Office Automation in a University Setting: Keys to Success

DR. KARL O. MAGNUSEN, Associate Professor College of Business and OLGA C. MAGNUSEN, Director Career Planning & Placement Florida International University Miami, Fla. Career Centers face new technological horizons linked to the emerging information superhighway. For most centers, traditional goals of job placement and career planning are being replaced by new demands for career networking.1 Information access is the newest networking force and, increasingly, Career Centers and Human Resource Offices are finding that automation is the core ingredient in providing clients with a service edge.2 Change, however, is occurring so quickly that information overload is an ever-present problem for those seeking to build a path toward the superhighway.3 Internet, Gopher, Capsnet...all are new tools needed to manage information access. But, because the demands for change are so unrelenting, few textbook guidelines are available to help move forward with the new paradigms. This article is an effort to formulate selected lessons learned from an automation venture in a state university's Career Planning and Placement (CP&P) operation. Results have been positive and, as will be seen, even dramatic. For those whose vision includes automation, at least nine key lessons learned are worth review, beginning with the role of staff training and involvement. 1. Staff Training Involvement Is Job One "Empowerment" currently is a popular notion but one more talked about than actually accomplished. Real empowerment is unlikely if those involved are not suitably knowledgeable in practice. General Motors, for instance, missed this point in the mid-1980s at its Delco Remy division when it spent huge sums to automate operations, but trained only 10% of its employees to use the new technology. As a result, productivity plummeted.4 At CP&P, training quickly became a focal point when a new director remembered how, years earlier, when the first PC showed up, it did little to stem a tide of paperwork associated with a growing university. The "new technology" was installed in the director's office, no real purpose was defined for it, and no staff training was available. Nonetheless, numerous administrators came to admire it. The PC became a symbol of change, but change that never took on a meaningful life of its own. The symbol did little useful work. Prior to beginning a training effort, the director realized that PC power, to be used effectively, would have to minimize status considerations. Accordingly, when several new PCs appeared, they were assigned to the secretarial staff who were responsible for word-processing (the first application to be automated). These individuals, along with the director, took part in university-sponsored PC training programs. During this period, care was taken to equalize daily workloads so that assignments of those in training did not accumulate. The secretarial group quickly became computer literate. However, the professional staff had trouble getting to the starting blocks of automation because the director had assumed, incorrectly, that the professional staff knew more about computers than they actually did. To handle this oversight, the director required each professional to complete at least two university-sponsored training sessions each semester for the ensuing year. Literacy in Introduction to Computers, D-Base 3+, WordPerfect, DOS and Windows became an integral part of each professional's annual performance appraisal. To reinforce the importance of training, a deadline was set after which the professional staff could not give secretaries handwritten material. All notes, letters and reports had to be done on a disk. Secretaries could reformat material to improve appearance, but-no handwritten work! As computer expertise in the office increased, so did suggestions for changing basic work processes. Frequent staff meetings encouraged these initiatives-such as cross-training all staff in SIGI+ (a computerized career interest inventory). Momentum also came from an unexpected source. As CP&P services became more user-friendly, demand for them increased as well; change became a demand-driven imperative. Real-time work loads kept everyone focused on using technology to modify basic work flows. Employee involvement, then, meant not only basic computer training but also the willingness to redesign core work processes. Without such redesign efforts, information technology applications simply speed up outdated systems and provide little gain in overall effectiveness.5 2. Change Requires Contention Management One of the first major projects to emerge from work redesign efforts involved automating the resume referral process. This priority was reasonably obvious because many employers were limiting the number of campuses targeted for recruiting and, simultaneously, wanted quick access to complete student resumes. However, despite unanimity about the change target, there was a good deal of diversity about how the change should be accomplished. The professional staff wanted to focus on individualized student attention whereas the secretarial staff wanted to revise administrative workflows. Realizing that these contending pressures could lead to unproductive polarization, the director refocused the debate by first asking a more general question: should CP&P buy/lease or custom-tailor a resume referral system? Because nobody had a clear answer to this question, all could contribute ideas-and did. The debate indicated that an in-house system customized by the university would be economical but slow to adapt to new changes given budget and personnel restrictions. The buy-only approach placed immediate financial pressures on subsequent needs for technology upgrades. In the end, the decision was to lease Resume Expert Plus (a resume referral system), and the underlying agenda of bringing together conflicting parties was