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5 Ways to Make a Powerful Portal

To cut costs and optimize benefits, HR portals must be tweaked and adjusted. Here are some ways to rev up your portal's performance for ease of use, employee relevance, and functionality.

June 20, 2002
Related Topics: Intranets/Extranets

Vinu Raman can still recall the dark days of the Web. It was only a few yearsago that the supply-chain manager for Hewlett-Packard would have to click acrossdozens of intranet sites in search of information. He’d also find himselfconstantly logging on at different sites and battling to keep all his browserbookmarks current. "Sometimes, it would seem as if the Web was creating morechaos than it was solving," he says.

Fortunately for Raman, that’s no longer the case. As HP has addedcapabilities and improved the functionality of its portal, he and his colleaguesare finding that it is transforming the way they work -- and think. Now whenworkers at the computing giant need information, they simply click to theappropriate tab using a browser and find what they’re looking for. An HR tab,for example, offers a range of information from wage reviews to benefits,employee assistance to performance-management criteria. In fact, Raman can posta requisition online when he needs to fill a position and view résumés as theystream in. He also can access the portal from home or while traveling.

Hewlett-Packard is one of a growing number of companies that are redesigningand reorganizing their Web interface to make the information age a reality. They-- and human resources departments -- are recognizing that in order to cut costsand fully realize the benefits of e-business, it’s essential to optimizeperformance, usability, and functionality. "A well-designed portal can bringorder from chaos," says David Rhodes, a principal at consulting firm TowersPerrin in Stamford, Connecticut. "It can put an incredible number of resourcesat employees’ fingertips."

Just a couple of years ago, organizations were busy piling on features asquickly as upstart dot-coms accumulated venture capital. In today’s tougheconomy, however, the emphasis is clearly on tweaking and improving portalperformance, while adding tools as they make sense. Not surprisingly, HR has akey role to play in the process, since many enterprise portal applications usedata and systems that originate in human resources or pass through it. "HR isusually at the center of a successful portal deployment," says Michael Rudnick,national enterprise portal leader for consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide inStamford, Connecticut.

Building a first-class portal requires morethan a pretty home page.

Yet with many technical and practical issues converging, achieving success isno sure thing. It takes considerable planning to put the right information inthe right place, and ensure that it’s up-to-date and available in a digestibleformat. As a result, many companies are now conducting formal usability studiesand focus groups, and analyzing surfing patterns, in order to optimize theirportals and maximize their gains. Many are also creating a task force orinterdepartmental team to oversee projects and interface with outside companiesthat link to the portal, such as HMOs and 401(k) providers.

Know what users need
One company that has raised the stakes of its portal is General GrowthProperties, a Chicago firm that owns 96 shopping centers and manages 46 othermalls throughout the United States. A few years ago, the company realized thatcommunicating with about 3,000 employees in 146 locations required asophisticated portal. "It’s essential for today’s employees to have theinformation they need to make good decisions," says Judy Herbst, vicepresident of human resources.

In April 1999, the company went live with an HR portal from UltimateSoftware, headquartered in Weston, Florida, that focused primarily on employeeself-service. Workers could update basic information such as an address or phonenumber, and view paycheck and tax information. Over time, GGP has included linksto its learning-management system and added the ability to select and changebenefits, and actually enroll in classes online. "The portal has become themain point of entry into HR and other online services," Herbst says.

Yet GGP learned early on that additional features don’t always translateinto a better portal. Only about 50 percent of its employees have access tocomputers, so it was essential to add kiosks at various locations. HR alsoworked hard to assume a strategic role in the design and development of theportal. That meant understanding how users click through the site, what theystumble over, and what they’d like to see. GGP uses Web tracking software andhas conducted internal usability studies. An interdepartmental team thatoversees the site solicits feedback from employees on a regular basis, and thecompany has helped train key employees in the skills required to manage theportal. Currently, 85 percent of employees use the portal.

"In order for a portal to succeed, those using it must be able to customize content and have the specific information they need right at their fingertips."

Building a first-class portal requires more than a pretty home page, Rudnicksays. One glaring problem is that workers often find themselves lost once theyclick beyond the start page. That’s because many organizations have simplytied together a variety of intranets, usually defined by departmentalboundaries. HR might have its own site, while finance and operations mightoperate others, each with its own look and feel. "In the online world, peopledo not look for information by departments; they look for what’s relevant tothem at that moment," he says.

Dump the silos and map the process
Getting rid of the silo mentality is essential. So is mapping out businessprocesses. Leading portal vendors such as SAP, PeopleSoft, J.D. Edwards, Enwisen,Epicentric, and Plumtree now offer built-in tools that make it simpler to builda portal and link data from disparate systems. Connecting disorganizedinformation and dead links is a recipe for disaster. What’s more, "thesingle greatest driver of portal ROI is application integration," says BobGeib, director of PeopleSoft Portal Solutions. Too often, companies and HRdepartments that neglect these issues wind up automating inefficiency andminimizing the return on investment.

"In order for a portal to succeed, those using it must be able to customizecontent and have the specific information they need right at their fingertips,"says David Meuse, a principal in the Human Resources Effectiveness Practice atHewitt Associates in Chicago. Just as Yahoo and other Web portals allowindividuals to view the specific information they want in the position theydesire, HR and enterprise portals must provide links to essential information.By creating a personalized start page, an employee can create an optimal onlineenvironment.

