RSS icon

Top Stories

How Technology Is Advancing HR

September 1, 1993
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Featured Article
Inside Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a newly hired security guard is learning the layout of the facility quickly. With the assistant director of security standing next to him, he's navigating his way through a row of offices, the turbine building, a radioactive-waste facility and the main reactor building. He's heading up stairwells and through passages. He's even listening as his fellow security officer tells him about machinery, equipment and high-radiation areas that he should be aware of.

At the plant's trash-compaction facility, the two stop and examine the components on a panel of electronic controls. After several minutes of detailed discussion and close scrutiny, they head off for the final portion of their tour. This includes winding through a narrow passageway, riding up an elevator and returning to the main offices. By the time they're finally finished, the new hire has seen virtually every corner of the plant. What makes this tour significant is that it was conducted without the new hire ever setting foot inside the facility.

This isn't an ordinary orientation. The two security officers have managed to visit Pilgrim with the aid of an ultra-sophisticated laser-disc program. Using a computer, television monitor, joystick and video disc, they're able to journey through the facility step by step and frame by frame while sitting at a desk. If they want to travel at a normal walking speed, they can do so. If they want to stop and examine a single frame, it isn't a problem. If they want to look up or down, sideways or backward, the equipment can accommodate them. With more than 77,000 individual photos on the disc, they have total control over a simulation of the plant's environment. They have the freedom to travel wherever they want, jump to another location within the facility in a matter of seconds, and even annotate images for future reference.

"It's a terrific training tool," says David Tarantino, a manager of nuclear education at Boston Edison, the utility that runs the plant. "It allows us to provide surrogate tours and in-depth analysis of systems for new security personnel, engineers and a variety of tradespeople who must work in the plant. There are portions of the facility in which radioactivity dictates that people have as little exposure as possible. This allows us to re-duce the risk. It has proven to be a good investment."

Welcome to the world of interactive technology. Although experts have been predicting for years that laser discs, CD-ROM, interactive-voice systems and other devices would revolutionize the way in which people receive training and information in the workplace, it's finally beginning to happen. U.S. companies now are investing billions of dollars a year in interactive technology, hoping that they can improve productivity and, ultimately, shore up bottom-line profits.

Within the human resources arena, many professionals are finding that these technologies provide sophisticated recruitment, training and orientation capabilities. They also can keep employees informed about their benefits, help them locate other positions within a firm and provide legal documentation for competency levels. All this is possible while reducing the need for assistance from the HR department and saving tens of thousands of dollars a year in paper and printing costs.

"Through interactive-voice technology, we're able to accomplish more with a smaller staff."
Barbara Metivier,
Hannaford Brothers

"It's a technology that's greatly changing the way HR work is done," says Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute at Boston University's School of Management. "It's moving quickly into the mainstream of corporate America, and it's requiring that HR people have an understanding of—even expertise in—how it works and how it can improve performance."

Adds Phillip Lawson, president of The Lawson Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that specializes in helping companies adapt to change and new technology, "It allows an HR department to provide on-demand information that can be updated constantly and distributed nationally or globally. It can reduce mistakes greatly and provide for more-consistent training methods. It allows for more efficiency and flexibility, and helps people communicate in far different ways than in the past."

Computer software for HR is nothing new, of course. During the last decade, scores of specialized applications have glutted the market. But this next generation of hardware and software—all of which transcend a conventional PC and hard-disk drive—offers a glimpse into an emerging world of information and knowledge. Yet it's territory fraught with complexity and challenge.

"Any technocrat can create something that's a technological marvel but fails to communicate and inform," says Lawson. "It's imperative, no matter what the application or purpose is, that it be usable and accessible. Interactive programs must be well-designed. They must be driven by a communicator who understands content and organization. Otherwise, because of their inherent complexity, you wind up with something that doesn't work and makes everybody's lives far more complicated."

Computer-based training is more effective than classroom training.
Robert H. Blalock has seen the future of instruction, and it's sitting smack in the middle of his desk. The manager of training systems development at Dallas-based American Airlines uses custom-designed laser-disc-based instructional programs to train flight attendants, ticket agents, fleet service clerks and cargo handlers from the carrier's Learning Center, located adjacent to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Every day, more than 1,200 students use the Learning Center. Increasingly, they're trading lectures and note-taking for computer-based learning.

