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'From Balloon Tires to Racing Bike'
New OHR Director Hosenfeld Faces Challenges

By Rich McManus

There are two things that large organizations do not like to undergo — consolidation and restructuring — and Robert Hosenfeld, new director of the Office of Human Resources (OHR), has both of them staring him in the face. "One of them is difficult enough, but putting the two together is not addition, but a compounding," he says. "But that also makes it interesting, and challenging."

An HHS-mandated contraction of 27 institute and center-related personnel offices into one office, now under Hosenfeld's direction, was already under way when he came aboard on Jan. 13. Added to HHS's consolidation of 40 personnel offices (including NIH's 27) into four regional centers, OHR must shrink to meet a target of one support person for every 82 employees, all while transitioning from a paper-based, labor-intensive, process-oriented workflow to a new, automated, mostly web-based system. In turn, this will result in shifts in responsibility between HR and its customers.

"The application of state-of-the-art technology is like learning to ride a bike all over again," said Hosenfeld. "In this case, we may have to put the training wheels back on for a while. It's like going from one of those old-fashioned bikes with balloon tires to a 21-speed racer...There will be a period of inefficiency before we become efficient again. By 2005, the returns on our investments in new initiatives will become clear."

Robert Hosenfeld, new director of the Office of Human Resources, has his hands full with both consolidation and reorganization.

He envisions a day when workers can complete online job applications in 20 minutes, when agencies can bring people aboard 3 months faster than they now can, and when employees themselves are better able to manage their own benefits and have direct access to their own OPF — Official Personnel File.

The new OHR director is a "Race for the Cure" runner — his whole family is, out of commitment to the cause — but Hosenfeld is also racing to cure a struggling HR effort in this his fifth major agency. And NIH doesn't actually have full claim on him; he is also HHS team leader responsible for "standing-up" the four HR centers set to open next October in Rockville, Baltimore, Atlanta and Bethesda.

Immediately prior to joining NIH, he was with the U.S. Geological Survey, part of the Department of the Interior, for 5 years. "At USGS, we were the first in government to put in place web-based tools allowing organizations to expeditiously process their work and provide more time for strategic consulting — that's the new HR paradigm. By focusing on efficiency of process, we are better able to move toward consulting as our primary goal. It will take some time. The application of technology to this business is very new."

It was while making a presentation to an NIH HR steering committee a year ago on innovations in personnel technology that Hosenfeld came to the attention of NIH officials; he later learned about the job opening here.

"Until 1999," Hosenfeld said, "HR was predominantly a labor-intensive, process-focused occupation. It took many individuals to accommodate the amount of paper associated with the business. But in 1999-2000, a sea-shift happened in HR. We began to move more toward the strategic management of human capital. The focus shifted to consulting, rather than process. Instead of worrying about processing paper, we asked ourselves, 'How can we support the mission of the organization?'"

President Bush, he points out, has made "strategic human capital management" one of the five items on his Presidential Management Agenda. "And HR touches on some aspect of each of the other four items on the agenda," he adds. "NIH is going through a very significant and substantial shift. I call it our challenge — it's more of that than an impossibility. It's not insurmountable and we need to face it head-on."

Near-term challenges include fine-tuning the Enterprise Human Resources and Payroll (EHRP) system, which debuted last fall, and accomplishing the office's consolidation, which must conclude by next fall. Hosenfeld, who hit the ground running so fast in January that he basically had to orient himself to NIH (he calls it "self-onboarding"), is also beginning a dialogue with senior leaders at NIH on where HR is going in the future. He mentions three upcoming technological innovations: a web-based automated recruitment tool for all of HHS; departmental web-based automated classification programs, which are basically "digitized PDs" (position descriptions); and electronic official personnel folders that can be accessed on demand.

"This is a significant shift in how we do business," he says. "NIH employed a decentralized service model where there was more intimacy between the HR staff and the customer."

Hosenfeld believes that, when the dust settles, his office will offer fast, efficient service, save time and money, and enable OHR to be a partner with management. "To be an effective partner with management, we must maintain the intimacy with their mission, needs and strategic direction. Consolidation and the application of technology to our business is a great opportunity that NIH will profit from," he predicts. "We just have to get through this gestation and learning process."

A native of Webster, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, Hosenfeld graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology with a business degree in 1975, and got into the personnel field "kind of by happenstance." He had worked his way through college, including a stint with an Air Force colonel, whom he had impressed with his research into the details of the Federal Personnel Manual. The colonel suggested a career in federal government.

Hosenfeld took the advice and has now spent more than 29 years in government HR, including work with the Army, Navy and Department of Defense. He now resides in Reston, Va., with his wife of 23 years; he helped run her successful basket-weaving business. The couple have two daughters, one on her way to Florida State University and the other entering her final year at the University of Virginia.

Excited about learning the ropes of a new agency, Hosenfeld says each one of the stops along his career has had its own "nuances and personality. [NIH] is so different from other organizations that I have worked for, including other research and development institutions. NIH has a different culture and personality...I walk around with a little cheat sheet, so I can learn all the acronyms. I'm learning, slowly but surely."

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