Workplace Tech and Me

In 1984, I was working as a budgeting and finance manager in a headquarters program office for the U.S. Navy. Although I’d had exposure to computers a decade earlier in high school, the most sophisticated piece of technology in the workplace at that time was the IBM Selectric typewriter, with removable typeface balls that allowed the user to change fonts (relatively) easily.

As a budgeting and finance manager, I was responsible for planning the allocation of billions of dollars in appropriated funding over a seven-year window, and then managing the execution of those budgets and tracking their progress. All of this was accomplished by putting pencil to paper—big sheets of accounting ledger paper with erasures, correction fluid, and lots of opportunity for error. And our “technology” was limited to the 16-key, single-handle paper-tape adding machine.

At that time, technology was a vague concept and rarely thought of in the context of everyday work and “personnel” or “staffing.” Computers were huge boxes that stood in corners, fed and cared for by legions of specially trained acolytes. They were hardly agile or even quick. I didn’t give much thought to how technology might affect my work.

Then the Navy and Air Force bought 90,000 Zenith IBM-compatible personal computers, each with 8,000 of RAM and 10MB removable hard disk drives. Twenty-four of those found their way to my organization, and I was tasked with figuring out how to put one of them to use in my group. As it turned out, I’d also just started a master’s program in information systems technology and, armed with some of my newfound knowledge, began seeing what we could do with what would soon become my best friend and greatest asset.

Using (now seemingly) prehistoric database and spreadsheet programs, I began automating our budgeting and financial management processes. And slowly, the world changed. Gone were the huge sheets of ledger paper, replaced with easier-to-handle, easier-to-read reports on plain old letter-sized paper. The occasional illegible handwriting likewise disappeared, replaced with standard fonts in readable sizes. I created single-entry points for data, eliminating the need to reconcile the same data point in multiple places. Computations were (relatively) instantaneous, so if a piece of data was changed in one place, its ramifications in other places were immediate and accurate. We sped up our business processes by a factor of 10 or more. We could process changes down to the last minute before finalizing a budget submission with confidence that the numbers would be accurate. We freed half a dozen staff members from dozens of hours of “manual” mathematical labor each week, giving us more time to think about and develop the actual financial management strategy and process.

That experience almost 40 years ago opened my eyes to the power of technology to change work and the workplace. These days, technology means both “stuff” and “information.” Information (typically based on data from markets and processes) can provide knowledge with which to make sound decisions about work—decisions that affect processes and, more importantly, people. And the “stuff”—hardware and software—is what collects, moves, manipulates and helps us visualize information.

Information is our intelligence. It helps us understand our current situation and environment. It lets us know when action needs to be taken. Good information can help us evaluate the potential outcomes of opportunities or decisions we face. And the appropriate management and safeguarding of information is critical to the welfare of organizations and their people. In order to ensure our information is valid, we need to have a solid understanding of how our stuff works—where and how data is entered, what is done with the data, and the processes/algorithms by which data is transformed into information.

The world around us moves and changes more quickly every day. Our roles as HR professionals demand that we understand our current situation and, more importantly, that we not just react but are proactive, making decisions and taking actions that move our business and our people in timely ways. We cannot do this without a firm, fundamental grasp of workplace technology and its role in our organizations.

That’s why this Workplace Tech Community (WTC) is so important. We want to be a center of gravity for knowledge and experience, skills and expertise around all aspects of workplace technology. Workplace technology changes as fast as or faster than even the world around us. This community should be a place to come to learn and get questions answered and, equally important, to share stories, expertise and nuggets of wisdom that can help others.

I’m excited to be a part of the WTC and look forward to learning with you!

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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