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HR Hears the Call of Technology

May 1, 1995
Related Topics: Training Technology, Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Featured Article
The pundits have done their job well. For several years now, their calls have echoed through our collective consciousness: "The Information Age is coming! The Information Age is coming!" They are the Paul Reveres of the '90s, rousing us to changes that will soon overtake us. We can react one of two ways—we can head out into the fray to join the action, or we can crawl under the covers and hope it passes us by.

Those in the second category will find they can't hide for long. The Information Age is here. Consider this: According to "Information Anxiety," by Richard Saul Wurman, a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in a lifetime during 17th-century England. In addition, the information supply doubles every five years. There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5,000.

Thank (or if you're feeling overwhelmed, blame) technology. It just keeps pushing the envelope. According to "Surviving Information Overload," by Rich Tetzeli (Fortune, July 11, 1994), since 1993, the U.S. work world has added 25,000,000 computers. Since 1987, homes and offices have added 10,000,000 fax machines. Nearly 12,000,000,000 messages were left in voicemail in 1993 alone. HR professionals may think that these advances in technology will remain amusing sidebars to their jobs—that such innovations as multimedia training and videoconferencing will come and go. They're wrong. "Anyone who believes this is all just a fad—that if you wait long enough and hunker down it will pass—is sorely misunderstanding the situation," says Franklin Becker, director of international workplace studies at Cornell University. "You'll have to be [technologically] literate for self-preservation."

Let this be the wake-up call for those who slept through the first warnings: Technology and its many innovations are here to stay, and will present challenges and opportunities at an ever-quickening pace. Technology will continue to change the HR function; it will continue to change HR job responsibilities. Those who want to remain viable need to jump into the fray.

Where are we going? Where have we been?
It's easy to be skeptical of the promises of future technology. Back in the '50s, after all, we were positive we'd all be driving the family spaceship to work. Being technoliterate today, however, doesn't mean projecting 50 years into the future. It's more a matter of planning for what could happen in the next year, and for what will happen in the next few months. The major changes in technology for the average HR department will really be just increased and more efficient use of technology currently available. We already have multimedia PCs, for instance—we'll just use them more strategically.

New technology doesn't appear out of nowhere—it infiltrates businesses gradually. We have time to prepare as it spreads from serving a single useful function to providing a myriad of integral services. Take, for example, the phone—it started out with a limited use, but can you imagine a phone now being used only for chatting with other people? "When touch-tone phones showed up in the workplace, we initially just used them to call each other," says Wyatt consultant Steve McCormick. "Then they became a message-storage device. Now, when hooked up through a data base, you can do things like employee surveys. Once the technology is there, it becomes a matter of knowing how to take advantage of it to achieve objectives."

McCormick believes the next wave of technology to wash over offices will be the multimedia PC. As part of turning over more of the reins to employees, these PCs will provide self-service applications, allowing employees to handle many of the administrative tasks that currently remain the bane of HR—benefits enrollment, address changes, etc. As these systems become more common, they'll encourage the movement of HR toward a more strategic function, freeing even lower-rung professionals from dreary paperwork. "Right now, a lot of HR staff are dedicated to administrivia," says McCormick. "As companies implement self-service applications where employees do more things themselves, that frees HR to focus on planning and coaching managers and employees."

In addition to self-service functions, multimedia programs will also take over a large chunk of employee education, particularly training. Rather than spending the time and money to travel to seminars, employees will simply pull up to their desks and plug into their PCs, where a full range of instruction will be available. Replete with sound, graphics and full-motion video, these engaging programs can expand the scope of training a hundredfold. They maintain a user's attention through interaction while allowing individuals to go at their own pace. This intensified training can be used at the employees' convenience—rather than having to plan a day around a speaker or seminar, employees schedule their training when they're good and ready. "A lot of people just don't have time for training," says Doreen Waldman, multimedia manager for New York City-based American Management Association. "[Multimedia PCs] can provide them with some alternatives where they don't necessarily lose time from the office."

Armonk, New York-based WFS Workforce Solutions, the HR arm of IBM, is following the trend toward employee self-service. One of its user-friendly technologies is a service center. The center provides those who call an 800 number with information on various HR rules and regulations. Rather than bombard HR with questions, an employee or manager can phone the center for the objective, yes-or-no information. This frees HR to work on the more complicated, gray-area issues. "It's going to enable us to be much more of a problem solver for line management than in the past," says Larry Cabler, director of business development.

Just as we've switched much of our communication to E-mail and voicemail rather than face-to-face interaction, many experts predict that soon we'll add videoconferencing to our communication tool-kit. But we won't just be zapping our images to remote locations, we'll be talking to people in the same building. This innovation will allow HR professionals to increase their level of accessibility. "Let's say an employee is trying to decide what to do with benefits," says McCormick. "They can click on an icon, which generates a call to somebody in the HR office. With the employee at their PC, and the HR person at their PC, they're both basically looking at each other because the PCs will have cameras built into them. That's not far away."

