Questions for Rosaline Hendricks: Part I

This interview is one in a series introducing the people of iHRIS to the global iHRIS community. To nominate someone to be featured, please leave a reply below.

Rosaline Hendricks is the iHRIS Human Resource Information Systems Advisor in Namibia. This interview is the first part in a two-part series.

Interview by Adam Gori

Part I

Rosaline HendricksTell me where you're from and about your role in the iHRIS community.

I grew up and went to primary school in a small town called Mariental in Namibia, which is to the south of Windhoek. I attended high school in Windhoek and then went away to study in South Africa. I now live in Windhoek and have been here for the last 16 years.

I began my career working as a programmer. I then became an IT manager, but realized that IT management is more management than IT, and it’s IT that excites me. I've been working as an iHRIS advisor at IntraHealth International since 2009. I’m responsible for the iHRIS strengthening activities here in Namibia. It’s a role that fits me. I like what I’m doing.

What do you like about IT?

I like the fact that you can use it to optimize processes that normally take a very long time. The first time that I saw a computer, I was in my final year of high school. I guess I saw the potential, because I decided to study Computer Science.

In hindsight, I probably would have liked it better studying Information Systems. I'm not a typical developer. I don't like the solitary part of it, having to sit and figure out a piece of code on one’s own. I prefer interacting with people, understanding their requirements and finding a solution for them.

What gets me excited is the process-support side rather than the development side of IT, that is, the analysis and design side of IT software development. For example, I am currently looking at the leave-management process of one of the hospitals where we implemented iHRIS. A registered nurse who wants to apply for leave has to complete a leave application form by hand. That form is then passed up through the management hierarchy to the principal medical officer. But the process bypasses the nurse manager, who is responsible for developing duty rosters. The form is finally sent to HR, who update the leave cards manually.

Imagine all the things that can go wrong in this manual process. Forms can get lost. Health workers can inadvertently go on leave without authorization, leaving their shift uncovered. Leave cards may not get updated, so leave provisions may not be made accurately, and that can affect the operational budget for the facility when a health worker resigns and so forth.

Working with the users and the programmers to develop and implement an automated process that will support policies and eliminate or reduce risks is what motivates me.

What are you doing with iHRIS right now?

iHRIS is new for us in Namibia. We’ve only just completed our second installation of iHRIS Manage. In Namibia, we struggle with a low level of computer literacy, especially in our rural areas. So we've had some change-management and adoption issues, but once the users get accustomed to the flow, they find it quite easy to use, and that's what I like about iHRIS.

I also like that with relatively inexperienced iHRIS developers, we were able to customize iHRIS Manage and roll it out for our faith-based partners. Before I joined IntraHealth I did a couple of big ERP implementations. For all of them we had a huge team of very senior developers, very senior project managers and quite a long customization process, whereas with iHRIS, using two junior intern developers and the iHRIS community, we were able to do it in about three to six months. What took the longest was actually the data capturing and the data use, not the customization.

Right now we’re focusing on working with hospital and health center staff to ensure that they keep the data updated on iHRIS and that they get comfortable with using the iHRIS reports and filters to get the information they need for decision-making.

We’ve just started planning a workshop with our final FBO partner that we want to implement iHRIS Manage for. We’ll be demonstrating the software and getting their customization requirements. Then the development team will start making the changes to the software. So we hope to have iHRIS running in one more hospital by the end of June 2014.

You said that you're not a typical IT person. What is it about working with iHRIS and what you're doing now that you find satisfying personally?

I'm a bit of a systems thinker. I tend to see the whole picture, from the start to the end. Processes are what get me excited — what does an HR person do to ensure the right health worker is at the right place with the right skills, and how does the use of IT enable that?

For example, through iHRIS Manage we provide information to HR staff on who is due to retire. Suppose their iHRIS report shows they have three midwives due to retire in the next year. iHRIS can help them to see how long it takes on average to fill a position. They then have reliable information to help plan for recruitment and hiring in a timely manner and to ensure they have the staff required to provide healthcare.

