As we move into a new era of HR technology, characterised by hosted computing platforms delivered as a service to companies and social enterprise applications, it is hard to believe that before the 1960s there were no serious technology options for companies, such as commercial off-the-shelf products.
Computerisaton since the 1960s
Since the 1960s, when computerisation achieved mainstream status, we have seen large on-premise installations of computers (referred to as mainframes) go through a series of miniaturisations to desktop, laptop and mobile devices.
They have then resurfaced as massive data centres, aided by internet connection, that deliver business application and computing infrastructure requirements as a hosted service (cloud computing). Storage capacity has grown, processing speed has improved dramatically, the portability of devices has been enabled by wireless connection, and there has been significant change to the scope of HR business software applications.
There have been many technology innovations since the 1960s that have contributed to HR process improvement, but a true milestone was the convergence of numerous technology components to create a new workforce management technology platform. Together they were capable of changing the way the HR practice operated and organisations were structured. Using the platform classification we could say the transformation milestones were the introduction of the mainframe, the personal computing platform and now the emergence of the cloud platform.
Pre-mainframe it is hard to comprehend how a world without computers could function. However, anyone who lived and worked through the last half century of technology development, and experienced the HR transformation stages, can relate to that environment. In the pre-mainframe era if the HR unit wanted to present strategic information about the workforce it required a lead time of days, if not weeks, to aggregate paper-based data and manually compile reports. As for employee communication, it was necessary to use typed memos.
That meant hand-writing a draft memo and passing it to the section typist, or dictating to a secretary (with shorthand skills) to type the memo and then mail it to the intended recipient. Of course, that involved filing copies of the document by all parties.
In the mainframe era it was still necessary to request computer-generated reports, wait for them to be run overnight, maybe correct the data selection and re-run, and then manually arrange and summarise data into management required formats. If further drill-down analysis was needed that created a mammoth problem that would require an even longer timeframe. The communication process was relatively unchanged.
The personal computing platform in the 1980s totally changed the information management and communication processes and the composition of the workforce and restructured organisations to incorporate a new set of skills and work practices. Gone were the secretaries and typists who typed memos.
The massive mailrooms that distributed memos were consigned to oblivion. Personal computing allowed the business client to determine how they used their computing power and utility applications (such as Word to produce documents, Excel spreadsheets, and products such as Microsoft Access for databases and mini applications) allowed users to experience a new form of computing freedom and placed data needed for strategic decision-making at the desktop level. Internet connections and email helped transform the way companies operated and communicated. New skills emerged, whole categories of clerical staff disappeared and the nature of jobs changed forever.
The modern era
As we move into the new era of cloud computing, HR information can be processed and analysed using graphic formats and dashboard-styled layouts. Data is becoming more varied and bigger in size (‘big data’) and requires new techniques to manage it successfully. Social media applications, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, have contributed to a new technology experience. The current generation of computer users not only expect social media-type simplicity in all business applications, but are themselves contributing to the collection and management of data through their social pages and gamification (such as badges, rewards, performance incentives, improved engagement) applications.
The method and tools used to build custom applications, to integrate with corporate systems and extend functional capability, is shifting to business users and opening up new opportunities for greater computing autonomy for business units. The new HR technology environment is about to be dominated by social relationship management applications and vendors are already building new types of business applications for the social enterprise.