At Xerox Corp., managers who want to give an employee a raise no longer call the human resources department. Likewise, workers who want to change their 401(k) plan or apply for an internal job posting don't go through the requisite HR paper chase. They simply turn to their personal computer, or an electronic kiosk, and do it themselves.

Xerox is one of a number of companies experimenting with a do-it-yourself approach to human resource (HR) administration. With "Peoplenet," Xerox's companywide HR database, employees can review the performance of their retirement funds, update their personal information, or put through the promotion of a subordinate (using a PIN to electronically "sign" documents). By distributing these tasks - once considered the province of full-time professionals - to line managers and employees, Xerox says it has trimmed its HR staff substantially. "You used to have this huge, controlling HR function that approved and checked everything, and coordinators stationed all around the country to answer questions," says Tom Stone, general manager of Xerox's Peoplenet. "We've taken human resources out of the middle."

The self-service push has largely been spearheaded by such blue-chip big companies as Xerox, J.P. Morgan, and Sun Microsystems. But recently, thanks in part to a slew of software from such vendors as FLX, PeopleSoft, ADP, and Lawson Software, smaller enterprises have been able to muster the technological wherewithal to begin following suit.

Haley and Aldridge, a 270-person, $33 million consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., has used software from Collabra Software Inc. to move performance assessment, employee orientation, and its policy manual online, thereby eliminating the position of HR director altogether. "Our services to employees have improved," says Ellen Campbell, one of the remaining HR people, "because we have more time to do higher-level stuff, like recruiting, instead of pushing paper."

Mostly, though, companies are looking to save money. In a study conducted with the consulting firm Towers Perrin, Lotus Development Corp. estimated that its effort to automate and distribute HR functions has saved individual managers an average of 97 hours each per year - translating to roughly $3 million. The reason: with information and electronic forms at their fingertips, Lotus managers no longer have to play telephone tag or set up time-consuming meetings with human resource staffers.