American's flight-attendant program is a perfect example of how sophisticated interactive systems can be. The seven-week course, which accommodates about 60 students at a time, includes conventional films, videos and lectures. Twenty percent of the time is spent in front of a Macintosh computer, equipped with a Sony VideoDisc player, touch-screen monitor and headphones. Viewing video clips, graphics and text off the LP-sized platter, students learn about different planes, seating arrangements, food storage and preparation policies, emergency procedures and scores of other topics. When it comes time to take a test, the computer administers it. The instructor can access results instantly from a separate terminal on the same network.

"We're seeing a more aggressive use of the technology. It will change the way HR work is done."
Fred Foulkes,
HR Policy Institute

"The system allows students to learn at their own pace," says Blalock. "They can back up and review or study flash cards that contain the most salient information. The system also allows them to learn in a more context-specific way. If they're studying first-aid procedures, they can watch a short video clip that shows where kits are located. When it's appropriate, they can hear audio. If they don't understand something, they're free to come back in the evening and use the system to study. There's no chance for other students to feed them the wrong information."

For Blalock and the instructors who work in the Learning Center, the computer-assisted instruction has provided an opportunity to transfer knowledge to students far more quickly than in the past. Since American introduced interactive learning in 1991, it has cut classroom time by 36%, while increasing the amount of information included in the in-struction. For example, an international security course that was once 11 days long now is eight. "The instructor now is out of the role of content dumper and test grader and is facilitating the group far more effectively," says Blalock.

More importantly, test scores have remained steady, despite the use of more-rigorous tests. Managers in the field report that on-the-job performance actually is better. Blalock also notes that it now takes far less time to train new instructors. "They can get up to speed much faster because, in many cases, they're simply facilitating students who are using the computer."

Those individuals who are familiar with laser-disc systems agree that a well-designed program can go a long way toward educating a work force. Interactive discs offer several benefits, says Raymond G. Fox, president of the Society for Applied Learning Technology, a Warrenton, Virginia-based organization that sponsors conferences and trade shows. One of the biggest benefits is that individual instruction can be provided either in a central location or at any satellite office. If the instruction is done at a learning lab, students are able to work on different topics or take different courses simultaneously. "There's no need to wait until there are 20 or 30 people to take a class or fly people all over the country," says Fox.

Another advantage, says Fox, is that the system virtually eliminates cheating, something that American Airlines had long suspected was a problem. At its Learning Center, the computer administers the questions randomly. Although terminals are situated next to each other, nobody sees the same questions in the same order. Once the computer scores a test, a student who doesn't receive a passing grade is prevented from taking it again for four hours. At that time, he or she will answer a different set of questions on the same topic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, laser-disc and CD-ROM systems can provide a quantitative and consistent way to measure how well students are learning and whether they should tackle new material. The computer, by providing tests and quizzes along the way, can prevent trainees from tackling new material until they master the basics. It also helps eliminate questions about the quality of instruction because instructors aren't developing exams and deciding grading scales.

There also is the issue of liability. "When there's an accident or a problem that results in a lawsuit, it often is difficult to measure whether a training program achieved the results that it was supposed to," says Lawson. "If an employer can show that someone was properly trained on a system and mastered certain skills, they can reduce their liability greatly."

Interactive training increases retention rates and decreases costs.
Studies indicate that interactive training is highly effective. The U.S. military found that video-disc instruction requires 30% less time to achieve learning objectives than traditional classroom learning. A 1988 study of General Motors by Herndon, Virginia-based Industrial Training Corp. showed that employees learning on interactive video-disc programs scored an average of 83% on a final exam compared with an average of 63% for classroom students. Other studies show that using the discs to orient and train employees can result in a cost savings of 50% or more.

Memphis, Tennessee-based Federal Express is sold on the concept. Since 1988, it has produced 23 different laser discs that cover everything from customer service to the handling of hazardous goods. Employees at 705 offices throughout the country view the discs regularly. "We can track student usage and proficiency scores. We can generate reports for managers to tell them what discs the employees have looked at," says Bill Wilson, manager of training and testing technologies at Federal Express.

The technology has paid dividends beyond what the company initially ex-pected. In 1991, Federal Express received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige Nat-ional Quality Award for outstanding customer service. Today the firm is taking the concept a step further. It uses the discs for orienting new employees. A two-hour program offers detailed information on the corporate culture, benefits, policies and procedures. It also outlines the company's structure and features a video message from the CEO. "It's an excellent opportunity to get your message out when it most counts—when somebody is hired," says Wilson.

Companies constantly are finding new ways to use the technology. At Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, for example, the surrogate laser-disc tour allows engineers who are training repair crews to annotate individual video frames and store data on the computer's hard disk. The data appear automatically whenever the image is accessed. If a user isn't sure where he or she is, the computer can display a floorplan and elevations instantly, along with a You Are Here marker.