productive. The primary benefit of these discussions was to move from "turf" issues to a joint focus on what would help everyone. As staff learned that debate could be resolved constructively, additional ideas emerged about work redesign.6 For example, secretarial and professional staff members frequently argued about dividing the tedious work of phoning students to inform them of schedule changes or activities related to their job search. Answering telephone inquiries by students and employers also was a problem due to the volume of repetitive calls and, in this regard, the secretarial staff thought that the professional group could "pick up" more frequently. Again, the director had the two groups meet to explore solutions. Despite early tension, the groups each agreed that if phone time could be substantially reduced, more productive work could be accomplished, such as building contacts with new firms and employers who might be persuaded to recruit students and alumni. These discussions led to the acquisition of PhoneMaster, a phone system that automatically calls students with messages even after CP&P offices were closed. PhoneMaster was linked to the university's student database and to Resume Expert Plus to scan for relevant student phone numbers, which could be automatically dialed with appropriate messages. A tedious, time-consuming process was now handled in minutes. More importantly, contention within the staff had been channeled constructively, and both students and employers received better customer service. 3. Aim for Dramatic Improvements and Look for Internal Help As CP&P headed toward office automation, the issue of information networking became prominent. In particular, a system was needed that would allow staff to do student resume referrals from their individual work locations. Establishing such capability would reduce administrative time spent on this task and significantly increase the total number of referrals made. However, the university had two campus locations and a different network served each location. One used Novell NetWare; the other used DEC's PathWORKS. This lack of intercampus connectivity was a major obstacle which CP&P could not resolve by itself. With the consulting help of the university's computer department, CP&P selected PathWORKS and, although awkward, implemented a disk transfer system that gave the other (smaller) campus suitable data access. Despite the geographic network difference, CP&P's capability to handle resume referral requests from employers mushroomed by a factor of seven. The network also increased the number of resumes that employers received from interested students and alumni. In 1991-92, for example, CP&P sent out 2,500 resumes but, within two years, resumes sent totaled 13,000-a 420% increase. Resume referrals were handled in minutes instead of days. The resume referral problem was, for CP&P, a "tangible, energizing, highly focused" goal.7 Although few external observers thought the goal could be accomplished, everyone internally was ready to make it happen-and did! 4. When You Listen, People Will Complain-Often for Good Reason Despite these impressive results, employers still had complaints. Employers pointed out that, while they were receiving better resume referral service, they were not getting resumes from students not registered with CP&P. Nor were they getting access to other students fast enough to fill their job vacancy announcements. A review of such concerns found that CP&P staff took three to five days to update job vacancy notebooks. Further, students who were interested in a particular vacancy were tearing out the relevant information to minimize the competition for it. Also, students at the smaller campus had less access to the newest job vacancies. Regardless of campus location, students who worked during the day and attended school at night found it difficult to visit CP&P during regular operating hours (even though CP&P was open three nights a week at the main campus). Hiring more people to help the old process alone would not resolve these concerns and, in any case, a hiring freeze was in effect. Something radical had to be done. Information technology again held the key.8 CP&P leased Career VoiceLink, a phone-based system that operates 24 hours a day with passwords. The system lets employers phone in job listings and allows students to use any touch-tone phone to listen to employer-announced job vacancies. By mid-'94, the new system was handling over 4,000 job vacancy announcements (up from 1,100 in '90) and student reviews of such information hit the 40,000 mark (up from 450 in '90). The job vacancy announcement figure is conservative because it d'es not include data from various newsletters, nor announcement from governmental and non-profit institutions. (Governmental agencies cannot pay for individual job listings on the phone system and are exploring options to use it on a paid contract basis.) Complaints are hard to take in the light of real progress but can be triggers for rethinking work processes. Unsolicited reality checks often yield new vision points-as was the case with the job vacancy phone system. When people think someone is "listening," they often take time to comment on how additional enhancements might be made. What seem to be complaints can be the means to further improve services and keep management inquiry fresh. 