HR information systems support function to provide in-house and offshored/outsourced application services, software-as-a-service (S-a-a-S) vendor management, and support for the program management office (PMO).
“What a great company that was!” Sheridan says. “It was a privilege to work with them, in different parts of the business and in different parts of the world.”
During his tenure there, the pharmaceuticals giant went through “wave after wave of transformation” of its HR operations, he says.
“The lesson for me was that there’s no right model,” Sheridan says. “The type of change and model that works for one organization might be very different for another organization, or might be very different for the same organisation five or 10 years later.”
In 2009, Sheridan left AstraZeneca to become a consultant with Orion Partners in London. There, he was responsible for the HR technology practice. Sheridan also redesigned the firm’s website and implemented social media strategies.
“Personally, this was great for me as I broadened my industry experience, to deal with multiple industry sectors,” he says. “Professionally, I found that no matter the industry, there was a bit of confusion in the marketplace when it comes to technology vendors. There’s a big interest in the potential of HR outsourcing but some poor experiences of it. There’s also some hesitation and scepticism among clients about whether they could actually pull that off and deliver value out of it.”
In July, Sheridan became an associate at Phase 3 Consulting, and took on an interim position at Care UK to help the healthcare and social service provider outsource a number of its HR operations across its five divisions, and to develop a new careers website.
Sheridan has learned other important lessons in his varied career.
“First, a single integrated solution, particularly across global enterprises, might sound very good, but in reality, is it really achievable and worth the compromises involved?” he says.
Secondly, he says, there is a missing professional role within outsourcing—someone who can work with HR leadership in an integrated way, and not within each silo of HR, such as learning, performance management, and compensation. There needs to be someone “working with leadership and management of HR in a way that bridges the gap between them and their technology solution providers so that they are really matching what they are trying to do in HR, rather than being quick and easy point solutions.”
“The thing would be that it’s very easy to make assumptions about a solution working in one part of the globe and then transporting it elsewhere,” he says. “Whereas in reality, there are some problems in making those assumptions.”
Lately, the disconnect has been growing between what buyers of outsourcing solutions and providers of those solutions consider to be truly groundbreaking in helping make their workflow more efficient. In fact, those differences in perception were highlighted earlier this year in the HRO Today Innovation Gap Survey of both practitioners and vendors. Sheridan says that the disconnect is partly the result of vendors overstating the power and benefits of their products, which leads to an unrealistic rise in buyers’ expectations.
“At the end of the day, people management isn’t rocket science—at least the systems aspect of it isn’t,” Sheridan says. “Systems are only as good as the data you put in.”
Moreover, there is fragmentation in the market.
“It’s very commonplace for people to be using multiple systems for different aspects of HR—recruiting, payroll, learning solutions—rather than an integrated solution,” he says. “That causes difficulties for buyers making the decision, ‘Should I go for one solution and sacrifice functionality, or should I go for a suite of solutions and struggle with integration?’ That’s a confusing scenario.”
The issue of whether to switch from a legacy software system to a S-a-a-S delivery model for HR operations is also confusing to many. “There are apparent drawbacks to that—I’m not sure they are real, but some customers might have concerns about the data being externally hosted, particularly those in sensitive industries such as defense manufacturers or governments,” he says.
Many companies have invested heavily in legacy systems, and so the business case for switching to a S-a-a-S model may not be as strong. Moreover, it might be more prudent to wait for their own provider to develop a S-a-a-S model of the legacy system they are currently using, and so they might get an advantage out of waiting, rather than making the switch to a S-a-a-S model from another provider too early. Further penetration of HR operations with the S-a-a-S model, including core administrative functions, will drive HRIT innovation in 2012, Sheridan says.
Another innovation driver for next year will be the realization that the real “value-add” for HR outsourcing is in talent management, as opposed to basic HR service delivery, he says. As such, there will be continued growth in the investment of solutions that gives HR managers an integrated talent management environment that incorporates employee data and analytics. There will also be more innovation around HR apps on mobile devices.
These drivers of technology will change HR operations, by their enhanced ability to provide more intelligence around people management, which better connects employees to management and to one another, Sheridan says.
“The technology is really about connecting the workforce together and enabling rich data about the workforce to be mined and presented to leaders in a way that helps them make the big decisions better, as opposed to just automating processes and providing online services to employees and managers,” he says.