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SAN DIEGO-Human resource departments have to be lean, mean, strategic-thinking machines to help manage their organizations' growth without getting too big themselves, says a human resource executive for a leading computer company.

"You've got to be good at the basics" of human resource management "so you can move up to be a strategic business partner to help your company grow the business," said Amy C. Baker, manager of executive development for Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Computer Corp.

"You also need to know the language of the business your company is in so you can bring up the issues they're really concerned about rather than touchy-feely HR stuff," she added.

Ms. Baker gave tips on transforming the human resources function at the 49th annual Society for Human Resource Management conference June 22-25 in San Diego.

Ms. Baker, who started at Dell in 1989 and has had seven title changes since then, explained she has experienced continuous change in her duties at Dell because of the company's rapid growth since it was founded in 1984.

Dell's 1997 revenues are expected to top $7.8 billion, up almost 50% from $5.29 billion in 1996. The world's leading direct seller of personal computers has offices in 28 countries staffed by 10,000 employees and still is growing, she said.

"We're hiring 100 people a week," she said. "You've heard of the cobbler's children going barefoot? Well, we have new people starting every week, and we can't get computers to them fast enough."

The challenge for Dell's HR department has been keeping up with the growth without growing as fast as the business, according to Ms. Baker.

"We're part of overhead," she explained.

The reorganization of the human resources function that Ms. Baker launched 21/2 years ago is a "work in progress," she said.

Initially, in an effort to keep human resources' budget in check, she decided to outsource "non-expert" activities, including benefits administration, health and wellness, occupational health, relocation services, training delivery and stock purchase and option exercise administration.

She also reorganized the HR department by putting managers in charge of three lines of business: training, staffing and compensation. Each manager now arranges services as needed by line managers. Some services, such as design of benefits, still is done in-house, but execution for the most part is outsourced. For example, William M. Mercer Inc. handles benefits administration, an area health club operates the corporate fitness program and a local occupational clinic handles workers compensation treatment for the company's 9,000 employees in the corporate headquarters.

To illustrate how the HR department administers services today, when Dell decided to develop a new product line, the training manager was contacted to provide additional training to existing salespeople to handle the new product. Likewise, the central staffing manager was "employed" by the manager of the new line to hire and relocate employees as needed.

The company's line managers also have direct computerized access to such information as an employee appraiser program to conduct performance reviews; an online decision-making tool; and an electronic "how to" guide to answer specific HR questions such as how to fire someone without triggering a lawsuit.

The Dell human resources department also has its own site on the company's intranet, providing its employees access to personalized data on benefits, education, safety, security, payroll, even company policies.

"We have no policy manuals anymore. We're completely paperless" since 1994, she said.

The company also provides employees access to an outsourced "HR Service Center" either via personal computer or telephone.

The center, staffed by 20 Dell employees, frees up Dell's human resource managers to concentrate on strategy rather than on conducting time-consuming, hands-on services such as open enrollment, Ms. Baker explained.