We are finding that some of our HR staff do not think in this way yet. It is quite a shift in mindset to incorporate the use of the data from iHRIS to plan their work.

I’ve done development for about six years of my professional life, and I did it okay and developed a number of small systems — some of them are still being used. But what I really enjoyed was the time that I interacted with the users, documenting their requirements, going back and checking with them: "Is this what you need? Did I understand what your requirements are?"

When I start testing the software with the user and training them on the software, and I see them start to see the picture coming together, that’s the moment when I feel it’s all worth it. That's the thing that makes me feel, "Yes, this is how IT should be working!"

How did you get started working with the iHRIS community?

The Southern Africa Human Capacity Development Coalition, an IntraHealth Capacity project that ended in 2010, was providing iHRIS strengthening activities in Lesotho. They had decided to start using iHRIS Manage, but for some reason, they could not get the system operational. In the final year of the project, they pulled in Laticha Walters, who was the former iHRIS Advisor for IntraHealth in Namibia, and me to help get it off the ground.

That was my introduction to iHRIS Manage. I learned it by doing a demo installation on my PC, capturing data and documenting the process and information flow. Fortunately Carl Leitner was there to answer my questions. At that time, the online community wasn't active the way it is now. And the online documentation was very technical and not well organized.  It was mostly for the developers and the system administrators and not really for users.

I literally sat for hours and just played with the system, capturing data as well as running, and even developing, reports. I had the Lesotho HR data, which was not very clean, but it provided good test data.

The initial approach, before we joined the Lesotho project, was to ask users to put their data in an Excel sheet and to give that data to the implementation team to import it. But the users didn’t understand the method and couldn’t see how iHRIS could be useful. So Laticha and I started mapping their HR processes. That helped us to understand their processes. It also helped us understand how to use their terminology when speaking to the HR staff about iHRIS.

Then we demonstrated how iHRIS could support them, for example, in their appointment process, in their transfers, in their promotions. Then we tested the system against their requirement. We fed the required changes back to Carl and his team of developers in Chapel Hill, who then typically had to work overnight because we wanted it back the next day — we had such a tight deadline.

Once the customization was done, my job was to clean the data for import. We received Excel files from all the different facilities, so job titles were not standardized. Abbreviations were used for some job titles. Date formats were not consistent, the typical data-quality issues one experiences when using Excel to track health workers. I spent a lot of time cleaning it so that Carl and his team could import the data. Part of my job was to test the system and make sure that it met the user requirements that we'd documented. I then developed the training manual and trained users on the system.

So that was my first introduction to iHRIS Manage. I was lucky enough to have a test run before we tried it in Namibia. That experience helped me to understand the software, and it allowed me to compile some lessons learned. We were a bit better prepared when we started with iHRIS for the faith-based organizations in Namibia.

What did you learn?

You can't just dive in and get data together from users. You really have to take the time to demonstrate the system and explain it to the users in their language, using their terminology. For example, they might not call a new staff member a new “person,” but a new “appointment.” A position that no longer exists is “abolished,” it’s not “discontinued.” Those were the kind of things that users didn't understand in the system.

I found it useful to change the iHRIS terminology and to adopt what the HR staff is used to. In Lesotho and then for the Namibian implementations, we ended up developing a manual that walked users through the system step by step, explaining for example how you would use the system to create a new appointment, add demographic information and complete all the different steps needed before you can actually link a person to a position. The user manual therefore followed a process approach, so instead of starting with “How to create a user,” I started with “How to appoint a staff member.”

So, when we started with iHRIS in Namibia that's obviously the way that we went. We didn't just take the data and import it, which I think is typically the way it’s been done in many of the other iHRIS implementations.

Looking back on your experience, what advice would you give to others who want to install and implement iHRIS? How would you counsel them to learn it quickly and well?

