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Making the Passage to an HR Portal

September 1, 2000
Related Topics: Intranets/Extranets, Featured Article
Callit the byproduct of the information age. Today, just about every new system orlabor-saving innovation leads to additional complexity in our lives -- and our work.Although a word-processing program makes it easier to write and edit documents, it createsnew challenges for tracking revisions and distributing information. While the Web providesan efficient way to exchange data and information across distance and computing platforms,it does little to manage all the documents, files, and information.

Ultimately,the solution becomes the problem. And another layer of technology becomes necessary toachieve strategic gain. Within the corporate arena, this problem has become increasinglyobvious over the last few years, as companies have tried to cope with the demands of theknowledge economy. In many cases, workers are completely overwhelmed with facts, figures,data, information and more. It’s becoming difficult, if not impossible, to siftthrough the digital landfill and separate the valuable nuggets from fool’s gold.

Nowhereis this more apparent than in the sphere of corporate intranets. Designed to focus contentand direct the appropriate information to workers, many intranets have become nothing morethan the electronic equivalent of a bottomless inbox that eventually begins to sink underits own weight. These days, the issue isn’t gathering information, it’s sortingthrough all of it and finding the right content. “It’s essential to provide asingle point of access to corporate information and resources,” says Hadley Reynolds,director of research at Delphi Group, a Boston-based consulting firm.

“An organization that creates a seamless solution can create a sound valueproposition.”

Thusthe enterprise portal was born. Just as commercial portals such as Yahoo! and Exciteattempt to make sense out of the chaos of the Web, these desktop interfaces help toaggregate and channel content that you need to manage benefits and make work decisions.Over the last couple of years, portals have blazed their way into corporate consciousnessand paved the way for a more streamlined and managed information delivery and retrievalsystem. “Portals allow processes that previously required human intervention to behandled electronically,” says Larry Dunivan, vice president of global HR solutions atLawson Software in St. Paul.

Butgetting to success isn’t always easy. Over the last year or so, portals have becomemore complex and begun to offer more sophisticated solutions, including linking tothird-party providers and handling sophisticated e-business transactions. Instead ofsimply offering “published” material like employee directories and policyhandbooks electronically, they’re making it possible to conduct myriad functions froma central Web page, including business analytics, e-recruiting, open enrollment,retirement account management, procurement, work/life program administration, groupshopping discounts, and more.

That,in turn, can translate into multiple portals handling different functions. And while morethan 80 percent of companies now operate some type of portal, many incorporating HRfunctions, unmanaged data and applications can quickly become a bottleneck, says Reynolds.“Ultimately, organizations have to find a way to manage all the various portals andcombine them into a single solution that puts the right information and tools at anemployee’s fingertips.”

That’scertainly the thinking at Verizon Wireless. The company is well on its way to creating ane-HR department that allows employees to use a portal for everything from basic employeeself-service, including updating records, to handling 401(k) transactions and makingbenefits selections during open enrollment. Managers can also handle an array offunctions, including transferring and terminating employees and managing pay increases.

Thesystem, based on software from portal vendor iClick, is helping to transform the humanresources department at Verizon “from the back room to the boardroom,” explainsKen Chin, manager of HR management services. Currently, about 15,000 Verizon Wirelessemployees use the portal, but the number will soon swell to 40,000 with the addition ofemployees from Bell Atlantic  Corp. and GTE,the companies that merged in June to become Verizon Communications, the largest local andwireless phone company in the nation. From the project’s humble beginnings almost twoyears ago, the focus has been on aligning human resources with the company’slong-term objectives. As Chin puts it: “HR must learn to think out of the box andinteract with the rest of the enterprise.”

ButChin also has put usability and functionality at the top of the list. The company targetseach employee as an individual, meaning that no two workers see the same portal page.“It is completely tied to what they do and what information they require,” saysChin. In fact, by setting up the system on the basis of roles and responsibilities ratherthan job titles, Verizon Wireless is able to display only the data and links appropriatefor each individual. “If you are not authorized to view specific content or handle atransaction, it’s simply not visible to you,” he points out. In the future,Verizon will add an array of capabilities, including sophisticated business analytics.

Oneof the major problems with first-generation portals is that they provide aone-screen-fits-all solution. A human resources manager and a line employee might view thesame basic screen and see the same links. If the employee is not authorized to click intoa particular area, he or she will likely view a message indicating a digital dead end.Even worse, getting from one portal or intranet page to another can involve multiplesign-ons and different navigation and search tools.

Whenthat happens, the operative word is confusion. Toss a mish-mash of tools, capabilities,and so-called solutions at an employee and it’s likely that an organization willachieve less than stellar results. Yet, according to Don Chun, director of global HRMSproduct strategy at PeopleSoft, an enterprise portal has some distinct advantages over itscommercial counterpart, provided that an organization thinks through the issues andmanages the technology efficiently. “Companies know who their employees are, how muchthey make, what different groups of employees are authorized to do, and what functionsthey are allowed to handle. An organization that creates a seamless solution can create asound value proposition.”

Theevolution from static Web content to dynamic transactional capabilities reflects thegrowing sophistication and requirements of today’s workplace, says Rosalia Bacarella,executive vice president of HR and corporate portal products at Consumer Financial Network(CFN). By combining work tools with features that center on life events, including grouppurchasing discounts at local retailers, discounted airline tickets, bill presentment andinvestment tools, it’s possible to create advantages for the enterprise and foremployees. “It can give workers the tools to do their job and also manage theirlives,” she says.

Andin today’s tight labor market, that can often spell the difference between attractingand retaining quality workers and watching them flee to other firms. But it also iscrucial for an enterprise that wants to compete in today’s global digital economy.“Employees must make good business decisions, and in order to do so, they requireinformation from within their company and outside it,” Bacarella explains. Awell-designed portal can provide seamless links to other companies in the supply chain,third-party providers and other outside data sources, such as government or privatesubscription-based services.

Anothercompany traveling the portal path is Premier Inc., a San Diego health-care alliance that’saffiliated with 1,800 hospitals nationwide. Its HR department is moving “out of theprocessing role and into a consulting role” by offering 1,450 employees access to anarray of information through an intranet portal from Lawson Software, says Karen Poretti,director of HRIS.

“Managersand employees are becoming the guardians of their own data.”

Atpresent, employees and managers can handle self-service functions. The company also isadding e-recruiting tools, sophisticated data mining and reporting capabilities, andbusiness analytics for examining the cost of hiring and filling positions, determiningrevenue per employee, cost per fill, turnover ratios and other key indicators. It willsoon have a single sign-on system in place so that employees can use the entire systemseamlessly, says Poretti. “Managers and employees are becoming the guardians of theirown data. The intranet is driving greater efficiency throughout HR and the organization.”

Ultimately,says Reynolds, the idea is to create a single access point to all corporate informationand resources. And while a growing number of companies are pulling out all the stops tomake that happen, it’s also important to understand that a personal computer isn’tan end unto itself. A well-designed portal might link to a call center with live supportstaff or offer mobile tools that allow employees to access company directories, checktheir calendars, and make transactions on their 401(k) account through a PDA or digitalphone.

“Thefact is, portals are still in their infancy,” says Delphi Group’s Reynolds.“We have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible.”

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 22-24 -- Subscribe now!

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