But even if technology does change certain HR job features, will technology ever become an HR job skill? In a position where the main focus is on the human side of the equation, is it really necessary to hone the mechanical? In short, yes.

"Technology is transforming virtually every area of HR—from recruiting to benefits administration to executive compensation to promotion," says Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute for the School of Management at Boston University. "[Technological] literacy is increasingly incredibly important for HR professionals."

Technological competency improves HR's image as well as its effectiveness.
While the HR function struggles to rid itself of its touchy-feely image and gain consideration as a viable business area, technology will play a key role. "As HR gets called on to be a more important partner in the management decision process, we'll need to be able to have more timely and accurate information to help make these decisions," says David Bainbridge, HR manager for Appleton, Wisconsin-based Anchor Food Products.

Bainbridge offers an example of using HR information to assist in business decisions: He uses trend reporting and analyses rather than just exit interviews and psychological tests to determine the type of people who will stay with the company and those who will leave. "To be a competent manager, and certainly to advance within a company, you must have a good technological foundation," says Bainbridge. "If you don't, you're dating yourself very quickly. You just won't be as effective."

Bainbridge also uses technology to gain the necessary data that can get HR projects off the ground. For instance, instead of saying the company should start an employee assistance program because it would boost morale, he uses tangible economic reasons why an EAP will be good for the bottom line. "Technology gives us a better chance to quantify what we're doing and to measure cause-and-effect relations," he says. "It makes us a more credible business partner."

While using technology can toughen up HR's sometimes warm-and-fuzzy image, it will also become integral to maintaining a competitive edge in one's career. Just as HR professionals have broadened their skills list to include such talents as understanding basic legal issues, the competitive edge in the future will demand a strong grasp of technology. "Look at what's happening with technology and what technology is capable of. Then look at what's happening to the role of HR and what HR is being pushed to do. It's just obvious that it's all going to have to come together," says McCormick.

The proactive HR professional will consider technology an ally in getting work done more efficiently—a particularly important point in an age where all functions are pushed to do more with less. "It will get to be almost peer pressure," says Foulkes. "The leaders are using certain technology, so you'll just have to fall in line. You'll be at a competitive disadvantage if you haven't made the transformation."

But HR professionals not only have to be technoliterate for their own good, but for their employees as well. Technology is affecting the way we work, and HR professionals must lead the way, providing guidelines and support help as employees weather the storm of change. Employees need to be trained in computer skills, new time-management skills, and more. "The tremendous influx of information technology into the corporation in general will change the kinds of things that the HR function will have to do to support employees," says Becker. "At the first influx of information technology, people thought it was just a technological issue. What people are beginning to realize is that it's not. It's a people issue."

Becker says that HR needs to help employees use technology to their advantage, while making them feel confident in its use. Take, for instance, the current debate on what should and shouldn't be communicated by E-mail. As this technology becomes an increasingly important tool for business communication, HR must develop guidelines for its use. It's up to HR to draw the boundaries, to develop a protocol for what is and isn't acceptable. "In my mind, that's very much in the field of HR," says Becker. "HR people are going to have to provide direction, guidance, support and leadership in helping people use technology effectively."

The best way of providing this support for employees is not just designing a training structure or implementing an array of new rules and regulations. It's being aware of what employees' issues will be. For instance, if an employee is trying to use videoconferencing for the first time, HR should be able to coach the employee on how to use the technology most effectively. An HR professional who has used videoconferencing before will be able to give the employee tips—such as limiting quick movements because they muddy the reception. This is a subtle but important point—and one that may be overlooked if an HR professional has never been introduced to the technology. "You can't provide support training if you haven't experienced it yourself," says Becker. "For HR to play a leadership role, they themselves have to be experimenting with the technology. They need to understand what it's like to use a variety of technologies."

To lead employees down the Information Superhighway, HR needs to take off the kid gloves and really explore what technology has to offer. This is another area where HR can make its presence felt. Because technology's implications on people are so far-reaching, the HR function can steal the spotlight by teaching the company how to exploit the technology. The more employees use technology to boost their productivity, the more HR will be viewed as a strategic partner in improving the bottom line. For instance, the international workplace studies program at Cornell conducted a study on the best uses of technology for business. It concluded that while technology is not particularly useful for brainstorming and project review, which depend on a more hands-on, face-to-face interaction, technology is extremely useful in the middle stages of projects. HR can teach team members how to gather information from a wider network through such services as the Internet and online programs. In addition, employees should be encouraged to increase communication through E-mail and voicemail rather than trying to coordinate continual meetings. "Technology can make interaction more intense when you do come together face-to-face, because you'll have a lot more background," says Becker. "You get more value out of the contact that you do have."

HR professionals can tap a variety of sources to become technoliterate.
The first step to improving any skill is overcoming one's wariness. Technology triggers a knee-jerk aversion in many. For every computer enthusiast, there are five people sidestepping the issue. This may be particularly true of HR professionals. "I think that people who go into HR management have a bias toward the people side and are not as technologically comfortable as somebody who would go into a more technical field," says Bainbridge.

