Selecting the right HR system for your organisation

Last month Cezanne HR took part in the annual pilgrimage to London Olympia for the CIPD HR Software Show – a mecca for those looking for the latest in HR technology. But with almost 50 vendors showcasing a range of services and products with varying functionality, we met a fair few people who were overwhelmed with the selection on offer, and unsure of how to begin finding the best-fit HR software solution for their organisation’s needs.

So, if you’re at the beginning of your search for an HR system, here are some key questions to ask that will help you to build a shortlist that reflects the individual needs of your organisation.

What are you trying to achieve?

Understanding what you need the end result to look like will inform every decision you make in this process.

  • Are you a looking to cut down on time spent doing admin by consolidating various and many spreadsheets into one easy-to-access central location?
  • Or do you need to update an old, clunky system that no longer meets the needs of the company?
  • Are you looking to involve your employees in updating their own information, or empower line managers to do more by giving the access to up-to-date information about their own staff?

Identifying the pain points you’d like to eliminate will help to build up a picture of what your ideal post-implementation life will look like. Once your goal is defined and you have a clear idea of what you want to get out of a new system, you’ll find it much easier to answer the next question…

What do you need from an HR system?

You understand how your business operates and what it needs to grow, you understand your role and what you need to be able to do your job better, and you understand the resources available to you.

Before you begin researching companies or booking demos, write out a list of exactly what you need your new system to be able to do. Split the list into two groups: required and desirable – functionality that is non-negotiable (to automatically calculate holiday entitlement for all working time patterns, for example), and functionality that would be nice, but you could do without it if you had to (a learning management system, maybe). If a system cannot provide everything you’re looking for, ask the supplier if they can offer an alternative for those processes.

Managed in-house or by the supplier (aka on-premises or in the Cloud)?

Do you want your HR software to be installed and managed in-house by your IT team? Or would you prefer the software provider to do all the legwork and manage the IT infrastructure and updates for you?

If you’re leaning towards a Cloud-based solution, it’s important to consider that not all of these systems have been developed for the Cloud – even if they’re labelled as such – so you may just be getting “hosting”, which can have significant issues in terms of scalability, agility, and cost. If you go down the Cloud route, be sure to find out where your data will be hosted. Do you trust the hosting provider, and are they covered by European data protection legislation?

Bear in mind that when vendors update their software, you may need to install new software on your servers, or re-implement any customisations or configurations they’ve done for you – even when solutions are in the Cloud.

‘All-in-one-go’ implementation vs. phased rollout?

Do you want to rip the bandage off quickly by opting for the ‘big bang’ approach to implementing your new system, rolling out all your desired functionality in one go? Or would you prefer to introduce the new system stage by stage?

There are pros and cons for both methods, so it’s about weighing up the options against the needs of your business.

With the ‘big bang’ approach you’ll typically need to spend a lot of time upfront getting everything set up, but for users you get all of the change out of the way in one go, avoiding a dragged-out implementation where people are constantly having something new introduced as soon as they get used to the thing before. But on the other hand, launching so many new processes at once can be overwhelming and lead to some aspects of the functionality beyond the critical activities being overlooked or lost in the commotion.

A phased implementation provides time for adjustments and configurations with each new introduction, as well as for users to get used to the new, allowing the organisation to get the most out of the system’s functionality as it becomes active. But, with this can come a drawn-out and possibly more time-consuming process, which can lead to confusion with staff who are working across two systems for different tasks (be it the phasing out of spreadsheets or an old software system).

When you begin your preliminary research into vendors, ask for their suggestions based on previous implementations for companies similar to yours. What worked? What were the biggest challenges faced? Think about how your company could handle these issues if they were to arise.


You should have by now built up a good picture of what your organisation needs from a new HR software system, so you can put together a list of suppliers that tick all of your required boxes and some of your desirables too. Think about the following questions when whittling down your list to the final few.

Is the vendor a good organisational fit?

It’s important to look for a company that you trust, and that works the way that you need them to. Not everyone wants to be hand held through every step of the implementation process (especially if you have to pay extra for the privilege), have the system hand-built for them, or have to pick up the phone for a minor enquiry. But equally you do need to be sure that they’ve the expertise and commitment to their customers and the future of their own products, to deliver the service you need.

Think beyond RFIs

RFIs can be a good check list – but are open to interpretation. Nothing beats seeing the product in action, or even trying it out for yourselves.

Develop key “user case scenarios” that reflect your day-to-day realities. For example, setting up your company’s absence rules or working time patterns, enabling employees to book or change a holiday, running payroll extracts, or building performance review forms. Ask to be walked through each process you will need in your system in a demo. If you have time, ask to play with the system yourself and set up a few of the processes your business needs so you can see just how much you can do.

How much is it going to cost you?

Put together a like-for-like cost comparison of the vendors that you’re seriously considering. If they work on per-employee or per-user basis, make sure you factor in any company plans to grow in the future or any extra modules you may want to introduce, as this will affect how much pay.

It’s also important to ask about upfront set-up fees – be aware that some suppliers may not be initially transparent about these.

  • Are you offered any “included” consultation or set up hours when you first implement the system? If so, how many?
  • How much will you be charged for support and guidance after that – if at all?
  • Will there be a cost to implement updates, or re-do any customisations or configurations if the vendor upgrades their system?
  • What kind of training is recommended?
  • What are the different options available, and how much do they cost (both now and down the line should a new staff member need training)?

What about data upload – what are the different options? Cezanne HR, for example, doesn’t charge for a core HR data upload, but does charge a fixed fee for a more complicated upload involving historic data.

Ask the vendor to give you a breakdown of all these costs and any other fees that may be involved, so you can build an accurate picture of what the project will initially cost you, as well as for given scenarios in the future.

What support is on offer?

Implementing a new HR system is much more straight-forward than it used to be. Many of the newer systems are more complete and easier to configure around your processes. And, significantly, employees are much more willing to embrace new technology – especially if it helps them get answers faster (such as how many days holiday have they left), or save them time. However, it’s still a significant project, and a good supplier will support you as much or as little as you need. Find out if they have a standard process you can follow to make sure you go through all of the right steps. See if you’ll be provided with a dedicated project manager or support contact who will oversee your implementation. Ask if they offer tailored workshops or consultancy if you need to tackle particularly tricky processes.

Identify what the support hours are, and how you access or request help should you need it.

  • Does the supplier have a library of best practice guides or videos that you can browse through, so you can explore what the system is capable of in your own time – or refresh your memory?
  • How they ensure you find out about the latest features, and get advice on a specific topic?
  • Is there an “ideas” section where you can contribute suggestions for future product development, or vote on ideas others have posted?

Will your investment remain relevant?

As your organisation grows and changes it’s obvious that your chosen system will need to be able support you – it’s no use having a system that won’t be able to meet your needs after you’ve take on an extra hundred employees over the next six months or even three years. Even if you don’t know exactly what the future holds for you, there are some key questions you can ask.

  • Is the system based on the latest technologies, or is there the possibility that you might be forced to upgrade in the next year or so?
  • Can it run on any device, from any of the modern browsers – or are you restricted to just a few?
  • Is the system being continuously enhanced, or is it still using a legacy approach with a few big updates every year?
  • What new features are in the pipeline, and how will they be delivered to you?
  • Can you take advantage of single sign-on, an open API or other ways of helping you create a joined up working environment?
  • Does it support remote workers and mobile-savvy users, who may want to log on from a tablet or from their phone while on the move?

Most importantly of all, is it going to make your life in HR a lot, lot simpler?

You may be interested in reading: How to make the business case for HR software

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