You need a team of people. Initially, we were two people, a project manager and a systems analyst on the Lesotho project. We had a developer based in Chapel Hill, and later were joined by a systems administrator, who at that time did not know iHRIS. iHRIS is a very capable tool, but one person can’t make it work. Two isn’t even enough.

It needs a team comprising various skill levels. It needs the systems analysts to work with the users and translate their requirements into system customization requirements. It needs technical people like developers and system administrators to do the customization, setup and after-implementation support. It needs a project manager to integrate all the activities and to ensure that the project objectives are met. And it needs the users to define their requirements, test and sign off that the system indeed meets their requirements.

Next I would recommend getting an experienced implementer or developer on your team. We had a Tanzanian developer, Sovello Mgani, visit us here to provide onsite support in Namibia. But unfortunately we only had him for three weeks. We didn't have somebody on the ground here to guide and coach and mentor our interns. We hired two intern developers, and their Linux skills were good, but they struggled to understand the iHRIS Manage software architecture. Even with the iHRIS Google group, it still took them a while. So I would say, get a senior iHRIS resource for as long as you can to really build your local skills.

One problem that we also had was our team structure. The developers reported directly to me as the iHRIS advisor. But I was working with the Ministry of Health, the Health Professions Council in Namibia, the National Health Training Network and with the WISN Project. So I was very stretched and just didn't have the time to coach and mentor these young interns.

So after our first implementation, I realized we needed another level of skills between me and the team. I really needed another person who could apply him- or herself to the iHRIS project, so I advertised for a systems analyst, because at the end of the day, the vision that we have for Namibia is to tie all of these different databases together into a national health workforce registry. For that, you need more of an analyst than a developer, because you have to make sure your systems are interoperable from the get-go and that you keep the ultimate goal in mind.

We filled that position in June of 2013, and our second FBO implementation of iHRIS Manage was a lot smoother. There were a lot fewer errors. We added a lot of validation and made a number of fields compulsory. The data came in quicker. The training, the user requirements, the adoption, all of it was just a lot more streamlined because we had a senior resource that was dedicated to the project. So we could spend more time demonstrating the system to the users and explaining to them how the system was going to be useful in meeting their needs.

So in summary, you need three levels of skills, so to speak. Because if your senior person is too busy with other activities, he or she is not able to do the integration of the users with the technical team, and that is a crucial link for success — it doesn’t guarantee success, but at least you’re equipping your users with the system know-how by involving them early on.  You need somebody dedicated that can really drive the customization, testing and implementation process continuously.

Do you have any other advice for those who are just starting out?

We are struggling to create demand among FBO users to use the system. I realize this might sound like a contradiction. Why did we put in a system if they didn't ask for it in the first place? The Ministry of Health and Social Services issued a directive. As it moves towards making data-driven decisions for human resources for health, it wants detailed information about the FBO staff they are subsidizing 100 percent, as well as about staff employed by the Ministry.

But because the directive didn't come from the FBO management itself, we now have a problem with the HR people. They literally just use the system for basic queries. They are not analyzing the data or looking for trends. They’re not using it to make recommendations for HR process improvement or to inform policy-level decisions.

And that is probably one of the key recommendations that I would give to future system implementers. The HR management of the facility where you are going to implement must be able to articulate what the questions are that they are trying to answer so that they can drive the ultimate use of the system.

Make sure that you document the policy questions that you want to answer. Link those to the data fields that you want to use to answer your policy questions. And make sure that those key data fields are required fields. For example, your retirement planning report will be useless if your date of birth field is not filled in. You need that information to forecast when someone will be retiring. Likewise, you’ll need your gender data field to get reports on gender equity, allowing you to manage gender equity in the workplace.

As I said earlier, I don't see myself as a technically oriented person. I'm an IT systems person, an applications person. Initially, I didn't understand networks. But in my previous work where I was IT Manager, I had to understand it as it was one of my key performance areas.

