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HR Experimenting with Handheld Devices

HR hasn’t gone totally wireless yet. But creative PDA uses are catching on, like the time when HealthAllies beamed job descriptions to candidates at a trade show.

December 31, 2001

Just as sales, marketing, and other business units have been using handheld computing devices to assist with department-wide initiatives, the human resources field is now using this technology as more than just personal digital assistants (PDAs). Job ads are being beamed to applicants at conventions, company directories are being downloaded onto handheld devices, and laws, regulations, and codes are available in PDA format for easy reference.

Not a wireless flood
However, as with many initiatives intended to support human resources, the move toward this emerging technology is slow. Not many HR departments are fully utilizing the potential benefits of the increasingly popular devices. But those that are have found favorable reaction among their staffs -- and potential staff.

Laurie Dozier, HealthAllies' director of human resources, rented a booth at a technology-oriented convention specifically to attract job applicants. The Glendale, California, employee-benefit provider wanted to keep manpower at the booth to a minimum, so Dozier charged her IT director with the task of beaming a company description and a list of jobs to any owner of a PDA with wireless connectivity who came by the booth.

Dozier said that many times when she was talking with a group of prospective employees, others would be able to walk up to the job-ad display and download the information in less than 30 seconds. "Not everybody was going to have a PDA, so it was an experiment. But we will do it again in a heartbeat when all of the conditions are right."

The display consisted of a graphically attractive cardboard advertisement inviting conventioneers to download job ads onto their handheld computers. An embedded system computer the size of two playing-card decks was attached to the back of the sign near a pre-cut hole.

A Word document with the company description and 20 job ads was converted into two easily transmitted HTML formats for the two main kinds of handheld operating systems. When a handheld computer came within five feet of the sign, the embedded system computer would identify its operating system and then select the proper format to beam out.

"It made the company stand out," said Bill Redmann, who was HealthAllies' IT manager at the time of the convention. "While I was manning the booth, the beaming station was continuously being used."

Redmann worked with Seattle-based Palmtop Publishing president Trina Clickner to develop the beaming station.

Downloading directories
Clickner is also working with Johnson & Johnson to expand its enterprise use of handhelds beyond sales, marketing, and other business units to the human resources department. Under consideration is a company directory that can be downloaded onto handheld devices.

A prototype is being investigated to determine the best methods for organizing the company's 7,000 employees. "You could just throw all of the names into one file, but there are more useful ways to store the information for presentation on the small screens," Clickner said. Creating files that group names by division, location, and other company categories and developing a system to add only some names from certain groups are being discussed.

The Society for Human Resource Management already has its staff list available for distribution to handheld devices. SHRM's growth has resulted in almost 250 employees in two locations and an employee directory that is getting large, according to Ramón J. Venero, director of administrative services. "A vice president came into my office holding the directory and said, 'This is too big. Couldn't we have the directory available on Palm Pilots?' " Venero said. "I told him, 'Sure, would you like me to beam the beta directory to your Palm?' He walked away happy and has been using it ever since."

The directory is searchable by name, location, and division, and it is updated every month, said Venero. It includes e-mail addresses and phone numbers. An e-mail with an attached Palm executable file is sent to the more than 100 Palm users in the office, and the file can be downloaded from an intranet location accessible only to SHRM employees.

While handheld computing technology is not pervasive in the business world today, it is poised to become a dominant tool, one that can help ease the job of human resources departments.