The joystick-guided tour of Pilgrim is but one example. Other companies, such as Federal Express, are finding that interactive simulations on disc can teach cargo handlers how to maximize space when loading freight onto an airplane. By presenting different scenarios and outcomes, a trainee can duplicate an actual experience with the added benefit of instant and personalized feedback.

For example, new security officers in a large factory can be taught to lock certain doors and scan specific areas without someone having to walk them through the plant. If they forget to check a door, the system can alert them. "It can duplicate specific situations that books, words and normal operating conditions can't," says Scott Hochmuth, production manager for Computer Aided Training, an Atlanta-based company that produces surrogate tours, such as the one used by Boston Edison.

Despite the impressive qualities of this technology, many medium-sized and small firms that have limited budgets and less-ambitious needs have discovered that off-the-shelf programs provide entirely adequate computer-based training. Electronics, computer programming, word processing, verbal communication skills, safety, foreign languages and health issues are just a few of the topics covered on more than 2,200 commercial laser discs. Tens of thousands of other programs are available on CD-ROM.

At the Environmental Protection Agency's office of Human Resources and Management in Washington, D.C., laser discs teach secretaries basic language skills, including grammar, punctuation and spelling. Secretaries are required to take an exam on the computer and then are channeled into the program at the appropriate level. This is quite a departure from just six months ago, when the EPA had its secretaries take classes at a local community college. The classes cost as much as $300 each, totaling tens of thousands of dollars a year. More importantly, some of the people most in need of training were too embarrassed to attend formal classes. "They didn't want other people to know that they lacked basic skills and that they needed a remedial program," says Steve Vineski, human resources manager for the EPA's office of Human Resources and Management. This isn't a problem with the department's computer-based training. Although several people can study in the lab simultaneously, nobody knows what anyone else is working on.

The Microsoft Windows-based program, titled Beyond Words, offers sophisticated text, graphics and video. Using the visual metaphor of a conventional book, including a table of contents, it guides students through lessons that culminate with multiple-choice exams. The program can display a student's progress, including the amount of time spent on a lesson and the number of questions answered correctly. An added bonus is that instructors and students can communicate via electronic messages if they're on different schedules.

Vineski, who began using the system in April, says that it paid for itself in a few months. The department initially invested $26,000 in four computers, all IBM 386s equipped with laser-disc players, CD-ROM drives and touch-screen monitors. It spent another $14,000 for the courseware. "The technology changes the role of a traditional trainer. It raises a whole set of organizational issues that trainers typically don't have to deal with. Less important are instructional-design skills and platform skills. More important are team-management skills," says Vineski.

Adds Kenneth J. Filbin, director of sales and marketing for Glencoe, the Westerville, Ohio, firm that produces Beyond Words, "Student response to these types of programs generally is enthusiastic. Most people find the learning more stimulating and fun. Because everything is graphical and a user navigates with the help of icons, learning how to run the program is typically quick and painless."

Interactive systems can streamline benefit administration and recruitment.
Of course, training is just one piece of the HR puzzle. Many companies also have discovered that interactive systems can tackle complex and time-intensive tasks, such as benefits administration and recruitment. As HR managers know, these tasks can devour the time of employees who already may be overtaxed from layoffs and corporate belt-tightening. And even if downsizing isn't in the picture, technology can free staff members to handle more-important work than simply answering questions and jotting down names and addresses of people who need application forms.

At Hannaford Brothers, a supermarket chain that has 95 stores and 15,000 employees located throughout the Northeast, the HR department installed an interactive voice-response system in 1990. At the time, employees could get information on their 401(k) accounts by using the touch-tone buttons on their phones. Today, workers also can receive information on the company's stock-purchase, benefits and medical plans. Moreover, they can enroll in programs directly over the phone. If they have other questions, the computer automatically routes the caller to the correct person in HR.

The system, which was designed in-house for less than $50,000, operates with a 16-line capability. Callers must provide their Social Security numbers and personal identification before they are able to gain access, which also helps identify who's requesting materials. "It took some time for people to feel confident with the technology, but by providing written confirmation of all transactions, our associates have grown to be very receptive," says Barbara Metivier, manager of HR information systems for Hannaford Brothers. Last year, when the firm was faced with a major downsizing, "We found that we were able to accomplish more with a smaller staff as a result of the technology," she says.