A couple of years ago, Hewlett-Packard began examining ways to optimizevarious intranets so that workers could get the information they wanted, whenand how they wanted it. Many of these intranets dated back as far as 1995, whenthe company made its first real foray online. The lack of organization andcoordination -- partly as a result of organizational silos -- made it difficultfor workers to find the information they were looking for quickly, says SteveRice, director of Global HR Technology.

In fact, workers like Raman often found themselves dealing with hundreds ofbookmarks and too many questions about where to find something. So, HP developeda classification system for organizing and managing information, and createdrules for publishing content online. Software from ProAct Technologies, locatedin White Plains, New York, helped automate many of the authoring and publishingprocesses. By using specific tabs, it’s now possible to book travel online,find a travel expense reimbursement form, or view 401(k) account informationwith a couple of clicks of a mouse. In fact, employees can now complete morethan 150 types of HR functions online.

Measure your usability
But that’s not all. Early on, HP brought employees into its human-factorslab and began conducting detailed usability studies. It solicited feedback andconducted employee surveys. It also began using specialized Web trackingsoftware from WebTrends in San Jose, California, to analyze how employees clickthrough the portal, which receives about 65 million hits a month. Another pieceof the puzzle was to add single sign-on capabilities. Employees can enter theirpassword once and surf the entire portal. Rice says that HP saved $50 millionwithin a year of introducing the portal.

Themajor benefits of a portal include:
·Less time needed to maintainWeb-based content
·Automation of approvalsthrough work flow
·Less time and effort needed todeploy the Web-enabled applications
·Reduced Web and applicationdeveloper training
·Access to powerful reportingand analysis tools
·Empowering employees andmanagers through self-service
·Savings from reduced printingand storage costs
·Enhanced personal productivity
·Lower help-desk volume

According to Gaelyn Mitchell, senior vice president of Aon Consulting, NewYork City, the distinction between HR and enterprise portals is blurring. "Inmany instances, HR portals are becoming part of larger enterprise portals," hesays. That makes sense -- and it can save dollars -- because a single, unifiedentry point into enterprise data, information, and knowledge makes it simpler tomaintain consistency, focus, and overall usability. It also creates a tool forcontrolling employee surfing, he adds. "It’s a way to provide access tospecific functionality rather than having people trolling the Web."

Be ready to show the portal’s value
The evolution of an intranet from an underused information repository to anadvanced employee relationship management tool doesn’t happen overnight. "Overthe next 12 to 18 months, enterprise portals will become far more individualizedthan today’s intranets, offering real-time communications and true work-flowcapability," Rudnick says.

In order to make a successful leap to this brave new world, Rudnick says, anorganization must calculate the return on investment and demonstrate tangiblebenefits of a portal early on. He believes that companies must conduct audits oftheir enterprise portal initiatives to understand how financial and operationalresources should be allocated for internal and external development, licensing,content maintenance, and other areas.

Many organizations that started with basic self-service tools are now moving to online benefits selection, recruiting, succession planning, and e-learning.

Although each organization must approach a portal differently, Mitchell says,it is wise to identify the capabilities and features that are easiest toimplement, offer the biggest practical advantage for both the enterprise andemployees, and provide maximum return on investment. Alan Goldstein, executiveVP of development for Ultimate Software, adds, "Organizations must havedefined objectives and plans for winning the ‘buy-in’ of executives,including the IT department and line managers."

Many organizations that started with basic self-service tools such as addressupdates are now moving to online benefits selection, recruiting, successionplanning, and e-learning. One of them is the Maryland Institute College of Artin Baltimore, where planning was part of the process from the beginning. Theschool -- with about 350 faculty and staff and about 1,700 students -- installeda PeopleSoft enterprise portal in February 2001, after rolling it out to testgroups and learning what worked and what didn’t. Today, each constituency seesonly appropriate content, thus eliminating clutter and confusion. Employees canview job openings and benefits information, students can check schedules andcampus resources, and faculty can view updates on academic affairs. There’salso a special section in which faculty can discuss key issues withoutinvolvement by the school’s administration.

Tom Hyatt, vice president for technology, says that the institution hasfocused on adopting features that provide maximum value while tweakingfunctionality for top performance. "Rather than provide every featureimaginable, it’s important to address the mainstream needs of the organizationand do those things well," he says. So far, this approach has paid dividends.The portal has improved communication across the institution, simplified HR’sjob, and lowered costs.

Serve your employee customers
Success often comes to organizations that adopt a customer-service mentality,Rhodes says. While a portal must benefit the enterprise, if employees don’tfind it useful or relevant, it’s likely to wind up underutilized or ignored."It’s important to take a hard look at the quality of the overall customerexperience," Meuse says. "Many people are now familiar with the Web and useit regularly, so they have high expectations." If those expectations aren’tmet, they will usually go back to doing things by paper and telephone.

For HR, that means marketing the portal, teaching employees how to use iteffectively, and even providing incentives for migrating online -- includingcontests and sweepstakes. It means training workers how to use it to maximumadvantage. And it means working with other departments to build a solid productthat addresses real-world business problems and needs. For employees, turning tothe portal should make the workday simpler and better.

Vinu Raman describes a portal as "a bridge to data and informationscattered across an enterprise and around the world. When it is designed right,it makes it possible for people to become far more productive."

Workforce, April 2002, pp. 34-40 -- Subscribe Now!


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