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5 Ways to Make a Powerful Portal (live copy)

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, Latest News

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

Fortunately for Raman, that’s no longer the case. As HP has added capabilities and improved the functionality of its portal, he and his colleagues are finding that it is transforming the way they work -- and think. Now when workers at the computing giant need information, they simply click to the appropriate 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 post a requisition online when he needs to fill a position and view résumés as they stream in. He also can access the portal from home or while traveling.

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

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

Building a first-class portal requires more than a pretty home page.

Yet with many technical and practical issues converging, achieving success is no sure thing. It takes considerable planning to put the right information in the right place, and ensure that it’s up-to-date and available in a digestible format. As a result, many companies are now conducting formal usability studies and focus groups, and analyzing surfing patterns, in order to optimize their portals and maximize their gains. Many are also creating a task force or interdepartmental team to oversee projects and interface with outside companies that 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 Growth Properties, a Chicago firm that owns 96 shopping centers and manages 46 other malls throughout the United States. A few years ago, the company realized that communicating with about 3,000 employees in 146 locations required a sophisticated portal. "It’s essential for today’s employees to have the information they need to make good decisions," says Judy Herbst, vice president of human resources.

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

Yet GGP learned early on that additional features don’t always translate into a better portal. Only about 50 percent of its employees have access to computers, so it was essential to add kiosks at various locations. HR also worked hard to assume a strategic role in the design and development of the portal. That meant understanding how users click through the site, what they stumble over, and what they’d like to see. GGP uses Web tracking software and has conducted internal usability studies. An interdepartmental team that oversees the site solicits feedback from employees on a regular basis, and the company has helped train key employees in the skills required to manage the portal. 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, Rudnick says. One glaring problem is that workers often find themselves lost once they click beyond the start page. That’s because many organizations have simply tied together a variety of intranets, usually defined by departmental boundaries. HR might have its own site, while finance and operations might operate others, each with its own look and feel. "In the online world, people do not look for information by departments; they look for what’s relevant to them at that moment," he says.

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

"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," says David Meuse, a principal in the Human Resources Effectiveness Practice at Hewitt Associates in Chicago. Just as Yahoo and other Web portals allow individuals to view the specific information they want in the position they desire, HR and enterprise portals must provide links to essential information. By creating a personalized start page, an employee can create an optimal online environment.

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

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

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

Portal Pluses
The major benefits of a portal include:
·Less time needed to maintain Web-based content
·Automation of approvals through work flow
·Less time and effort needed to deploy the Web-enabled applications
·Reduced Web and application developer training
·Access to powerful reporting and analysis tools
·Empowering employees and managers through self-service
·Savings from reduced printing and storage costs
·Enhanced personal productivity
·Lower help-desk volume

According to Gaelyn Mitchell, senior vice president of Aon Consulting, New York City, the distinction between HR and enterprise portals is blurring. "In many instances, HR portals are becoming part of larger enterprise portals," he says. That makes sense -- and it can save dollars -- because a single, unified entry point into enterprise data, information, and knowledge makes it simpler to maintain consistency, focus, and overall usability. It also creates a tool for controlling employee surfing, he adds. "It’s a way to provide access to specific 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 an advanced employee relationship management tool doesn’t happen overnight. "Over the next 12 to 18 months, enterprise portals will become far more individualized than today’s intranets, offering real-time communications and true work-flow capability," Rudnick says.

In order to make a successful leap to this brave new world, Rudnick says, an organization must calculate the return on investment and demonstrate tangible benefits of a portal early on. He believes that companies must conduct audits of their enterprise portal initiatives to understand how financial and operational resources 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 to implement, offer the biggest practical advantage for both the enterprise and employees, and provide maximum return on investment. Alan Goldstein, executive VP of development for Ultimate Software, adds, "Organizations must have defined 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 address updates are now moving to online benefits selection, recruiting, succession planning, and e-learning. One of them is the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where planning was part of the process from the beginning. The school -- with about 350 faculty and staff and about 1,700 students -- installed a PeopleSoft enterprise portal in February 2001, after rolling it out to test groups and learning what worked and what didn’t. Today, each constituency sees only appropriate content, thus eliminating clutter and confusion. Employees can view job openings and benefits information, students can check schedules and campus resources, and faculty can view updates on academic affairs. There’s also a special section in which faculty can discuss key issues without involvement by the school’s administration.

Tom Hyatt, vice president for technology, says that the institution has focused on adopting features that provide maximum value while tweaking functionality for top performance. "Rather than provide every feature imaginable, it’s important to address the mainstream needs of the organization and do those things well," he says. So far, this approach has paid dividends. The portal has improved communication across the institution, simplified HR’s job, 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’t find 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 customer experience," Meuse says. "Many people are now familiar with the Web and use it regularly, so they have high expectations." If those expectations aren’t met, they will usually go back to doing things by paper and telephone.

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

Vinu Raman describes a portal as "a bridge to data and information scattered 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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