News | Dec. 9, 2021

HR leader retraces DLA’s automation journey before retiring with 45 years

By Beth Reece

Long gone are the key punch cards and carbon copies human resources specialists once used to process personnel actions, but Kathy Roberts remembers the old manual methods of business and celebrates the benefits of automation she helped evolve as she ends her 35-year career at the Defense Logistics Agency.

“We only had one computer for all five members of the office when I first got here. Instead of emailing, we typed up letters, which took up to 10 days to get into the person’s hands after going through the mailrooms,” said the HR Information Systems director.

Roberts was hired from the Defense Nuclear Agency in 1987 to help DLA adapt to a redesign of the Office of Personnel Management’s Central Personnel Data File. Before computers, HR specialists hand carried data on key punch cards or magnetic tapes to OPM and were given status reports on how well the data matched OPM and CPDF requirements. The redesign was so massive that many organizations’ accuracy rates plummeted from 99% to about 30%, Roberts said. She cleaned up data for 1,000 DNA employees in just two months.

“When I got to DLA, there were stacks and stacks of error reports sitting on an empty desk waiting for me. DLA  had about 40,000 employees at the time,” she said. It took her about six months to get the agency’s accuracy rate back to 99%.

As DLA picked up depot operations from the military services and assumed more acquisition work, Roberts worked with other Defense Department organizations to migrate employee records into the agency’s HR system. She and her supervisors gradually noticed that HR Information Systems was often last to the table in planning for such agency-wide changes.

“People would come to us and say, ‘Oh by the way, Monday we’re going to do this mass reorganization. Can you make sure all the personnel actions are cut?’ We were an afterthought back then,” she said.

Roberts helped grow the HR Information Services mission by getting involved in the early stages of projects and mapping out the division’s roles in advance to ensure seamless transitions for employees joining or leaving the agency. Her tenacity was rewarded with promotions, and within five years of joining DLA as a GS-7/9/11, she soared to GS-14 as the chief of a growing division.

Paper copies of employee benefit and personnel action forms still persisted, however. When DLA became one of only two DOD organizations to create an electronic official personnel folder – the Air Force was the other – Roberts was asked to lead the project. DLA’s eOPF eventually became the standard for DOD and has since been adopted across the federal government.

“The benefit is all of our systems automatically populate data to the eOPF, so there’s no more hand filing. And when an employee goes to another organization, the eOPF electronically transfer with them,” she said. “There’s no more danger of records getting lost in the mail or getting into the wrong hands.”

Roberts’ team is now 62-people strong with groups that focus on areas such as automation, reporting and metrics. Measuring the time it takes to process pay actions or fill positions enables the agency to detect shortfalls and speed up processes, she said. When her team determined that drug testing was slowing the process for new hires to come onboard, for example, DLA switched contractors and started providing some on-site testing.

The use of robotics has also grown in DLA HR, Roberts added. Her team has created over 90 robotic scripts that process everything from annual pay adjustments to performance awards.

“Anything that affects more than 25 people is usually done through robotics now,” she said. “It’s been a big workload saver.”

Moving away from manual processes enables HR specialists to provide more personalized one-on-one service to their customers.

“It gives us more time to work with management on creative ways of recruiting so we can attract the most talent and the ability to help employees make career or life impacting decisions,” Roberts said.

And as the federal mandate that all employees be vaccinated stumped many organizations on how to track and record data, Roberts’ team worked with DLA Information Operations to create a system that accepts proof of vaccination and provides expanded reporting capabilities.

“Our system allows us to slice and dice the data how we need it so we can break down the numbers by major subordinate command,” she said. “That’s why we’re the first at the table in major decisions or projects now; we hear the issues and find a way to work them.”

Roberts will retire Jan. 1 with 45 years of federal service, almost 10 of them with the Defense Nuclear Agency before her arrival at DLA. She got her first taste of federal service at age 16 when she worked four hours every afternoon after school doing admin tasks for the Army through a cooperative education program.

Leaders’ growing recognition of the value of HR Information Systems and the advancement of automation has motivated her throughout her career.  Though she now looks forward to immersing herself in art and exploring her family’s genealogy, she said she’ll miss taking care of DLA employees.

“I love this agency. I love the mission of supporting the warfighter and humanitarian efforts. When you turn on the news at night, there’s almost always something DLA is involved in, and I’m so proud to be part of that,” she said.