Over 20 years ago I started my career as an Engineer in the newly emerging IT business, and yes, it was pre-IBM PC.

For many years I listened to reports telling me that the introduction of computers was not having any effect on staff productivity. Pah!, I thought, showing my age. If I was younger I would probably say, Meh!.

Back in the dark ages just before the dawn of the PC I could see productivity improvements happening right before my eyes so the disparity between the reportage and the reality that I was seeing on the ground bothered me.

It was often explained away by the idea that computers were not improving things significantly because we weren’t using them properly. Instead of creating new processes and applications with them, most companies were simply doing the same old thing, but with computers. The true benefit would come when we all re-engineered our businesses.

For a couple more years, post-MBA, I worked in a Big 5 consulting firm that delivered the new ‘Re-Engineering’ solutions that everyone was waiting for. But still no real increase in productivity.

But finally, finally …

According to a new study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (IT&T), money spent on information technology delivers three times the gains in worker productivity of other investments, as reported by the New York Times. Money quote:

“The study concludes that the economic significance of information technology is less in the technology itself than in the capacity of computer hardware, software and services to transform other sectors of the economy.”

So it’s not computers per se, it’s the capacity of computers, and the internet, to change the way we work. It seems really obvious when you see it written down but it has taken a full generation for someone to actually come out and state it as fact. Government policy, the IT&T suggests, should focus on ‘encouraging market forces to hasten the pace of technology-aided change in industries’.

When I was working in the IT business I thought we were ‘hastening the pace of change in industry’ but it appears we weren’t. So there must have been something missing from the equation.

The problem seems to have been that we were all so busy installing computers we didn’t have time to figure how people would use them to do more. And to do that would take over 20 years for a very non-obvious enabler to emerge: the standardization of data.

Happily, that work is all done now and we can communicate with each other with ease using HTML, XML and AJAX. The possible range of interactive internet applications for HR are endless

So what can we expect to see in China,? We are still a bit behind the curve in HR technology usage but we could leapfrog.

This is a personal view:

  1. Rapid adoption of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). This will be driven at least partly by the arrival of the international Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) companies, who are by definition users of some form of ATS.In another scenario, China might jump straight into Talent Management Systems (TMS) as it did with so many other technologies, like mobile phones and PCs. This will happen because there are virtually no legacy HR systems in place in China. Simultaneously, the leading world-wide ATS players are integrating performance management, onboarding, workforce planning and succession planning into their offerings. A perfect storm. - already started last year. this could be the big one.
  2. Rapid adoption of technologies and services that can help people find other people, resulting in disintermediation of the hiring cycle and the demise of many contingency recruiters. This includes sites like Linkedin and Xing, who already have a base in China and are growing fast. - already started this year
  3. Slower adoption of technologies for workforce management, succession planning and performance planning is a much more likely scenario for China, despite what I said in point one. We’re still too busy hiring and these issue seem hopelessly long-term for us to bother about. - starting slowly next year we hope
  4. Rapid adoption of technologies and tools that use Web 2.0 interfaces to engage users and deliver career development or psychological assesment tools. Take a look at Careerdna to see what I mean. The fit with China is excellent for this kind of technology because it gives instant gratification and feedback.By way of explanation, younger people in China regard email as their mother’s technology. They have all gone going straight to SMS, which gives instant responses and satisfies the need for speed. - starting this year
  5. Adoption of video in the hiring cycle. With the bandwidth in China gradually opening this is becoming more and more viable. Until recently it just wouldn’t work. - starting this year
  6. Emergence of Web 2.0 hiring portals that take advantage of new community and communications tools. These will offer candidates a more rounded experience - started, but a couple of years more for traction
  7. Initially slow adoption of Ning-like communities that require a level of openness that is not to be found in China. But once the value is seen I predict a sharp turnaround and rapid adoption. - one for 2008
  8. A step in the direction of the virtual office, or the virtual worker. It has gong against the culture up until now but cities in China are spreading out and commutes are becoming unbearable.The communications backbone is there to support this and this contrasts with the slower installation of transportation infrastructure. The trigger may the offshoring of work to China, and the adoption of the tools and technologies that come with this. - gradual adoption, just not today

Unfortunately for those of us encumbered by enthusiasm and optimism, at the end the New York Times report there were a few challenges to the rosy high-tech future .

Oh well, back to drawing board.

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