In Namibia, because our organizations are a lot smaller than what you would find in the States, you don't have all four functional IT areas in an organization, namely IT Applications management, IT Infrastructure management, IT Operations management and IT Service Desk Management. Being an IT Manager required me to understand the full IT environment. I had to make it my business to understand the IT infrastructure and systems architecture, to see how they work and what was needed to ensure the systems were available to support the business. Initially it required that I had to work hard to get that, I had to do a lot of extra reading. That was 11 years ago and online courses were not as freely available as they are now.

So I guess my advice to future implementers is also, don't be afraid. You will have to put in a lot of extra time to understand a new technology, a new way of doing things. You might not be responsible for doing it at the end of the day, but you have to be able to explain it to the guys, so you must know how all the pieces come together.

That’s what happened when we did our first implementation here for iHRIS Manage. We were having real headaches with version control and with keeping track of deploying changes. Our interns initially didn't understand the concept of Launchpad, that it’s a repository for managing different versions of your source code. I had worked with a similar tool before, so I knew Launchpad would make it easier for the team to test changes and mark them as ready for production.

I didn’t have time to get it working myself, but I knew they needed it and I knew how to explain it. And now with the second iHRIS implementation, they got Launchpad working, used it, and version control and deployment of new changes has been a lot easier and faster.

What is one thing you’d like readers to know about iHRIS?

Make sure that you have your buy-in at all levels, from the national level right down to the lowest level where you need users to capture data. iHRIS Manage is a very capable tool, but it's going to take some time. You need to really think through the whole process. It's entirely possible to make it work, but really engage your users from the start and throughout the process. Don't just put the system up and then expect users to use it. If they don't see the value that the system can give to them, it’s going to be underutilized. Users need to be a part of the process.

When I read your interview with Michael Drane, I was so happy to see that he's planning to start a separate user group for users. I really think that is much needed.

You mentioned that you and Laticha Walters had gone down to Lesotho to help implement iHRIS Manage. Are there many women in your region doing this kind of work?

I always joke when I go to an IT event or any kind of IT meeting that you can count the number of women attending on one hand. I know that in Namibia there are a lot more IT professionals who are male than there are female. The glass ceiling is very much in place still. Very few women hold senior IT positions in Namibia.

My personal experience is that as a woman in a predominantly male environment, you really have to work hard to prove yourself, to prove to the guys that you know what you're talking about. Once they see that you can add value and contribute to the success of the team, they have no problem calling on your expertise.

Let me give you an example. IT is still not seen as a must-have in Namibia. For instance, having a local area network in a newly built administrative block in a hospital is not a given. A few years back I was searching for an IT supplier to do the network installation in the admin block of a hospital for our first iHRIS implementation. The male project lead of the supplier was trying to run circles around me at first. He was suggesting a very powerful server, a much bigger IT environment than was necessary. I eventually had to sit him down and say, "Listen, I know how these things work. We do not need the kind of server you're trying to sell here. I need a smaller one. If you can't supply it to me, I'll go and get somebody else who will." I know he probably thought, "You’re a woman, what would you know about these things?”

And I find that I have to rely on IT terminology when I work with fellow IT males. I have to show that I understand the big words. But then, when I talk to the users again, I know I have to tone it down. I have the ability to do that.

In my previous work as IT manager, I was one of the only female managers on the executive committee. The rest of the guys were mostly engineers, and they were tough guns to work with. You really had to show these guys why are you recommending something, and I think that was good practice.

At the end of the day, you sometimes just say, "Listen, just give me a chance to prove this concept to you." And then you work very hard to make it work. And the next time you come around with a recommendation, the guys are more inclined to listen to you, because now your past record speaks for itself. My previous CEO still calls me for IT advice. So, I guess I made an impression on him.

Do you have any advice to other women who might want to be involved with iHRIS?

Do not be intimidated because it is an IT system. Think about it as a means to an end, and start breaking it up into smaller parts. But always keep your eyes on your end goal all the time.  Do not work in isolation. Get your team together and ensure they understand why you want to implement iHRIS, and let that vision drive you and keep you focused.

Read Part II of Rosaline's interview.