How a Humble People Directory can Transform the way Employees Engage with One Another

For decades, smart business folks have networked outside and inside their companies. To network efficiently, they needed a systematic way to keep track of all the contacts they'd made. For example, they've wanted to keep track of the names, departments, and job titles of their co-workers they've met within their companies. They've also wanted to keep track of their skills in case they need them for a special project. And they've wanted to keep their relationships going well, so they've kept track of birthdays, work anniversaries, hobbies, and spouses. They've always needed a people directory. 

While the need to keep track of colleagues hasn't changed over the past 75 years, the sophistication of the people directory has changed significantly. From the rolodex to the employee directory software, Here's a short history of the people directory since the 1950s. 

The 1950s and The Rolodex

The first people directory was a Rolodex. Rolodex is a rotating card file on a metal frame that holds 3x5 cards organized from A to Z. People write contact names, phone numbers, and other information on the cards.

Arnold Neustadter invented the Rolodex card file in the 1950s. Neustadter, a Brooklyn, NY native, had previously invented a spring-mounted directory named Autodex, which served as the Rolodex's forerunner. Neustadter was a very organized man who invented several products that turned clumsy processes into smooth ones. For example, he also invented devices to prevent fountain pin ink from spilling and a device to help secretaries take dictation.

He worked with an engineer to develop the Rolodex, taking its name from combining rolling and index. The Rolodex was very popular for many decades, and some people still use a Rolodex today. The Rolodex has sold about 10 million units every year since 1958. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the design museum of the Smithsonian Institution, considers the Rolodex to be one of the cultural icons of the mid-20th century.

However, one of the challenges of the Rolodex is that it isn't fully scalable. It has a 400-card limit, which lessens its usefulness in large companies. Another challenge is that a user can only search alphabetically, meaning finding a person with specific skills or interests would be extremely time-consuming. You'd have to look through all 400 cards, making a list as you go. 

The 1960s and '70s and Mainframe Solutions

Many companies in the 1960s still offered printed internal people directories that employees kept on their desks. Often the directories were little more than internal telephone directories, containing only the person's name and departmental extension. Employees used them to call one another, but they still didn't have the information on skills and interests to match people to projects or potential promotions. 

Computerized databases began to emerge in the 1960s. Relational databases appeared. While these databases weren't employee directory software as we know it today, they allowed people to input information such as names, addresses, and phone numbers. It also allowed programmers to create programs that would pull information into one database from various other databases so that employee profiles could be more robust.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Customer Relationship Management Software (CRM) also began to appear. It allowed people to input information such as name, address, phone number, and some personal data on customers or potential customers. It also tracked customer interactions.

These people directories also had limitations, however. The early relational databases and CRM software were not intuitive. Indeed, they were often hard to navigate and disjointed. They also didn't integrate well with other business tools and were expensive. Although some businesses adapted database people directory approaches in the 1960s and 1970s, most stuck with printed directories and Rolodexes. 

Early to Mid-1980s and Database Marketing

Database marketing became popular in the 1980s, as did databases to support it. Database marketing uses customer and potential customer information databases to generate personalized marketing communications. Users also could use similar database technology to create personalized internal communications.

While database technology certainly improved the amount of information available on other employees, it didn't offer all the capabilities of modern people directories. Information tended to be disorganized, and the systems were still challenging to use. The early 1980s technology failed to provide the detailed information on each employee that modern technologies do. Early database marketing systems were expensive, too. As a result, many companies still used paper employee directories.

Mid to Late 1980s - Digital Rolodexes

In the mid-to-late 1980s, digital Rolodexes began to appear. ACT! or SageACT! was one digital Rolodex that appeared in 1986. ACT! offered several more robust features than previous databases. 

While digitizing employee directory information had some advantages, 1980s technology still came up short. Also, companies had to make a significant initial investment in the digital Rolodex system and hire an IT staff to manage it. They also had to buy expensive hardware. The digital Rolodexes also didn't integrate with many other enterprise software platforms.

Early 1990s

By the 1990s, most employee directories were digital. Relationship marketing technical capabilities improved, which also carried through to digital employee directories. Users could find a little more information about their colleagues by the 1990s. However, most digital directories still lacked the full search capabilities of modern-day ones. 

During the early 1990s, interest in mobile directory options began to percolate. To be fully useful in the 1990s, digital employee directories also needed to be mobile device compatible. 

The Early 2000s - Cloud-Based

As the 21st century began, every directory application was on-premises. However, as the century progresses, increasingly more applications are becoming cloud-based. The transition to cloud-based applications allows many new companies to begin creating employee directory software, increasing the market's competitiveness. The transition also reduces the costs for companies to purchase and manage employee directory software.


People directory software today is cloud-based, fully featured, and easy to operate. It can accommodate remote working, hybrid working, and teams that consist of employees and contractors.

Good employee directory software typically includes the following features:

Enterprise Analytics

Today's software collects a significant amount of information. It also helps you collect and analyze employee data so that you can see trends in your workforce.

Connects Employees

People directory software allows employees to connect easily with one another for learning, mentoring, building project teams, or gaining promotions. Users can easily connect across departments, making the breaking down of silos easier. Both remote and on-premises employees can connect, too.

Internal Communications and Matching Capabilities

Modern-day employee directory software provides a searchable database that can personalize internal communications. The best employee directory software will have a search field and a variety of perimeters to refine the search,  an alphabetized list of employees, and a search results display page. It will allow for and support customized searches. The best software also features multiple vector linking, which makes identifying the best talent for projects very easy. 

Performance Metrics

The right employee directory software will be able to track employee performance or integrate with common human resources software packages that track employee performance. 

Automatically Generated Profiles

Employees sometimes put off updating their profiles. Without good profiles, the system's usefulness is lessened. The best modern employee directory software will automatically generate employee profiles by using data from all business systems. A robust profile increases the number of data points and makes complex and customized searches easier.

HR Benefits

The best people directory software can also help you manage employee benefits and other HR-related data. A single system and its integrations will manage all the people data for a company.

The best employee directory software will also provide information you can mine to help you understand which employees are becoming less engaged. Employees who begin to disengage are at most risk of leaving the company. If HR can identify these employees early, however, the company may be able to reengage them through new projects, training, or promotions. If HR can prevent the company from losing great employees, the company will continue to thrive from their creativity and save money.

Modern people directories are also intuitive, which makes them much easier to use than older software. They also contain information on large numbers of employees, rather than being limited to only a few hundred employees as Rolodexes are. They also are secure so that employees and the company can feel comfortable that a hacker can't gain unauthorized access to personal information. 

People directories have indeed come a long way from the days of the Rolodex. Not only have they become digital, but they've become full-fledged opportunity marketplaces. They also integrate easily with many other enterprise software platforms.

Where Structural Comes In

Structural provides a dynamic people directory and opportunity marketplace that can match talented employees across the organization for projects, sales support, learning, mentoring, and volunteering. It includes all the features of the best employee directory software, including ease of use, automatically generated profiles, a robust search engine, analytics and performance metrics, and other human resources benefits. It also integrates with the most popular enterprise software platforms, including Microsoft Teams, Slack, and Hubspot. 

 Contact Structural today for a demo. 

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