Cornell's Becker echoes the feeling: "My sense is that HR people have not been in the forefront of this [technology movement]. It's a huge untapped opportunity for adding value to the corporation. But HR people in many cases not only have not led the charge, but in some cases are skeptical and very unsupportive of it."

There's no foolproof method of overcoming technophobia. Yet it's something that must be worked through. Bainbridge himself admits that five years ago, he "couldn't have turned on a PC to save my life." After being layed off, a neighbor offered him the use of a Macintosh computer to manage his job-search campaign. As he became more comfortable with basic computer programming, he decided to take on trickier programs such as spreadsheet applications. "I've made some pretty significant strides in my own comfort level with technology," he says. "Small successes allow you to build your skills. It makes you more confident."

Becker also agrees that skillbuilding can begin by just getting your feet wet. "You don't have to go to a training program for two weeks. A lot of times what you really need to do is find someone in the office who will give you informal feedback." He suggests choosing a project and committing to using an unfamiliar computer program to get the job done. This way, you'll be productive while you learn, and you'll retain the information more because you'll be using it hands-on.

Yet sometimes there's no one in the office who can help, and a little formal training may be useful. For instance, Alan White, the assistant superintendent for the Marietta School District in Marietta, Georgia, is one of just four people in the HR department. The staffers have little technological background, so they decided to attend a training course on some new programs so they can create more of their visual communications themselves. "It's a function that's available on our computers, but it's not a skill any of us have, so we're going to do some training," he says. "It's a good example of what we need to do to keep up."

Bainbridge, who's gained most of his computer skills by networking with more technologically minded professionals, agrees that sometimes formal instruction can help. He's picked up courses from time to time at a community college. These classes provide more in-depth training than most of his peers would have time to provide.

But, classes and casual instruction aside, it's difficult to know just how to keep up with technology. The HR professional at a computer-software company will likely have different skill-level requirements than a counterpart at a retail organization. There's no hard-and-fast rule that can be applied across the board—it's not as easy as that. Yet there are things HR people can do to gauge where they are in the struggle to remain current. "I'd be reading magazines like Wired," says Becker. "I'd be reading things that talk about what's going on in new ways of working. I'd be reading Charles Handy's books, "Age of Unreason" and "Age of Paradox.""

Becker says he doesn't encourage benchmarking against other HR professionals or departments in terms of technoliteracy. The danger there, he points out, is that if these professionals or departments aren't innovators in the use of technology, it's too easy to get a false sense of security toward one's own level. "I think the [best] thing would be for HR to look at the most innovative part of the corporation and see what they're doing with technology," says Becker. "Ask yourself to what extent HR could use that technology. Exploring these approaches is a very useful starting point."

Although HR professionals should keep an eye on the head of the techno-pack, it's also important to know the skill level you yourself need to have right now. There are a few guidelines. The first will be welcome news to HR technophobes: No one expects you to be a computer genius. You won't be the one they call when the videoconferencing technology goes on the fritz; and you're not the ideal candidate to design a new interactive computer training program.

The truth is, with computers becoming more and more user friendly, HR professionals probably won't even have to pull out too many instruction manuals. Says N. Fredric Crandall, founding partner for Chicago-based Center for Workforce Effectiveness: "Systems today are so much more user friendly than they were five years ago. Understanding [the intricacies] of using a computer is almost a nonissue."

Yet although the acceptable skill level for an HR professional is relatively low, there are still certain functions that HR must be able to perform. "At the very minimum, [required skills include] being comfortable with E-mail, comfortable with voicemail, knowing how to use word processing, being able to format a report on a computer," says Becker. He defines "being comfortable" as being able to perform basic functions without assistance. For instance, on E-mail, he says, professionals should know how to send and receive items, as well as how to attach messages. As far as being comfortable with performing basic computer functions, Becker says that, increasingly, HR professionals should have knowledge of spreadsheet applications and should know how to create different presentations for business data—such as charts and graphs.

Can HR add these technological capabilities to its already overcrowded plate? Workforce Solutions' Cabler feels many are starting to heed the call—at least by acknowledging that there's much to be done. "Are we where we want to be? I think that if we filled my office with HR people, all of us would say that no, we're not using it as well as we'd like to; we don't have the competencies that we'd like to have. But I think our community is leagues ahead of where it was a few years ago."

This incremental growth is key to keeping current with technology. It's an ongoing task—one that HR professionals will struggle with throughout their careers. But the payoff is big. "For me, it's a matter of continuing career development," says Bainbridge. "My ability to use technology will be key to my effectiveness. That's how I look at my technological competence—it's just another tool in my arsenal." Those HR professionals who head into the fray of technology can use that tool to pull ahead.

Personnel Journal, May 1995, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 62-68.

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