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How 25 Years of the Internet Has Re-Shaped HR

by Mar 20, 2014, 5:52 am ET

The Internet is celebrating its 25th birthday this week. 1989 was also the year the Berlin Wall came down, protests rocked China’s Tiananmen Square, “The Simpsons” debuted on TV … and HR was changed forever.

The Internet has transformed employer branding, internal communications, and talent acquisition in ways we hardly imagined in 1989. Many of the changes — even the beneficial ones — were disruptive, forcing HR professionals to alter how they operated. In honor of the Internet’s silver anniversary, I thought I’d look at the challenges brought about by two-way computer revolution — and how HR has adapted.

Employer Branding

Before the Internet, employers could brand themselves pretty much however they wanted. If a company wanted to portray itself as, say, “a culture of innovation,” it only had to put those words on a brochure. Job-seekers, employees, and alumni might think otherwise, but what were they going to do about it?  Send a letter?

The Internet took much of that power away from employers. Sites like Glassdoor and JobeeHive let current and former employees anonymously describe the real perks and pitfalls of their workplace. Last month, when a disgruntled Apple contractor quit what had been his dream company, he arguably undid decades of carefully maintained employer branding. These days, if an employer brand doesn’t match the reality, the public will know about it. And people will see the company as disingenuous at worst and oblivious at best.

Luckily, HR has adapted to this new reality. Smart talent acquisition managers read the anonymous reviews and enlist agencies to discover what employees, executives, and customers really think about a company, using honest insights to create an employer brand that’s transparent and genuine.

Internal Communications

Before the Internet, internal communications was relatively simple. There was a weekly or monthly newsletter, delivered to on-site mailboxes or employees’ homes. Events could also be announced on bulletin boards around the workplace. Want to join the company softball league? Find the sign-up sheet.

The internet allowed for much more interactive communications — for better or worse. Suddenly, the internal communications department was charged with creating an intranet, which required design and content and continuous maintenance. HR professionals couldn’t wait a month between updates. Paper newsletters became emails, which a single employee could leak to the world with one click.

But you can’t keep a good department down. Employers of choice have created beautiful, informative intranets, or outsourced to applications like Yammer, letting employees collaborate and converse in ways better than email. We’ve found that employees are far more informed and engaged than they were during the monthly newsletter days.

Talent Acquisition

Pre-Internet, recruiters placed job ads in the newspaper (often costing as much as a new car for one ad, on one Sunday,) and job-seekers mailed or faxed paper resumés and then waited by the phone. That was pretty much the extent of the interaction until the recruiter called a candidate in for an interview. Then it was back to silence after the interview was over.

The internet opened up the communication on both ends. Now, recruiters can proactively pursue top talent on LinkedIn. They can also let candidates know their status through dynamic career portals that update information as the candidate moves through the process. On the other end, job-seekers now look up potential employers on other social sites. They expect answers to their questions and the ability to apply from their mobile device.

That means forward-thinking companies must have a robust social presence, whether it’s GE on Facebook, Taco Bell on Twitter, or Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest on Pinterest. Talent acquisition departments now need a dedicated social media manager with the power to respond to questions and complaints quickly, lest the employer brand suffer (as described above). Some companies draw back the curtain on the hiring process by giving recruiters their own individual social channels, letting job-seekers get to know them before they write a single word of their cover letter.

No headcount for social recruiting? Check out my ERE article.

Looking back at the world of 1989 shows how much the internet has changed virtually every HR interaction. Each HR professional must now cultivate an eye for talent, a nose for content, and an ear for questions. While they come with their own perils, these challenges have only made the department stronger and crucial to the success of a company.

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Gregory Cianfarani

    Nice article Jody. Well done. Here is a graphic that focuses on the THREE major waves of recruitment technology over the past 20 years: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/309411436871050803/

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Jody. This was good and comprehensive. Question to pose:
    While the internet has made some things in HR possible which weren’t previously, and other things faster than they were before:
    1) Has it made doing existing HR tasks more efficient?
    2) Has it caused HR to be come less effective, by allowing large numbers of things to be done which really don’t need to be done (like asking someone 200 questions in an online application when 10 would be sufficient)?
    3) Has it made the typical HR Practitioner’s work better- more autonomy, less adminstrivia/clerical work/data-entry, more high-touch creative interactive work, etc.?

    Cheers,

    Keith

  • http://www.workforcetrends.com Ira Wolfe

    Jody – Many of the changes you mentioned have taken place over last 5 years. We forget that the iPad is only 5 years old! The pace of change is accelerating and many of the events you mention may be history soon. What took 25 years to change may now only take 5 years or less. In the future HR will not only need to adapt but adapt faster.

  • Richard Araujo

    @ Keith,

    My own answers from my experience is that it’s mixed on all of them. Some tasks are more efficient because a decent HRIS system allows access to information at a glance, and has finally moved somewhat to paperless, although paper is still necessary for compliance at many companies. Of course, the HRIS systems themselves have created data entry positions, and because these systems don’t always ‘talk’ to other necessary systems and the feeds are expensive, data entry is now also data transfer. Effectiveness seems to be in the hands of the user, the less competent use their tools poorly, the more competent do otherwise. As for making work better, on net I’d say yes. Not necessarily via more autonomy though, but in the same way a carpenter’s life is better with a more well equipped workshop rather than just a hammer and nails.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Richard. Makes sense…

    -kh

  • Darryl Clements

    The internet is a quicker, broader, and open medium with probably a fairly equal number of pros and cons.

    As to the reshaping of HR, perhaps one of the greatest impacts has been on the expectations of HR – which are higher. There’s a greater call for detail excellence and speed in operational and administrative matters and a desire for more strategic and decision-making contributions and direction. There’s a constant demand to do more with less.

    Overall, I’d suggest HR impact and contributions have improved throughout the years. But that’s not in any way suggesting that all HR practitioners benefit equally.

    Paperless HR so far has proven to be a pipe dream in many aspects. Far to many regulatory and compliance strings still exist to make enough of a dent in the needless file-creep present everywhere.

    Technology has done for HR the same as it has for authors – enabled those who have the capability to bring things to life – stunned those who can’t.

  • Angelica Bache

    I can see that there are great development not just in HR and business but in the world.