Choosing the Right HR Tech For You: A Conversation with Denis Wallace Barnard

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Denis has been a digital transformation specialist in the HR & payroll software arena for over 30 years. He has been involved in projects in a wide variety of sectors including Higher Education, Manufacturing, Local Government, Publishing, Music & Film, Tech, and Housing.

Running GreenRiver Technology World, a platform providing HR professionals with the resources to guide them towards the best HR software, author of ‘Selecting and Implementing HR and Payroll Software’, and ‘Mission: HR’, Denis is brimming with knowledge when it comes to the HR software space.

What would be the key areas you look for in a HR solution?

It’s a hell of a lot more complex that it sounds. The people who select HR software are HR Heads generally, and what are HR Heads interested in? Reports. Then of course, when they then say, “I picked the most wonderful system” and they roll it to the department and the rest of the world, goes “What? This is awful” to you.

Let’s encapsulate this – not in any particular order. First, a strong HR solution must have the right array of features. The option to have the right modules:  recruitment, payroll, attendance, and so on.

Next, it must be highly configurable, to allow for all the varieties of organisations. My view is that most modern HR software will handle this. They need to look at their processes, because some sectors have the most bizarre processes, I think I think Higher Education is the most difficult one – so the configurability must be easy to set up.

Then, it’s got to be easy to roll out, because having consultants camped on your doorstep for nine months is not great.

The final piece is it must be intuitive. You don’t want to mess around reading manuals. It’s like if you’ve got IKEA furniture. There are always instructions where there’s an assumption of user knowledge, and that’s where it all breaks down. Nobody ever had to give us classes on how to use Facebook, we found our way around.

Check out Denis’ test which addresses the great unknowns of the HR software selection business –how ready are you for your next HR System?


Going back one step, you mentioned configurability so that HR leaders and users can get out of the system what they want. If you were a HR leader, what kind of configuration would you be looking for to get the data you need and what data is that you would be looking for mainly?

I know all these systems where you need a degree in maths or in logic to use them. So, the reporting for an HR head has to be simple, they don’t have time to try it all piece together. From the user point of view, there are key things, including workflows, notifications, and automation.

let’s assume that you’re in charge of an HR department. I think the configurability element is going to be really geared to what your C-Suite are looking for in the way of reports. I’m a great believer in the C-Suite accessing reports which have been set up for them – but they don’t need the HR department to send them reports every month. They can dig into the system and check out what it is themselves.

 And I’ve written the whole section in my new book on what I would call workforce analytics. A lot of people call them ‘HR analytics’, but they aren’t analytics at all, and they don’t relate to what HR has a direct line of sight to do. So, I’d say ‘workforce analytics’ are what’s going to be of interest to the C-Suite and that’s what we have for configure for.

 Management wants the top line. They want to know ‘am I spending more than I budgeted for?’ ‘am I keeping people?’ ‘are people being performance managed?’

They want to know if there are any little hot spots of people leaving, and what’s causing it. Is it because of location? Is it because of the manager? Is it because the company’s salaries are out of scale? Those are the elements we’ve got to configure for.

Then we come to the workflow bit. They’re essential in my opinion. Some people are saying that AI is going to chew that up, but I don’t think that’s the case yet. I don’t think workflows have been used enough by HR – there’s a whole massive technology out there to do a lot of their rubbish admin for them. Having native workflow in the HR system is a big weapon in the armoury and we’re just not using it enough.


One of the issues we keep seeing and hearing from people at the moment is around employee retention surrounding The Great Resignation. What kind of role do you think HR tech and software can play in employee retention?

People have suddenly realized that they’re working for terrible managers, there’s more to life than work, or they can’t get anywhere in their current job. I think ‘The Great Resignation’ as a title is a little bit of an overstatement, but there’s a huge awakening among people and they want more. And now companies must do that, and tech will help them.

I’ve just finished writing a book which is in the process of being published, and this is one of the issues where I’ve been banging the drum for a long time. People are running around saying we need to give people more money because of the inflation, and I think what we need is two other parts of that equation – wellness and flexibility.

Tech should be looking after people. Let’s take a person who works five days a week, 35 hours a week, and they have an elderly relative, or young kids. We could work those 35 hours a week at 7 hours a day. This person can start at 8am in the morning until 12pm and then 12pm to 3pm they take out because they’ve got other responsibilities to take care of. They come back at 3pm and they work until 6pm. Part of this idea is we shouldn’t let people have access to the business systems outside of their working hours – the tech should actually be telling them ‘We see you’ve been working solidly for four hours on this screen; we’re going to take you out of this’.

