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The Tech Revolution

From mainframes and MIS departments to Web and service-oriented applications, the progression of HR technology has been one of constant, often dramatic, change.

Sunday, April 1, 2007
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The most startling change in HR technology over the last two decades is how HR software applications started out being used only by members of the HR department and are now being used today by nearly everyone: executives, managers and employees within your organization . . . and maybe your partners and vendors, too.

What's more, all users can now accomplish so much more by themselves! Most of this change has been the result of a sometimes torturous road of evolving technical platforms, from mainframes to client/server to Web applications and, maybe now, to service-oriented architecture (SOA). There were plenty of disappointments along the way, and the ugly little secret is that each new platform often fulfilled the promises made by the previous one.

If you're old enough, remember what it was like 20 years ago. If you're not, trust me. You had a custom report off your mainframe system, and you needed to move one data field from one corner to another. You filled out a change request to management information systems, or MIS (as IT was called), handed the paper in, and as soon as you left the room, someone put it in the bottom of the pile of change requests. Maybe six months later, the change got made.

Or remember when an employee needed to change personal information, such as an emergency contact number. The employee would also fill out a form, someone from HR or MIS would type it in, and then generate a "turnaround" document so the employee could check the accuracy and approve it! Hard to believe now, but that's how it was 20 years ago for even the simplest things.

Many people have been involved in moving HR technology forward from that dismal state, but one person stands out as representative of the period like no other: Dave Duffield. He had his mainframe HR company, Integral Systems, until 1987, when he started PeopleSoft. He released the world's first client/server packaged application -- for HR -- in 1989. Ten years later, he switched to Web applications. Then last year, after losing PeopleSoft to Oracle in a hostile takeover, he launched a new human capital management system based on SOA from his latest company, Workday.

It's easy to forget what a revolution PeopleSoft 1.0 represented for big companies with its graphical user interface that gave you the power to do things yourself. Like moving that data element without waiting for MIS. A small thing, maybe, but the beginning of the technology empowerment HR continues to enjoy to this day.

A Duffield Recollection

Allow me an anecdote I've wanted to write for 18 years. I first met Dave Duffield in 1989, when I was editor of a short-lived magazine called Computers in HR Management. Even though I thought "HR" meant "home run," I knew enough about the computer industry to want to review this new PeopleSoft software in the prototype (and later in the inaugural) issue of the magazine.

Duffield was delighted by the suggestion, but not so happy later when he heard the name of the reviewer, suggested by the late HR tech expert Bob Stambaugh. The writer (whose name I'm choosing to withhold) had worked for an HR technology consultancy that Duffield thought was consistently unfair to his companies and products.

He refused the writer; I said he didn't have a choice if he wanted a review. And he really didn't, not just because it wasn't his call, but because there were so few people in those days who understood HR, understood computer technology and could write with commercial-magazine quality.

"Well, then, we're going to videotape and record everything he hears and sees, so we'll have an accurate record when the review comes out," Duffield said.

I hit the roof. "No one is going to treat my writer like a criminal," I yelled into the phone. Then I started swearing. Duffield started swearing right back and soon we sounded like drunken sailors, and the people in the cubicles around me were throwing hard objects over the walls.

I was so new to the industry I didn't know Duffield was famous for being gentle, never swearing and actually using words such as "flipping," when irritated or enthusiastic. But he was a mother defending her cub, at a time when PeopleSoft had only 11 employees. For the record, in case it wasn't perfectly clear, I was the first to swear.

As it turned out, the software was demonstrated for the original writer with no recording devices; he wrote his review, and it was a gem. In non-technical language, he explained this brand new thing called client/server and the benefits it could bring. It didn't matter that HR ended up not caring much about the distributed computing aspect of client/server or its pioneering separation of computing functions.

Months later, the magazine was approved for publication, and I called Duffield to arrange for the reviewer to get any updates. "I'm sorry," he said sheepishly, "you can't use that reviewer." This again?!? Completely missing his tone, I started yelling.

Dave said, "No, you see, your reviewer explained our system so perfectly that we hired him as our first marketing writer, so you can't use him." Oh. Later, the writer got smart and went into PeopleSoft sales and is probably living in the south of France.

In the end, client/server only lasted 10 years as the next great thing and failed to deliver on many of its promises of usability and flexibility. It took the next great thing after it, Web applications, to do some of that. When Web applications got really popular, people started asking, "Is software dead?" as if all their transactions were being recorded in the ozone somewhere.

No, you're still using software, only now it's accessed through your Web browser instead of partially sitting in your computer. We're hearing the same annoying question today as history repeats itself with Software-as-a-Service, or On Demand, a platform used by every major recruiting vendor since its beginning. No, software isn't dead now, either: It's just running in your vendor's data center instead of in your own. Notice what the first word in SaaS stands for?

Web applications allowed the biggest breakthrough for HR technology: the easy use of employee and manager self-service. The latter actually started as a client/server tool and, even earlier, was applied to touch-screen televisions by one of its greatest pioneers and evangelists, Joel LaPointe.

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But the first company to put self-service technology on the Web for HR was Edify. PeopleSoft partnered with Edify to provide it, and Edify bulked up to meet the new demands. However, PeopleSoft soon and properly realized it was a critical technology the company must do itself, and Edify went out of business. In 1999, the HR piece of Edify was sold to Workscape, where it still resides today in Marlborough, Mass.

But talk about technology revolutions! Self-service has probably done more to change the work of HR than any other technological development in 20 years. Probably no large company could imagine HR functioning without it. Whether it has allowed human resources to conduct more strategic functions as promised, rather than just reduce headcount, however, is another question.

The Recruiting Phenomenon

What is certain is that the HR function changed the most by technology is recruiting -- in every step of the process. Again, think about how sourcing worked 20 years ago. A requisition hit your desk, and you called your recruitment advertising agency or wrote your own ad and placed it directly in your local newspaper. You had no resume scanning and parsing and, therefore, no pool of prior candidates to search first.

All you had were cartons of chronological resumes impossible to search and being kept only for purposes of EEO reporting.

You had no job-board resume collections to paw through (maybe you were better off). No job boards on which to place your ad. No company Web site on which to post it, either, or to sell your company to prospects. And no better way to find an internal candidate than tacking the opening notice on the kitchen or break room bulletin board.

Now, according to recruiting expert Gerry Crispin and his latest Source of Hire study, 34 percent of all hires are internal transfers, 17 percent are employee referrals, 14 percent are from the company Web site, 8 percent from commercial job boards and the other sources are all 5 percent or less.

There is a technology component in every one of those major categories, some inside your company and some outside. In short, technology has re-made the recruiting world completely in 20 years.

In the future, the technologies currently being used outside the corporation may have the greatest impact on HR. I don't have a clue which ones or exactly how. But just as the ease-of-use of Amazon and eBay have migrated to your office desktop (often because employees have demanded it), the hottest new developments in the larger computer world may soon be appearing there, too.

Widgets, gadgets, podcasting, wikis, iPod and cellphone videos, computer games, mash-ups, blogs and virtual worlds have all actually started making their way into some HR departments. Imagine that IBM is using a virtual world called Second Life, actually a popular multi-player game with 2 million members, to onboard new hires in India, train new salespeople in China and mentor employees in the U.S. So who can say what's next? It will certainly be exciting to see.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is also co-chairman of the 10th Anniversary HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Chicago, Oct. 10-12, 2007. The full agenda will be available in late April at www.HRTechnologyConference.com. Kutik can be reached at bkutik@earthlink.net.

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