Electronic Office Born 25 Years Ago This Month – A Retrospective

The first use of desktop computers to process electronic forms occurred at Apple Computer 25 years ago this month.  It was an enterprise-wide, HR application that enabled every manager in the company to fill out and approve salary changes, department transfers, and performance reviews for 5,000 employees.  800 managers signed-on to access personalised data from a mainframe computer, routed forms through an approval chain, and automatically updated the host database.  This was the beginning of what soon became called “manager-self-service”.  The system was called “HyperGOLD”.  The year before, Apple launched the first “employee self-service” solution which enabled all employees to access and update their benefit elections using a personal computer.

These applications broke new ground in two areas – one technical and one behavioural.  The technical breakthrough had to do with managing user permissions and routing rules.  The system needed to accommodate “personalised” access and permissions by hundreds of users at different departments and levels of the company.  Line managers initiated various actions that had to be approved by others along the line before updating the database.  The other breakthrough had to do with the vast increase in the number of users.  Previously, computer systems, even those accessed from personal computers, required extensive training for use by a limited number of specialists.  It was untenable to consider training hundreds of new users.  The Apple systems were the first-ever to require no training!

The result was truly transformational.  Over the next three years Apple totally revamped how HR services were conceived and delivered, and the ratio of HR staff to line staff went from 1/30 to 1/300.  Getting stuff done was not only more efficient, but new policies, better practices, and improved behaviours were initiated that enhanced the Apple culture.

It was no coincidence this breakthrough occurred at Apple.  There were three enabling factors.  First, Apple was the only company in the world at that time that had a personal computer on every employee’s desk.  This accessibility meant that paper forms (and the associated double-data entry by administrative staff) could, indeed, be completely eliminated.  Second, Apple had pioneered the graphic user interface (especially valuable was HyperCard) that would support the “no-user-training-required” standard.  Third, then as now, Apple had an appetite for innovation.  These applications were not available in the market place, and Apple had to build them from scratch.  These pioneering applications took investments of millions of dollars over several years.

The team was co-led by David Arella (this author), who was Apple’s first Manager of the HR Systems Technology & Innovation Group, and Steve Austin, Information Systems & Technology Manager.  Their team included Lynne Hoppe, Dawn Black, Suzanne Summers, Aaron Hyde, Tim Hayes, Ted Ives, Ann Altman, Bill Lee, Paul Foraker, Wayne Robertson, and David Donaldson.

It turned out that Apple was way ahead of the crowd.  Many years passed before other companies implemented similar solutions.  Quantum and Adobe did their first employee benefit enrollment systems in 1992 and 1993 respectively.  Cisco did their first manager-self-service HR application in 1995, a full 7 years after Apple.  Dell Computer’s first enterprise-wide solution for line managers was not implemented until 1997 on their brand new intranet.  Other leading companies like Schering-Plough, Southwestern Bell, Colgate Palmolive, Marriott, AMD, MasterCard, Reuters, NY Times, and CNA Insurance came along in the late 1990’s.

Of course, these solutions are commonplace today, and we take all of this pioneering work for granted.  Companies that don’t have similar solutions in place are now in the minority.  New social media technologies have opened up possibilities for new advances.  So here’s an alert:  stay tuned because some of the same people who contributed this seminal work 25 years ago have been busy working on the next breakthrough solutions.

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