The H.R. Doctor Is In
Pervasive Computing or "Where Did They Put
the Off Button?"
Its a good thing that the HR
Doctor is not among Americas super rich - at least
financially. I am very wealthy from the standpoint of a
wonderful wife and amazing daughters, professional fun and
challenge, community involvement and diverse life
However, if I were a financial
superstar, unlikely though it may be for someone with a career
in public administration, I know I would be immediately and
very well recognized at stores like Best Buy, CompUSA, Circuit
City and Radio Shack. I would try to do the impossible -
keep up with the latest electronic wizardry.
There! I have confessed, Im a
gadget geek! However, the same "Mad Chip" disease that I
acquire when the newest "toy" of the month is released also
appears to get many public-agency officials excited,
especially those in fire-rescue and sheriffs or police
public service, we are entering a revolutionary period of
extraordinary technological opportunity as well as risks. In
the next decade, certain technological concepts will become
extremely common in "advanced" organizations and
Here are several previews of
coming attractions that will soon be appearing in cities and
counties around the country. Some have already begun to make
their presence felt.
In public service, we are
entering a revolutionary period of extraordinary
technological opportunity as well as
No more paper - or at least a
One is called Enterprise Document
Management (EDM). This is the most recent attempt to uncover
the hiding place of the "holy grail" of bureaucracy - a
serious reduction in organizational paperwork. The first
element of EDM involves document imaging, which is the process
of converting, scanning and indexing paper documents into a
digital format. Once existing paperwork is scanned and indexed
into an EDM system, several remarkable things are
one thing, electronic files can be created and routed to
workstations anywhere in the organization. In Human Resources,
this opens up amazing doors for the replacement of paper
personnel files with electronic files. Imagine a manager at
the other end of the county wanting to see "Oscar the
Employees" personnel file for some business reason. The file
can be sent instantly to the managers desktop, or perhaps the
manager only wants to see the last two performance evaluations
in Oscars file, or the I-9 Form required by our federal
friends. The opportunity for electronic delivery increasing
speed and service is significant.
Likewise, Oscar may be at home at
2:00 in the morning, in his pajamas, and for some reason, he
wants to see his own personnel file. In many states, the
contents of these files are public records.
opens a second door for Oscar: enhanced employee self-service.
Employees should be able to transact business with their own
organizations in many ways without ever driving, parking and
maneuvering to the HR office, payroll, benefits, etc.,
Oscar will be able to change his
address, add or drop dependents for benefits coverage, ask
questions online and do a great deal more than is possible
today without the agony of a personal visit.
not only involves scanning existing paper documents, it also
means that future documents may never need to be developed on
paper in the first place. Job applications can be submitted
directly online and entered into an HR "applicant tracking
system," which is a form of EDM. Applications for auto tags,
occupational licenses, and real estate transactions with the
county clerk recorder or property appraiser can all be managed
electronically without sacrificing legality.
also has a cousin: electronic voting technology. Some day,
even in the legendary voter haven of South Florida, I will be
able to vote in a general or local election from my house, my
office, or anywhere else convenient for me electronically,
including on my hand-held computer or personal digital
Catch me if you
Another system, which is as much a safety
measure as a workflow improvement tool, is the emerging types
of automated locator systems combining portable computing with
the great power of global position system (GPS) technology.
For example, a transit organization can put an automated
vehicle-locator device on each bus to monitor traffic
patterns, help adjust the flow of buses to maximize commuting
success, and know the exact location of individual buses in
case of emergencies, such as driver illness or crime. The same
can be said for the location of all emergency vehicles and
This need applies not only to
vehicles, its also an easy prediction to make that individual
locator system technology will be widely available in the near
future so that a police or sheriffs department will be able
to know the exact location of every officer. What an
enhancement that could mean for officer safety.
Already available are gizmos that
allow a K-9 officer, for example, to automatically open the
car door to release the dog when the officer is under attack
or disabled. The same is true of "firefighter down" alarms,
which trigger alerts when a firefighter is no longer
Medical records and
identification chips are already available for Kamala the HR
Dog at our local vet. At our local United States Military, it
is also possible to have personal locator devices available
for pilots who are shot down and stranded or involved in other
particularly hazardous work.
