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New Technologies Provide Agents for Change

July 1, 1994
Related Topics: Human Resources Management Systems (HRMS/HRIS), Featured Article
One of the more fascinating aspects of work-flow automation is the emergence of agents—powerful software programs that automate tasks. They've been likened to robots and described as the next great breakthrough in computer software. These mini-programs are able to monitor a computer system, and when they detect a specific set of conditions can tackle tedious and time-consuming tasks in ways of which humans only can dream.

For example, Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett Packard Co. uses an agent supplied by Santa Clara, California-based Edify Corp. to automate quarterly wage reviews for 13,000 salespeople. The PC-based software dials into the personnel system and downloads a list of whom works for each of 1,200 sales managers. Then, using electronic mail, it sends each a list for verification. Managers e-mail changes back to the system, which automatically updates any changes. Finally, the agent repeats the process—this time sending proposed salary changes for review. The managers either can approve the raises or make modifications by calling into an interactive voice-response system that uses telephone buttons to update records. The end result? H-P has a computer handling the work of 20 HR administrators.

Agents can manage dozens of tasks. Like Edify's Electronic Workforce, they can scan the highways and byways of cyberspace, scheduling meetings, creating dynamic to-do lists, managing highly efficient "in-boxes" and automating information retrieval. They can even send out faxes or mail when a predetermined set of conditions occur. "The tools are powerful for moving information in and out of HR systems," says Edify's president, Jeffrey Crowe.

Atlanta-based Dun & Bradstreet Software, which markets a program called HR Stream, also has introduced agents into its software. Using an embedded workflow approach, the program not only collects and organizes data, it automatically routes activities, reports, mail and other information to users who need it. It can collate work, create to-do lists and even complete tasks while employees are at lunch or at a meeting. And, the software is driven by user-definable tables, which means it easily can be configured and reconfigured to meet constantly changing needs.

Although agent software can vary from the invisible to the obvious, it almost always mimics what humans do, but with far greater endurance and accuracy. For example, Santa Clara, California-based National Semiconductor Corp.'s Career Opportunity Program System—which provides 25,000 employees with online job listings—automatically updates itself by logging on to the HRIS computer every night. It can grab open requisitions and make them available online. Anyone who accesses E-mail and applies for a position generates electronic forms. Often, this data blaze through the system with little or no human handling.

Not surprisingly, all this is having a profound effect on how workflow automation affects human resources. "The days of the centralized, departmental hierarchy are fast disappearing," says D&B's Bill Busbin, director of HR product management. "An HR department needs to get information to the true end-users—line managers and other personnel—so they can perform their functions more efficiently. Just because people have client/server systems hooked into local or wide area networks doesn't mean they're cutting through the information bottleneck. The software has to fit their specific needs."

Personnel Journal, July 1994, Vol.73, No.7, p. 32M.

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