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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 1 * January 24, 2000

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The Real Y2K Virus

So what happened to the Millennium Bug? After billions of dollars and millions of "people hours" spent in preparing for something that did not occur, what happened? Not that the HR Doctor is disappointed. To the contrary, I am very glad that my home appliances did not stage a revolution, that the air traffic control system functioned properly, that elevators, ATMs, gasoline pumps and the many other mechanical devices that are essential to our existence seem to be bug-free. Despite all the hype and the relative lack of system failures, are there management lessons to be learned from all that occurred? The answer is a clear "yes."

The Y2K bug became the focus of attention, explanation, education, planning and action. The potential for disruption led agencies to assess their information technology status, to plan and install improvements and to focus much-needed attention on an important area of management. For some executives, it also provided an additional incentive for an early retirement. However, the bug and our response to it offer an important lesson to all managers in all areas of public administration.

That lesson is the importance of creating a vision and of rallying colleagues and members of the public to support achieving a long-range goal. Perhaps the real Y2K "virus" is one that infects nearly every public agency in the country: That is the inability to think and act with a long-term strategic, "over the horizon" vision.

Instead, all too often, we focus on process rather than outcome and on "just making it through until the ..." – fill the blank. Just make it through to the end of the week, to next week’s commission meeting, to the end of the fiscal year, until I pass probation, etc. As a nation, we have seen a decay in the setting of exciting and challenging long-range goals whether they be a trip to the moon, the end of poverty, never a latch-key child, a cure for cancer, no abandoned elders … there are so many needs which can be addressed – but not by short-range, week-to-week thinking.

The Y2K bug experience offers lessons that we should all heed. Establish a challenging goal, enlist the understanding, support and involvement of many others, including elected officials, employees and members of the public, point the way to a destination, provide a road map and monitor results, making corrections as needed. Then take the time to celebrate the results, but not too much time, because soon after the celebration ends, it’s time to set more goals and further refine the vision of the future.

Is there still a great danger from the Y2K virus? Absolutely yes, but the danger is not so much in our computer systems as in our near-sightedness. The lesson for counties in this new century is to imagine what – we could become, where we could be, and how we get there. The technique is goal setting, challenging and rallying. The tool to goal achievement is dynamic, risk-taking leadership. Best wishes in the new century.

“Visit” the HR Doctor’s Office at

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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