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Lifetimes of Tech Change

For computer hardware and software, 25 years represents several lifetimes of changes. For HR, it has meant continually getting control over, and access to, its own technology.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012
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Looking back now from 2012, it is almost impossible to imagine the state of HR technology 25 years ago, unless you were there to see or touch it. Try explaining a dial telephone to a teenager.

In 1987, every large company used a mainframe HRIS from names that have almost completely disappeared from the landscape: MSA, McCormick & Dodge, Tesseract, Integral, Information Sciences (InSci), Genesys and Cyborg.

Some of their excellent payrolls still chug away in corporate back rooms simply because payroll is something you don't change unless it breaks!

The most important thing about 1987 was that HR had no control over -- and precious little access to -- its own technology. The high priests of the corporate management-information-system department in their white coats controlled the mainframe in its temple: a heavily air-conditioned room with raised floors to run cables underneath.

When HR wanted a field (or gosh, even a column!) moved from one side of a report to another, they submitted a "change request" to MIS, which promptly put it at the bottom of the stack because HR was a cost center, not a profit center. Your average wait time: six months.

And if an employee moved into a new home, well then, things really got into high gear with the "turnaround" document. The employee would fill out a multi-part paper form with the new address, keeping one copy. Another would go to a data entry clerk; a third, into a file cabinet.

The information would be keyboarded, temporarily stored in an electronic buffer and then changed overnight in a batch process. Then it was printed out. The employee would be summoned back to make sure the printout was correct, and sign it, and the mission was accomplished!

I couldn't make this stuff up.

All of this changed dramatically with the availability of PeopleSoft, Version 1.0, announced at the May 1989 annual IHRIM meeting.

What made PeopleSoft so special to HR wasn't its reliance on a network of smaller computers instead of the mainframe, nor its client/server technology with various computing tasks distributed among different machines. HR didn't really understand much of that at the time.

It was special -- and quickly, wildly popular -- because by using a very early version of Windows, HR could actually change things itself! HR professionals could now not just run reports, but could easily change their formats and even what was in them without begging a high priest for help.

With little or no serious competition until 1995, PeopleSoft reps were like Monday-morning liquor salesmen calling on bars to ask how many empty bottles they needed replaced. They were practically just taking orders. It's one reason its installed base is so large today. Of course, 20 years later, many users are looking at their systems in a whole new light.

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-based applications, to do some of that.

When those applications got really popular a dozen years ago, people started asking, "Is software dead?" as if all their transactions were being done by munchkins and elves. 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. No, software isn't dead now, either: It's just running in your vendor's data center instead of in your own or in a third-party data center known as the Cloud. Notice what the first word in SaaS stands for?

Web applications allowed the biggest breakthrough for HR controlling its own technology: the easy use of employee and manager self-service. It actually started as a client/server tool and even earlier on touch-screen televisions.

But self-service has probably done more to change the work of HR than any other single technology development in 25 years. Probably no large company could imagine HR functioning without it, though amazingly, some still don't have it. Whether it has allowed HR to conduct more strategic functions as promised, rather than just reduce headcount, is another question.

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But without question, the HR function that changed the most by technology is recruiting -- in every step of the process. Again, think about how sourcing worked 25 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, and waited.

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 in the closet only for EEO requirements.

You had no job-board-resume collections to paw through (maybe you were better off). No job boards to place your ad. No company website to post it, either, or to sell your company to prospects. Certainly, no LinkedIn with 150 million potential candidates to search through. No Facebook to spread the word. And no better way to find an internal candidate than tacking the opening notice on the kitchen or break room bulletin board.

Technology has completely remade the recruiting world in 25 years.

The days of IT owning HR technology are now basically over. We've already seen the trend of business units taking ownership of HR technology and working with IT as a partner, and also using third-party partners. While IT support continues to be critical -- even in the age of hands-off SaaS -- HR and the business units must complete the process of taking control over HCM software.

Which, ironically, means giving up control at the same time to the managers and employees who should be using it. And that requires vendors to hurtle down the path they're currently walking: the consumerization of HR software. While the earlier software boast was that it was as easy to use as Google or Amazon, now it needs to be as easy (and familiar) as hanging out on Facebook.

Prepare to be continually assaulted by mobile, social, Big Data, in-memory and analytics for the next five years. All of them are somewhat important already, but will become critically important long before the magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary.

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 15th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Chicago for one year, Oct. 8-11, 2012. (For more information about the conference, visit www.HRTechnologyConference.com.) Kutik also hosts The Bill Kutik Radio Show®. He can be reached at bkutik@earthlink.net.

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