5. When Resources Are Scarce, Look for Strategic Alliances Most managers are aware that any new concept can be rejected by financial analysis. Clearly, dollar deficiencies can smother change before it starts. But sometimes merely getting started can provide opportunities for building a case to gain future resources. At CP&P, fundraising and grants provided start-up support for automation. Early successes were then publicized by the director and used to demonstrate why extra budget allocations for the venture were both needed and cost-effective. This constant "showcasing" and "advertising" was not always appreciated by other administrators who were content with the status quo. Nonetheless, the director kept productivity figures handy and was not bashful about using them to demonstrate the benefits of office automation. The Career VoiceLink system is a case in point. Many benefits result from a phone system that operates 24 hours a day with minimal staff. Funding, however, was an immediate obstacle not only because of basic system costs, but also because it required two dedicated PCs, a printer and eight dedicated phone lines. CP&P had no budget for such a venture but was convinced of its need. To solve this problem, an educational program was directed at the Division of Student Affairs, student leaders were lobbied and, strategically, the system was promoted as a means of helping the university comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The phone system not only linked students, employers and alumni, but also helped the Division and the university meet ADA program-accessibility concerns. This strategic alliance effort helped build the resource base to get the phone job listing system implemented. 6. Being a Champion of Change Is a Shared Task The director knew that a move to new technology, once started, would never be quite finished. Initially, change required the director to be a persistently positive idea champion. Key tasks included emphasizing successes over inevitable missteps (underestimating RAM needs), mistakes (buying the wrong software), and changing apparent negatives (complaints) into potential positives ("complaints help us focus on what's important"). Being upbeat, however, can be exhausting. At some point, others need to become energized as well. This may seem obvious but many change efforts falter when the organization's energy level flattens after a run of initial successes. One person cannot accomplish ongoing change. A collective effort is needed and the director had to reexamine some ideas about leadership skills.9 Ineffective approaches to building motivation seemed to involve getting complete consensus about what to do or becoming too directive with individuals about work targets. By contrast, higher levels of energy seemed to result from challenging the entire CP&P staff to do their best, giving each staff member important responsibilities, and helping staff develop new skills as needed. People like to be part of a winning team-even if everything that occurs d'es not count as a "win." (Professional sports teams typically mark a 60% win rate as a successful season.)10 Encouragement amidst wins and losses is an essential component of change, especially when "fans" (clients) tell you how you could do better and you think you have! But the encouragement factor will work best if it emerges broadly across the staff over time, instead of falling entirely on a single person. 7. Traditional Spiders May Not Fit New Webs A trained, involved staff that has become empowered is less likely to need direct supervision. This means changes in the roles of management. Traditional "command and control" styles become as relevant as beaver skin hats. The director learned that, as CP&P became networked, the traditional supervisory work of management needed redefinition. Instead of being "officer in charge," the director's new role focused on an ability "to choose and train employees, set clear expectations, and pay close attention to measurements of customer satisfaction."11 Many managers will find this an imposing challenge-one more easily talked about than accomplished. While organizations may exhort the need for change, vision and empowerment, a recent study found that few managers seem to be "walking the talk." Based on a sample of 10,000 workers in diverse industries over a three-year period, it concludes that managers are not providing American workers with conditions required for collaboration, commitment and creativity. And, the gap between what is and what is needed is "huge and statistically significant."12 It appears, in short, that the "officer in charge" role is akin to being a spider in a new web. The network is in place but there is not much freedom of movement for those involved. Empowered staff will expect discretionary capabilities when handling problems. If positive change is to result, managers interested in automation will have to become enablers of progress rather than gatekeepers of the veto. 8. Experts Are Not Always Right (But Often Are) Non-technical people need to realize that while experts have a unique knowledge base, they can be subject to mistakes of judgment. The business world is full of such instances. For example, experts told IBM to ignore the Haloid paper copier (now known as Xerox), told Xerox not to market its Park Altos PC (a Macintosh equivalent), and told Akio Morita that the Sony Walkman would never sell ten thousand units.13 CP&P ran into a similar problem with an early "expert" choice of the "best" network system to use. The experts recommended PathWORKS, which turned out to be not fully compatible with Resume Expert Plus. The problem was corrected by adding two 486 PCs, but the director learned first-hand about competition of multiple technologies. The risk is ever present that a specific system will not resolve every application problem. Also, experts sometimes forget that market forces carry clout and don't always favor the "best" system.14 Still, for most non-technical CP&P people facing such problems, on-site experts do offer substantive knowledge that all-too-often is unshared despite a professional willingness to do so if asked. For example, in one case, students were unhappy that they could only sign up for employer interviews when CP&P offices were open. CP&P staff knew the students had identified a service problem; but how to solve it was unclear. A solution emerged when a Resume Expert Plus associate suggested linking the oncampus computer labs to CP&P. This gave students an easy way to sign-up for oncampus recruiting. These labs were open each evening including weekends and the new arrangement leveraged a needed service with minimum effort. Also, by demonstrating to technical experts that their advice was acted upon, CP&P gained credibility as a "hands-on" test site. This meant more rapid access to additional services such as e-mail, voice mail and EBB (an Electronic Bulletin Board advertising CP&P events and workshops, employer announcements and job search information). These features, now a standard part of CP&P operations, have helped to cut duplicating costs and would have been slower in coming had CP&P not involved technical experts. The experts may not always be right, but they can help with the technology-based information overload that confronts virtually everyone today. 