Hannaford Brothers isn't the only company to discover the advantages of interactive-voice technology. Phoenix Home Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Enfield, Connecticut, began operating such a program in 1990. A motivating factor was that the company has 4,500 employees and agents located throughout the country, and only a single HR office to deal with the deluge of phone calls, faxes and letters.

The software, developed by New York-based Cascade Technologies Inc., runs off a standard 386 computer. The system can provide general information on benefits packages, savings plans and holiday schedules. It also provides detailed information on the HMO that the company uses, what fee-deduction levels the employees have on their medical insurance and the value of their 401(k) plans. If an employee wants to examine various deduction scenarios or change from a bond fund to a stock fund, for example, the system guides him or her through the process while generating data for in-house use.

According to Howard Beardsley, director of benefits administration at Phoenix Home Life, the popularity of the system has grown tremendously, despite the fact that the company hasn't required employees to use it. When the system first went on-line in October 1990, the computer logged about 200 calls each month. Today, the figure is higher than 1,600. Phoenix soon will expand the capacity of the system from seven to 12 lines.

The system has helped Phoenix's HR department function through a complicated merger that occurred last year. It also has helped streamline the HR department and allowed employees to access benefits information 24 hours a day, 365 days a year—while saving money in the process. In addition, the system has allowed the firm to post its jobs electronically rather than on pieces of paper tacked onto bulletin boards throughout the country. That alone saved $40,000 in printing costs annually. "It's easy to change messages and reprogram the system as often as necessary. It has proven to be a great tool," says Beardsley.

Interactive-voice systems aren't the only way to keep employees informed about benefits and other HR-related matters. Companies increasingly are in-stalling interactive kiosks in a main area so that employees can access data on savings plans, medical benefits and stock-purchase programs and update their personnel files. Using laser disc, CD-ROM or CD-I (compact disc—interactive), the HR department is able to offer full-motion video, graphics and sound. With CD-I, there's no need to hook up a computer.

"Computer-based instruction that relies too heavily on technology and too little on human interaction can present its own set of problems."

This development is particularly attractive to many HR departments that must send representatives to job fairs and college campuses often. A kiosk equipped with a CD-I and TV monitor can provide fully interactive text, graphics and video on various departments, career opportunities and benefits packages. By simply touching the screen, a prospective employee can choose menu options and receive however much information he or she wants. The bottom line? Not only can the personnel department operate a booth with fewer people, but it also can save money on travel and allow existing staff to spend more time on other projects.

"We're seeing a more aggressive use of the technology," says Foulkes. "Companies increasingly are finding that the technology is useful, the price is coming down and the systems are effective. It's changing the way HR work is done. But it also is demanding a greater understanding of the technology."

HR professionals must market interactive technology internally.
According to industry observers, only a small percentage of firms have made a major commitment to interactive technology so far. "There's still a tremendous number of companies in which the management doesn't fully understand how effective a tool it can be," says Fox. Part of the reason for the lack of understanding, he says, is that the HR people responsible for selling the concept to management have trouble grasping the technology.

Vineski knows the problem all too well. He has had supervisors question why employees are spending time in front of a computer and away from their jobs. A few have wandered by to see what the system can do. "There's a lot of marketing that needs to be done internally. Because many people aren't familiar with it, it's necessary to cite studies that show the effectiveness of this type of learning and the improvement in retention [that it creates]. That isn't a role that HR people usually have to take on."

That's only part of the problem, however. Developing and installing a system is no simple task. A price tag of $30,000 to $500,000 isn't unusual for a series of custom discs. Off-the-shelf products can run from $1,000 to $15,000. In addition, "Disc-based programs require the highest levels of production if they're going to look and operate in a professional way," Lawson insists. "Someone has to look at colors, graphic design, fonts, transitions, timing and music. It's also necessary to shoot and edit video, often with professional actors."

Of course, each technology has its advantages and disadvantages. Laser-disc systems, which require a $300 to $1,000 playback unit and use relatively bulky 10-inch discs, offer full-motion video. Audiences usually are impressed with the quality of the images. Unlike CD-ROM, the unit doesn't have to be hooked up to a computer. An instructor can use a laser-disc player with a television to create a video playback system that's far more efficient than a standard VCR. With the aid of a bar-code reader, the system can locate and play several hundred different video clips in a half second or less. Bar codes can even be placed into a workbook for students to access on their own. The downside? As a stand-alone, a laser-disc unit can't take advantage of any of the capabilities of a computer. As a system integrates into a computer, it requires a costly video card that can handle full-motion images.

