But in today's corporate environment, HR professionals need to be as proactive in selecting computer systems and software as they are about selecting the right candidate for a job. Why? Because computer technology is at a crossroads, and the very system you choose to keep, upgrade or discard will affect how you manage a myriad of information that's probably overwhelming you now and will in the future.
"HR professionals need to organize their chaos," says Kermit Johnson of Watertown, South Dakota-based ICONtrol. "A lot of the panic is driven by the [requirements] for more government reporting and tracking." HR must monitor equal employment opportunity (EEO), affirmative action, sexual harassment, workers' compensation, health reform and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), among others. Moreover, HR tasks today require information gathering and sharing at far greater speeds than ever before. For example, if a manager is considering a promotion for an employee, he or she will probably need to cross reference a personnel file with payroll, benefits, performance review and affirmative action information, or perhaps combine a weekly summary with HRMS and an analysis from a spreadsheet.
As HR professionals become increasingly bombarded by demands for information, managers will have to make some hard decisions. Should they keep the character-based DOS (disk operating system), or migrate to a graphical user interface such as Microsoft® Windows™. What is the trend? Does DOS have a future? How should a company go about making a computer-system assessment?
Although most would agree that the venerable DOS is nearing the end of its useful life span, HR professionals need not panic. A reputable firm that has a DOS character-based product isn't going to leave its clients stranded, says Nancy Spoor, senior vice president of Denver-based SPECTRUM Human Resource Systems Corp. "Not everyone can trash the computers they have in the office to get a Windows-based product."
Currently, there are 60 million Windows users and more than 100 million DOS users worldwide, according to Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp. But if sales figures are any indication of the trend, DOS may very well become a dinosaur in a few years. According to Washington, D.C.-based Software Publishers Association, sales of DOS applications in the first six months of 1994 plunged to $553.4 million compared to $952.4 million during the same period in 1993. Windows sales, however, rose to $2 billion during the first six months of 1994, compared to $1.3 billion during the same period of the previous year.
"Support for DOS users definitely will taper off. Ultimately, there won't be enough DOS users," says Tom Travis of Indianapolis-based Computing Management, Inc. DOS requires knowledge of commands to make the system operate. One current advantage is that most computer operators know DOS. But when companies migrate to a new environment, they're going to have to go through another learning situation. But most predict that the switch will be much easier than learning DOS for the first time. Travis estimates that about 50% of HR professionals already are using Windows applications. And those companies still using DOS plan to convert to Windows in the near future. The earlybird vendors with Windows-based software, he adds, are flashing the biggest smiles. "They're enjoying the market now without much competition."
Although Cupertino, California-based Apple Computer, Inc. pioneered graphical computing in the early 1980s, Microsoft has dominated the marketplace with Windows, especially after it introduced the 3.0 version in 1990. Microsoft's current version is Windows 3.11. But as Spoor explains, operating system is a misnomer. Windows actually acts as a shell that insulates users from the "much dreaded and cryptic" DOS commands. When a user points to a Windows icon and clicks the mouse button, Windows translates the actions into instructions that DOS understands. With the Windows '95 version (code named Chicago), it will no longer need DOS to run computers since it will be a self-contained, 32-bit operating system. It will, however, run DOS programs, as well as allow users to navigate a DOS command line, if they so choose, she says.
Currently, the three most popular versions of DOS are Microsoft's MS-DOS 6.22; IBM's PC DOS 6.3; and Novell's DOS 7. Last spring, Microsoft and Armonk, New Yorkbased IBM shipped their latest versions, accelerating the DOS wars. IBM boasted that with a new RAMBoost feature in its PC DOS, users would be able to optimize memory allotments for multiple boot configurations. IBM also plans to ship its PC DOS 7.0 version early this year. Meanwhile, Microsoft touted that its MS-DOS 6.22 application included disk compression technology that would allow users to recompress existing drives. Microsoft's Windows '95 is scheduled to debut in the first half of this year.
Adds Travis: "I don't want to stereotype human resources as being non-technical, but there are people who don't like to learn DOS if there's something more user friendly." With Windows, he says, it's more visual. Rather than typing in a command, there are graphic icons set up to perform various functions. Yet there's also a down side to Windows, he says. Many users say that they don't like to go back and forth between a mouse and a keyboard. "It's a big complaint I've heard."
HR must help assess company's technological needs.
Jim Foster, president of Abra Software, defends DOS application features. "Windows isn't the only way to share data. An HR and payroll system can be shared in a DOS environment because we pre-built that feature into our software. But it's true that you can copy [text] to a clipboard and move it over to word processing more easily in Windows."
Such features, he says, are important because HR professionals need flexible setup, processing and time-saving devices. "Many of our HR and payroll customers told us they needed help managing the barrage of subtasks they have associated with their jobs. They spend an inordinate amount of time creating to do lists to keep organized and to communicate."
Whether a company chooses to start anew or build on the old, HR must play a leading role in the decision-making process. As people and process managers, human resources leaders need to help a company define its direction, needs and goals. From that starting point, a company can weigh the following: Which software programs best suit its needs; will the needs be best served by DOS or Windows-based applications; can the computer hardware be upgraded to Windows; how many computers would have to be replaced if they currently can't operate Windows?
Then, look squarely at your budget. Although consumers can purchase PCs at cheaper prices these days, switching operating systems can be expensive. "If you don't need to change, don't," says Linda Musthaler, vice president of research for Houston-based Currid & Co., an information technology consulting firm. Studies indicate that it would cost $500-plus per upgrade for just the hardware, she says. To run Windows, Musthaler adds, a computer should have at least 100MB (megabytes) on the hard drive and 8MB of RAM (random access memory). But some market forecasters predict that 16MB of RAM will be standard by 1997, especially since Windows software uses more memory. Add the costs of personnel to install, adjust and train employees on the software, and you've spent thousands of dollars for capabilities you might not even need. "Companies need to look at what their own individual requirements are," says Foster. "If you need more graphical capabilities, yes, move to Windows. But if you're just looking at core requirements to produce an EEO report or something of that nature, "there's absolutely no reason to change."
Entities with a large-installed DOS base, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, may stick with DOS for a while, according to one consultant. But Travis believes that most private companies may not have much choice given today's market. "Most of the computer people are very progressive. They want the latest, the newest and the best. That's inherent in the computer industry. So most have already migrated," says Johnson.
For HR managers, the migration signals a challenge to keep pace. Spoor sees it this way. "Any HR person who wants to be on the leading edge of the profession has to be able to help steer the company. HR has to be able to use information quickly, be a visionary and allow their people to see tomorrow."
Personnel Journal, January 1995, Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 116-118.