This is not about monitoring people’s activities. It’s about actually looking after them. What I’m suggesting could be achieved through the security module, as it would most likely you have everybody’s work patterns already logged. If they ever need to work overtime, they put in requests, which will be automatically granted, but at the end of the week or the month it can say ‘hang on, you’ve done too many hours’, and then that can be followed up on.

I’m currently in America, where I’ve been broadcasting this message. Of course, they hate it. You’re supposed to die in [the] harness, and if you don’t, then you haven’t done your job right. But I know in the UK and Europe this message is well received.

 Now let’s talk about flexibility. I think in time everybody’s going to have a different work path. We need to make sure that when everybody’s work pattern can be embedded in the system, so we can [utilise it to] know at any time of the day or the week where somebody’s going to be to make sure they have desks and so on. That’s how tech will back up the flexibility.

Remote or not remote, I think the most wonderful thing is having control over your own autonomy. We do need that degree of flexibility to get our lives in order – I’ve spent 30,000 hours of my life commuting. Since going independent in 2001, I’ve saved 20,000 hours by not having to commute.


If I was a HR manager and I came to you and asked you to help me find a new HR system, what kind of thing should I look for when the potential vendors talk to me? What would you recommend I look for in the vendors?

So, you’ve got all your facts together. You know how much it costs, how much it’s going to take to get in, what it’s doing, blah, blah, blah. But there are other important things. Is it really solving your pain points? Is it helping you to get on with what you want to do? Is there chemistry? Do you really believe that you can work with these guys for the next five years?

You’ve ticked all the right boxes and so on, but when it comes down to it, a lot of people still talk about service levels. Today, with hosted software, it’s not really about service levels. I don’t think people really understand it – we don’t need a heck of lot of service as a user.

Let’s assume that you’re having it hosted and that makes a lot of sense because upgrades are done out there, and you don’t have some guy plodding around with a floppy disk. In the old days I had an account manager who wasn’t trying to sell me more product. I’d ring her up and say ‘Hillary, I had an idea. Do you think if we do this, this, and this that we could get this result?’. She’d go back to the guys at the lab and come back and say, ‘yeah, we’ll send somebody down. Let’s have a look at that.’ I think that’s a good relationship – having that sounding board, helping me understand how I am going to get more out of the system.

And the last thing is, it’s a bit simple, but you need to understand the acquisition plan. In other words, how am I being charged? Is it per user, per employee? That needs to be clearly understood.


How would you judge that chemistry? The interpersonal relationships with the providers?

Probably by the questions that providers are asking on top of how they’re answering your questions. Are they really understanding your problem? Are they really getting to the core of your problem, or are they just trying to sell a system? Can you trust these guys to do what you want for five years?

Again, it’s not an easy thing to quantify. That’s why I use my own score sheet to help evaluate different providers.


Why are the HR metrics and insights that HR software can provide so valuable to HR teams, as well as businesses overall?

A lot of what we see being called HR metrics aren’t actually metrics at all. They’re things like number of training days. So, we did 2000 training days. Who’s responsible for that? Absence is up. Is that HR’s problem? No, that’s a line manager problem.

I’ve got a whole range of metrics which I’ve written in my book, but if you want to measure how good your HR department is – and I have to say, this isn’t going to be very popular – how many tribunal cases do you have? In performance appraisals how many training gaps are identified? Are these being done, are these closed? What’s your legal fee bill every year? What percentage of identified development needs are fulfilled? I think those are the metrics that HR can directly own, but HR appears to want to take on absence or people leaving, when that is not exclusively a HR problem.

HR are not responsible for the people. They’re responsible for enabling. I prefer workforce enablement as a term for it. I think HR are fed up of being hauled over the coals because the absence figures are up and stuff that they have no direct line of sight with.

For example, people are leaving a department because the manager is a bit of a… bad person – let’s put it that way – therefore, there is a failing. What HR must look at is why we’re losing people in that location or division. Then the next step is knowing how to present that information.

CIPD and SHRM don’t teach people how to speak management. I suppose the phenomenon we have now is that most of the people in HR have only ever been in HR. I came from a finance background. My business partner was in retail. So, you know how a business kind of works and you learn how to communicate this effectively. In my opinion, that’s where we’re failing in terms of HR’s ability to communicate with leadership.