HUMAN RESOURCES TURNS TO TECHNOLOGY

CHICAGO -- Technology is playing a growing role in human resources at a time when the battle for capital investment dollars has never been more fierce.Projects as diverse as corporate networking, point-of-sale upgrades and electronic marketing frequently top the priority list for technology budgets. Now, human resources executives must step up to ensure they have the tools to automate processes and

CHICAGO -- Technology is playing a growing role in human resources at a time when the battle for capital investment dollars has never been more fierce.

Projects as diverse as corporate networking, point-of-sale upgrades and electronic marketing frequently top the priority list for technology budgets. Now, human resources executives must step up to ensure they have the tools to automate processes and protect retailers' "human capital."

Those are some of the views held by executives from Finast, Maple Heights, Ohio, and Lowe's Food Stores, Winston-Salem, N.C., who discussed the future of technology and human resources during an exclusive interview with SN at Food Marketing Institute's annual convention here this month.

"Human resources is pushing ahead quickly in the world of technology," said Henry Edwards, Finast's executive vice president, human resources. "Human resources is no longer [limited to] personnel administration. It has to be intimately involved in strategic planning."

Edwards and Lowe's director of human resources, Mike Lebo, said their departments' functions are expanding and technology can help to manage the larger role. An automated telephone system, through which employees can check benefits status or change 401K fund contributions, for example, can relieve the department from some basic maintenance tasks.

Automated labor scheduling and interactive computer-based training systems also improve efficiency by compressing the time needed to create staff assignments and keep employees up to speed on the latest policies and procedures. The systems' analytical tools also allow for better performance measurements.

"Through the use of technology, human resources has focused on results, probably more now than ever before," Lebo said. "[Results] were always important but the focus used to be on program development, administration. Now, if you want to be a player you have to do a lot more."

CBT in particular has proven to significantly reduce training costs, improve front-end efficiency and customer service while reducing shrink through better product identification.

"Customer service was at the top of our list but we also knew we had to have some return on investment associated with buying 42 [multimedia computers] and software" for Finast's chainwide rollout of computer-based training systems, Edwards said.

"The other challenge in our business is we're so quick to want to grab on to cost savings, but you have to appreciate the soft savings -- some of the things that aren't necessarily quantifiable right off the bat," he added.

A better-trained associate, for example, is less likely to require supervisor assistance on a transaction or a price check that can slow the checkout process and irritate shoppers.

Edwards said employee turnover, which is 60% annually at Finast, will continue to be a significant challenge for retailers: "It's going to be 'human capital management' that's going to be the thrust as human resources moves into the year 2000."