9. Success Is One Thing-- Sustained Success Is Another Pascale has noted that "Nothing fails like success."15 Too often managers cling to things that have brought success in the past. By so doing, the status quo can become entrenched and newer options for change ignored. CP&P rightly felt good about its automation successes, but most staff needed frequent reminding that automation would be an ongoing process. Clients may like what you have done for them in the past, but they are probably more interested in what you are doing for them now. CP&P made giant strides as a service provider in a relatively short time. The crush of paperwork was alleviated, staff and client attitudes were positive, resources were more effectively used, and refinements to the automation process were ongoing. A recent link to the Internet, for example, improved student access to workshops, job search tips and worldwide job vacancy information. Nonetheless, these strides forward are yesterday's business. What about the future? A newly emerging CP&P service recognizes that employers today cannot always travel to campus to interview students. This problem has been addressed through a specialized job interviewing application using PictureTel videoconferencing equipment (Series 4000, Model E-150). This is a relatively unexplored area but one that may offer cost-savings for employers, new recruiting options for students, and changes in "dressing for success" seminars (as presentation of self over a color TV screen becomes part of the job search skill kit). Career Centers may also find themselves competing (or working) with private firms who rent such conferencing facilities. While the "book" has not been written on this new service option, there is a need to challenge the status quo, take risks and experiment. Conclusion In building a path toward the elusive information highway, CP&P staff learned selected lessons: Empowerment of staff is essential; contention management is the norm; dramatic improvements in productivity are critical and come from redesigned work processes; client complaints are windows of opportunity; resource building requires strategic alliances; building a mindset for change is a shared task; automation networks modify the role of management; experts are not always right; and, importantly, past success can lead to future failure if the energy for change diminishes. CP&P has more lessons to learn, but it is from this base that the next set of automation insights will emerge. Karl Magnusen has taught at Columbia University and its Senior Executive Program (Arden House) and is a founding faculty member of FIU's Global manager Program. His research interests include technology, conflict resolution and the management of change. E-mail: [email protected] Olga Magnusen is a frequent speaker on career management issues and a past president of the Florida College Placement Association. E-mail: [email protected] References: 1. Cassella, D. (1990), "Career Networking-The Newest Career Center Paradigm," Journal of Career Planning and Employment, L(4), pp. 32-39. 2. Zemke, R. & Schaff, D. (1990), The Service Edge, New York, NY, Plume. 3. Tetzelli, R. (July 11, 1990), "Surviving Information Overload," Fortune, 130(1), pp. 60-65. 4. Keller, M. (1989), Rude Awakening, New York, NY, William Morrow, p. 204. 5. Laudon, K. & Laudon, J. (1994), Managing Information Systems, New York, NY, Macmillan, p. 512. 6. Hammer, M. & Champy, J. (1993), Reengineering the Corporation, New York, NY, HarperCollins. 7. Collins, J. & Porras, J. (1994), Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, New York, NY, HarperBusiness, Chapter 5. 8. Sager, I. (1994), "The Great Equalizer," Business Week, Special Issue: The Information Revolution, pp. 100-107. 9. Beck, J. & Yeager, N. (1994), The Leader's Window, New York, NY, Wiley & Sons. 10. Keidel, R. (1985), Game Plans: Sports Strategies for Business, New York, NY, Berkley Books. 11. Steward, T. (July 11, 1994), "Managing in a Wired Company," Fortune, 130(1), pp. 44-56. 12. Hall, J. (1994), "Americans Know How to be Productive if Managers Will Let Them," Organizational Dynamics, 22(3), pp. 33-46. 13. Landrim, G. (1993), Profiles of Genius, Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books. 14. Kirkpatrick, D. (Sept. 19, 1994) "What's Driving the New PC Shakeout?," Fortune, 130(1), pp. 109-122. 15. Pascale, R. (1990), Managing on the Edge, New York, NY, Touchstone, p. 11. Products or companies mentioned in this article: Electronic Bulletin Board; James Madison University, Academic Computing Center, Harrisonburg, VA, (703) 568-6625 Novell, Inc., Orem, UT, (800) 346-7177 x42 PathWORKS; Digital Equipment Corp., Maynard, MA, (800) 777-4343 PhoneMaster; US Telecom International, Inc., Joplin, MO, (800) 835-7788 PictureTel Corp., Danvers, MA, (508) 762-5000 Resume Expert Plus; Resume Expert Systems, Overland Park, KS, (800) 467-7017 SIGI+; Educational Testing Services, SIGI+ Program, Princeton, NY, (800) 524-0491 VoiceLink; Career VoiceLink, Orinda, CA, (510) 253-9112

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.