CD-ROM offers the most convenience and flexibility. Many computers already are equipped with the $500-to-$700 units. Tens of thousands of programs and data bases are available in this format. With the addition of a CD-ROM recorder system, a company can produce its own discs in-house. These are the same compact discs used for music. Each can carry more than 600 megabytes of text, graphics and video. However, CD-ROM video quality doesn't equal that of a laser disc. It only outputs 15 frames per second (as opposed to 30 frames per second in full motion) and can display an image only in a window, not over a full screen. The next generation of the devices, due in 1994, is expected to offer vast improvements in the quality of the video.

The latest entry into the market is CD-I or CD-Interactive, which also can be produced internally using a recording unit. Because the playback units function without a computer and sell for about $500 each, they have proven cost-effective and attractive, especially for smaller firms that have a limited budget. CD-I, which is highly portable and made only by Philips at this time, can be hooked up to a regular television and offers interactive full-motion video on a 72-minute disc. It also works well for kiosks intended to dispense information. Like CD-ROM, the disc can be created internally with minimal difficulties. The major drawback to the medium is that the system can't track test scores or collect data on usage because there's no computer attached to it.

How long can it take to get a system up and running? The most simple disc-based software can be produced in two or three weeks, while a series of sophisticated multimedia discs can take a year or longer to produce, says Lawson. Naturally, the more menu choices a user faces, the greater the need to maintain a high level of organization. "It can take a lot of time to fully test a system to ensure that it works exactly as intended."

Lawson, however, is quick to point out that a program can be designed in modules so that information can be added or deleted easily with each new version of a disc. Such a design can allow a company to begin a training program before the entire series of discs is completed. Moreover, it allows a firm to use the same modules on different discs for different departments. This is something that can reduce the overall cost and help maintain continuity companywide.

Interactive phone systems, on the other hand, usually require only a few days to install and cost between $20,000 and $100,000. Some programming is required to customize the system for a particular company's needs, and someone must record all the messages that callers hear. The software, which can either be written in-house or by companies specializing in developing system modules, runs off the hard drive of a conventional 386 or 486 PC. Yet it offers many advanced capabilities, including fax response when a caller pushes certain telephone buttons, and a wealth of statistical data about how employees are using the system.

One of the keys to installing any kind of system successfully, says Lawson, is to make sure that there's a strategic plan in place from the beginning. "Too many companies are reactionary. They wind up with a budget cut and they look at a kiosk-or video disc-based training system as a cost-effective way to disseminate information," he says. "But by planning ahead, a company can gather information that can give valuable clues as to what's working and how things can be changed for the better in the future. They can make far more productive use of their investment."

Lawson also points out that there are many situations in which the technology can become overkill. "Such powerful capabilities certainly aren't needed by every company. There are times when training needs are relatively simple, or an outside consultant can do a better job," he says. Likewise, it can sometimes be faster and less expensive to create a paper-based manual and traditional training materials. "A lot of smaller companies can't afford the technology. It simply isn't cost-effective," Lawson says.

According to Foulkes, it's crucial that a company doesn't get so absorbed in the technology that it loses sight of its goals. For example, when a company installs an interactive phone system, that doesn't mean that a company can eliminate operators. During the first few months, he cautions, the system may show no financial benefit because of initial resistance on the part of employees or confusion over the system. When Hannaford Brothers installed its system, for example, it found that callers often pushed the wrong buttons without realizing it. Within weeks, however, the company replaced messages that weren't clear, and employees began using the system more efficiently. Virtually everyone began reporting that they actually preferred it.

Likewise, computer-based instruction that relies too heavily on technology and too little on human interaction can present its own set of problems. No system can be programmed for every question that a trainee might think of. And without an instructor available, it's possible for students to feel frustrated and bogged down. What's more, says Fox, it's necessary to keep training programs up-to-date. A change in company policy must be reflected in a program, and even a slight change in a logo or uniform can mean having to press new discs.

Nevertheless, many HR professionals now are convinced that interactive media are the wave of the future. As technology continues to grow and computers become more powerful, the results will become ever more astounding. "We're on the edge of a revolution," says Foulkes. "These systems will become far more pervasive and important in the years to come, not just in terms of large companies, but also in medium-and small-sized companies. It will change completely the way we think about training and providing information. It will allow people to learn far more effectively than ever."

Personnel Journal, September 1993, Vol. 72, No.9, pp. 80-90.

Recent Articles by Samuel Greengard

Comments powered by Disqus

Hr Jobs

View All Job Listings