True, the Internet can be overwhelming. After all, we're talking about the granddaddy of all networks. It's not an online service itself, but rather connects computer systems and networks all over the world. Today, experts estimate that the Internet connects more than 25 million people using more than two million computers on more than 45,000 networks in more than 70 countries. Indeed, the Internet may be one of the most significant developments of this century—a technological highway that promises to radically alter the way we currently conduct our professional and personal lives. Its most common functions are its E-mail service, FTP (file transfer protocol, which allows you to copy public-access files stored in remote computers) and Telnet, which gives you access to a remote computer that browses resources such as material from the U.S. Library of Congress. But one of the more useful functions I've discovered lately are the myriad of discussion groups and mailing lists available to HR professionals.
Fortunately for Internet newcomers, there are several HR professionals, academics and consultants out there who already are serving as skilled agents in sorting, locating and providing the information that today's HR managers might need. Many of them have created these discussion groups, organized FAQs (Frequently Asked Question lists) or launched an online HR guide to the Internet. (With the exception of consultant Stephen Gibson, president of Harrod's Creek, Kentucky-based Ornel Publishing Ltd., the sources for this article were all discovered and initially interviewed online.)
By definition, a mailing list is like an electronic bulletin board, where individuals may discuss issues of common interest within a prescribed topic such as HR. Once you subscribe online by sending an E-mail request to the preferred list server (a computer program that maintains an electronic mailing list), you will automatically be able to send and receive messages to and from all the subscribers. The messages are usually text-based, but photos, video and audio elements also can be sent. The advantage? "If I post a question to the mailing list, I have the [instant] wisdom of 1,000 people. It's an incredible time saver," says Marcia L. Conner, director of employee development at St. Louis-based Wave Technologies International, Inc.
Mailing lists facilitate networking.
Conner first subscribed to a training and development mailing list called TRDEV-L. She joined the list, she says, to "find other people with similar job responsibilities." Because her company provides technological training seminars, Conner is responsible for training her company's instructors, but she felt a need to communicate with her peers. "I figured the Internet was a great way to start," she says. TRDEV-L was created in 1990 by David Passmore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pennsylvania. What began with 100 academic subscribers five years ago has since attracted HR practitioners worldwide. Today, TRDEV-L has more than 1,000 subscribers representing nearly 30 countries.
When she first discovered TRDEV-L, Conner posted a question about the average turnover rate in the training field. She didn't receive an answer to her question per se, but received messages encouraging her to pursue the topic. "I learned fairly quickly, that when you join a list, people have similar questions," she says. She now volunteers her time compiling the TRDEV-L FAQ, which has been designed to provide HR and training and development professionals with a list of frequently asked questions such as:
- What magazines and journals cover the training and development field?
- Are there discussion lists that focus on training and HR development issues?
- When and where are the big training conferences?
Warren Cole, a vice president and manager at Portland-based U.S. Bancorp had done a great deal of parallel research by the time he discovered the mailing list and Conner's monthly FAQ posting. "One [message] came from a fellow in Great Britain who had developed a program for follow-up and training evaluation. His posting confirmed some of the work I'd been doing and offered new directions," he says. "Resources like this make it worth the investment in climbing the learning curve."
Two other mailing lists of interest to HR professionals are HRNET and HRD-L. HRNET was founded in 1992 by John W. Boudreau, a professor in the department of HR studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Affiliated with the Academy of Management, Boudreau initially created the list to foster greater member involvement within the academy's human resources division. Today, it boasts 1,300 worldwide subscribers throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. Before, the topics focused on research interests and questions. Today, the topics can be as diverse as how to measure the impact of HR initiatives, performance-based pay, team incentives and controversial topics such as Richard J. Herrnstein's book The Bell Curve, which garnered a spate of 60 postings within a period of six weeks.
Subscribers also post unexpected topics such as the use of psychics for recruitment. One subscriber had read about an upcoming workshop on the topic. He posted a question on the mailing list to see what others thought. Within one week, about 20 subscribers expressed their opinions about the practice. Some injected humor and bite into their replies: one E-mail said, "I think the use of psychics in the selection process is about as sensible as using graphology. Or throwing a dart." However, if you're not interested in reading about a particular topic, you can ignore or delete the item.
Although mailing lists are a great way to network, be prepared to spend some time sorting, reading, replying and filing messages. Going paperless doesn't mean you avoid data management or cyberspace manners. In fact, mailing list owners encourage subscribers to give something back to the group. Within a couple of weeks of receiving replies, those who posted questions are expected to provide a summary with the results and any new information that might be useful to others. Unlike the fee-based online service providers, most of the people you meet on the Internet share information voluntarily. That's why we're hearing so much about online netiquette these days.
In addition to serving as a forum for such topics, HRNET serves as a clearinghouse for information about conferences, publications and position openings. "Once HR professionals tap into the Internet, it will fundamentally change the way they define knowledge, information, colleagues, networks and communication. Rather than working in isolation, the Internet will allow HR professionals to work directly with their most knowledgeable colleagues, whether they work for another company or in other nations," Boudreau says.
For those who want to subscribe to another HR mailing list, try HRD-L. This mailing list is administered by John L. Cofer, an applied computer analyst at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
HR Guide to Internet saves time.
The 600-member mailing list, he says, has attracted postings on topics such as staff sabbaticals, reverse discrimination and compensation for work teams.
As popular as these mailing lists have become, they're just one of the functions and benefits awaiting HR professionals who cruise the Internet. But once you've installed a modem and connected your computer to an Internet service provider, how will you know where to begin? Since many HR newcomers are beginning to join the bandwagon, Ornel president Gibson sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity by creating HResources—an online guide for HR professionals exploring the Internet. The online service will be available this spring and provide point-and-click options for the following HR categories: recruiting, discussion groups, creating an in-house internet, accessing federal government in-formation, training and development, HR management systems, payroll and benefits, and work teams. "The Internet is a vast frontier. There are early opportunities for maps and navigational tools to demystify it," says Gibson. Within recent months, he's circulated a brochure announcing the online service and a monthly newsletter, which will highlight the cyberspace features. The main reason for the fee-based newsletter, he says, is that most HR professionals would rather read about the Internet before they go online. "They don't want to make a mistake, and the [media] has been sending out confusing messages about security problems and about potential problems with pornography. So they're being cautious," he says. But as HR professionals learn how to use the Internet for competitive advantage, there will be no turning back. "The major purpose is to get you outside of your company, onto the Information Superhighway," says Gibson. "That's where I live."
Personnel Journal, April 1995, Vol. 74, No. 4, pp. 152-155.