The HR Doctor predicts that the
next generation of health insurance cards will be "smart
cards," with chips containing information vital to physicians.
Such key elements of personal medical history, as well as
updates on the prescriptions I have been taking, and other
important information to improve my personal health, will be
contained in the smart cards.
of this is the result of a marriage between converging
technologies. For example, the HR Doctors latest personal
gadget is an amazing combination of a cell phone and a
personal digital assistant. It allows me to quickly retrieve
and send e-mail, take pictures of the HR Wife, Charlotte, and
e-mail them anywhere, surf the Web, open attachments in
business software programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint
and basically have, in the palm of my hand, a
With tools like this, I dont
even have to show up for work! Actually, thats not a bad
thought. Technology will allow work to be done increasingly
from my home, my car, and even when I am walking down the
street (hopefully avoiding trip-and-fall hazards). In turn,
this opens up consideration of less need for traditional
office space, smaller governmental buildings, and branch
offices more convenient to the customers. If a bank, pharmacy,
or restaurant can be found in a local supermarket, why not a
county government service center?
recall a discussion nearly two decades ago with a county
sheriff about the idea of cell phones in every patrol vehicle.
The officer responding to a particular call can reassure the
citizen that help is two minutes away, ask about where the
intruder might be right now, whether there is any sign of a
gun, and other important questions. This is an example of
extraordinary customer service under difficult circumstances.
The citizen gets reassured and the technology enhances officer
safety. That discussion was 20 years ago.
Later in the next decade, we will see in
government and in private industry Ð in all areas of our lives
Ñ the development of "pervasive computing." Imagine, as the
BBC recently reported, a glass of beer (pardon me, a pint of
Guinness) that tells you its nearly empty, asks you if you
would you like another, or warns you that you have already had
one too many! As you walk down a street and enter a
supermarket, the giant database can identify you, pull up your
most frequent shopping needs from the database, and tell you
that you had best not forget an extra quart of milk, or that
your favorite vegetables (Brussels sprouts, no doubt) are now
you walk into a shopping mall, you will be personally greeted
by a voice from above Ñ no, not that voice Ñ telling you that
your favorite brand of underwear is now on sale or that you
may be interested in a new CD by violinist Joshua Bell. We saw
a glimpse of this pervasive computing in the movie Minority
home, computing will radically change our lives. Our
appliances and even our furniture will become "smart." Perhaps
they will become smarter than we are. Imagine a refrigerator
which reads the bar codes on products you put in and
automatically contacts the supermarket to order home delivery
of a half gallon of milk, because the one in your refrigerator
has passed its expiration date. It will be able to track what
products you take out and put back in the refrigerator most
frequently, remind you when your favorite foods have spoiled,
or that it is time to shop for more.
The great danger for us is that
we will not be as far advanced socially, emotionally, and in
terms of our interactions with other people, as we are in the
development of our technology. The computer chips, which
promise so much, can become a nightmare for harm and intrusion
into whats left of our privacy.
Even though I love toys, the
first thing I always look for is the "off" button. When the
day comes that there is no off button, it will be time for me
to retreat to a mountain cabin with no electricity and become
a guitar-playing hermit.
ultimate technological breakthrough, I fear, will be a placebo
"off" button which doesnt really work, but makes us think it
does - but thats for a future science fiction article,
written by the HR Robot!
dear professional colleagues and personal friends, enjoy the
technological wizardry which lies ahead, but beware the
dangers of making huge government investments in technology
too complicated for the staff to manage effectively and too
intrusive into our personal lives for us to cope.
Find the right balance for the
kind of county or city you envision. Continually educate
yourself, your staff colleagues, and your community about the
shape of things which could come. Finally, become adept at
constantly walking that fine balance between "quantum leap"
improvements in services, and excessive cost and complexity in
a tech world changing minute by minute.
HR Doctor must also remind you that the greatest customer
service "breakthrough" is a simple smile, a caring attitude
and a "how may I help you" personal approach to
all your chips be high speed!