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February 02, 2004
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The H.R. Doctor Is In

Pervasive Computing or "Where Did They Put the ‘Off’ Button?"

It’s a good thing that the HR Doctor is not among America’s 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 activities.

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, I’m 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 sheriff’s or police departments.

In 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 regions.

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 risks.

• No more paper - or at least a lot less
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 possible.

For 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 Employee’s" personnel file for some business reason. The file can be sent instantly to the manager’s desktop, or perhaps the manager only wants to see the last two performance evaluations in Oscar’s 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.

EDM 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., 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.

EDM 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.

EDM 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 assistant (PDA).

• Catch me if you can
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 police units.

This need applies not only to vehicles, it’s also an easy prediction to make that individual locator system technology will be widely available in the near future so that a police or sheriff’s 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 standing.

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.

• Smart cards
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.

All of this is the result of a marriage between converging technologies. For example, the HR Doctor’s 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 mini-office.

With tools like this, I don’t even have to show up for work! Actually, that’s 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?

I 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.

• Almost here
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 it’s 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 on sale.

As 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 Report.

At 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.

• Danger in technology
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 what’s 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.

The ultimate technological breakthrough, I fear, will be a placebo "off" button which doesn’t really work, but makes us think it does - but that’s for a future science fiction article, written by the HR Robot!

So, 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.

The 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 government!

May all your chips be high speed!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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