Personnel Services in Transition
Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 4 - September 15, 1994
Nearly a year has passed since the installation of the first Macintosh desktop computers in Personnel Services. Acquired through the Information Systems Administrative Client Project, the Macs are part of a campus-wide, long-term effort to move the university away from its dependence on aging mainframe computers toward the more distributed, networked computing technologies of the `90s.
Is it working? If staff activities and attitudes are any measure, the answer is "yes."
"I liked the Mac so much, I bought one for home," said Vicki Price. Among her duties, she creates and maintains computer-based versions of various forms (P4's, job descriptions, etc.) that help make the forms easier to distribute and use here on campus. The computerized forms have long resided on VTVM1 in SCRIPT/GML format, but Price has been converting some to Microsoft Word on her Macintosh.
"Microsoft Word is easier and more efficient [than SCRIPT/GML]," she says. She also appreciates being able to "see it all at once," as she moves among the various windows on her Macintosh that show the contents of the different files and systems she needs for her work. The windows make it easy to work on VM and the Mac at the same time.
"Ask me what time it is and I'll tell you how to build a watch," Doug Martin said, realizing how long he's been talking about what he has been able to accomplish with his Mac. As benefits program manager, Martin must pull together information from diverse sources as he helps faculty and staff members analyze the present and plan for the future. With his screen crammed full of customer folders, Martin explains about how he uses the Mac's cut-and-paste feature to electronically move information into the folders from other systems, such as mainframe IMS. A click of the mouse pops up the Mac calculator which he uses for quick checks on customer data, which he often will cut and paste into a customer file. He expects in the near future to import data from the state and elsewhere directly into his Mac for manipulation and analysis by spreadsheets and custom programs.
"I prefer it to SCRIPT. The work is easier and the quality better," says Kathie Worner, when talking about Microsoft Word and the laser printers provided under the project. She also likes Eudora and Meeting Maker, which have largely replaced PROFS throughout the department for electronic mail and calendaring.
"There is a down side, though," says Worner. For example, doing electronic mail between Macs over the campus network means that mail sometimes can take longer to arrive than when everyone was on the mainframe together. Also, many functions remain on the mainframe, like mailing labels, so she must work in two worlds until eventually, piece by piece, all the replacement technologies can be identified and deployed.
"Part of it is work analysis, also," Worner said, referring to the fact that older mainframe materials are being reviewed before being moved to the new work environment.
In fact, Personnel Services is heavily involved with Information Systems and others in efforts to analyze and streamline its work flow and procedures in conjunction with the acquisition of a new Human Resources Information System (HRIS), another part of the overall university plan for improvement through migration away from the mainframe.
"Because of the Macintoshes, we already have automated a number of internal departmental processes and achieved some significant improvements. It's very exciting to see the potential that the new technology initiatives hold for us here at Tech," said Assistant Director Linda Woodard, who has high expectations for the HRIS project she is leading. Using new techniques for business-process redesign based both on strong customer input and the principles of continuous improvement, the HRIS will be designed to provide departments and central administration with capabilities beyond the personnel and payroll operations available today.
What accounts for the enthusiasm and success when change is often so difficult? Woodard first credits the hard work and positive attitude of the entire department, but feels the support received from Information Systems was absolutely critical. Worner and others concur.
Throughout the initial stages, Information Systems support personnel were assigned to offer training, install and troubleshoot systems, and answer questions for staff members who often were trying to learn the new systems at their desks while still doing their regular jobs.
Personnel Services staff expertise increased quickly, because the support needs were noticeably less after approximately eight weeks. Mike Naff, a support technician, praised both staff enthusiasm for the Macs ("Those who don't have 'em, want 'em.") and the way the staff began to find new, better ways to accomplish tasks.
He points to how quickly the department implemented a "Gopher" server which provides Internet access to information about Virginia Tech jobs, benefits, training opportunities, and more. The gopher already is heavily used, particularly on Mondays.
"Most of those 4,000 Monday connections are people using the VM INFO system," said Martin Daniel, personnel practices analyst. VM INFO now connects across the network to the gopher server to display the jobs listings. "Most people have no idea that VPIJOBS doesn't even exist on VM1 anymore," Naff said.
Daniel is considered by his colleagues to be a key to much of their early success. A Macintosh owner, but with no formal computer training, he now handles a large share of the Personnel Services Macintosh support needs.
"I couldn't do it if the department were much larger," he said. "It does take some time." Daniel considers the ongoing technical-support issue a crucial one and warns that departments need to think about it as they plan for the new technologies.
Certainly, Personnel Services has many challenges still ahead, but after a year, what is there to be missed about the mainframe? According to Vicki Price: "Nothing."