Engage Electronic Liaisons

October 1, 1996
When asked about the expected results from Syncrude Canada Ltd.'s new personalized online flex enrollment system, Rudy Klaus' ambitions are modest. He doesn't expect it to be the end-all and be-all of employee communication. Nor is his objective to save the company reams of cash. At the end of the day, Klaus will be content if employees make good decisions based on good information. He wants them to fully understand the choices they have made, and feel they've enhanced the overall value of their benefits in meeting their specific needs.

As senior advisor, human resources for Fort McMurray, Alberta-based Syncrude—the world's largest producer of synthetic crude oil—Klaus is tackling the challenge of introducing a new and complicated flexible-benefits program to the company's 3,600 employees. Aware that the change may entail a degree of culture shock, the company has taken steps to help employees explore the new program on a personal level. The centerpiece of this effort is the company's online enrollment system and the personalized information it provides.

As Klaus explains, "We didn't just want a tool for enrollment. We wanted employees to carefully consider their decisions and explore all the possibilities. When employees can see the impact certain decisions have on available flex dollars the company provides, and can access reference material that provides more thorough descriptions, they're better prepared to make wise choices."

As organizations continue to expand the role technology plays in employee communication, human resources managers and systems personnel may—by choice or by necessity—increasingly tap into one of the key strengths of computer-based communication: the ability to tailor information to individual users.

Employee awareness—a simple click.
Rather than give options, and hope employees will choose technology, Syncrude wants to push this transformation. Instead of giving employees the option to enroll online, Syncrude is requiring it. Although part of the motivation for this is to simplify administration (see the feature article "Finding Time To Be Strategic"), a bigger reason is that the company can use the personalized information to help educate employees about their choices. A detailed software package customized for Syncrude by Etobicoke, Ontario-based Computer Workware, discusses each of the benefit options and presents some commentary to help employees make decisions. Colorful graphics illustrate the impact each decision has on the employee's remaining flex credits, and demonstrate to employees just how large an investment benefits actually are.

Although the enrollment process won't be completed until later this year, Syncrude already has observed a significant communication reward from having the software. When the program was first discussed in focus groups, several employees were uncertain about the changes. However, when these employees explored various scenarios using their personal salary information and available flex credits, they received the program with greater enthusiasm.

"Employees are naturally skeptical of a major change," acknowledges Klaus. "But when we enable employees to get their hands dirty and play with the information—as it applies specifically to them—the mystery and fear is reduced."

Get closer to your audience.
Syncrude's flexible benefits enrollment software is just one example of how organizations have given human resources communication a personal touch through technology.

Michael Keefe, director of multimedia for Toronto-based ICE (Integrated Communication and Entertainment), a major multimedia vendor, says the winners in the emerging world of the Internet, intranets and other electronic communication will be those who can create the solutions that bring an organization closer to its audience. He believes this is as true of human resources executives and employees as it is of marketing managers and consumers.

Jakob Nielsen agrees. As the human interface architect for Mountain View, California-based Sun Microsystems' Sunsoft division desktop technology, and the author of several books, he is at the forefront of ongoing research into human-computer interaction.

"If you don't customize or personalize information, you force employees through a lengthy series of if/then decisions before they find the information they need," says Nielsen. "The messages may be clear to the human resources person who wrote the material, but to the employee the search becomes a tremendous waste of time."

Eliminate employee frustration.
Intelligent Environments, a Burlington, Massachusetts-based developer of software that links web browsers to a company's legacy databases, is aiming to be one of Keefe's winners. Its products access information from one or more corporate databases—such as personnel records—compile and process the information, and then present it through the increasingly familiar interface of a web browser.

With these links to and from data-bases, a human resources department can now present information specific to the user. For example, the frustrating process of producing comprehensive benefit statements, that already are months out of date when the employee receives them, doesn't have to be complicated. Employees can check up-to-date information about coverage levels whenever an event that causes a change in information occurs. One example might be a salary increase.

Nielsen points to the intranet at SunSoft as an example. As soon as one's paycheck data is processed by the payroll system, an employee can access transaction records through the intranet to see the take-home pay and deductions (instead of waiting for a pay stub).

"Before the ability to easily link to databases, intranets mirrored the early days of client/server computing," explains Bryan Dolan, technical sales manager for Intelligent Environments. "Any interactivity required intensive programming skills and a long period of time. Applications that used to take more than a year to develop now can be created in less than a month."

He adds: "We've reached the stage at which the intranet isn't a static information source. We now can automate activities and empower employees through our intranets. As access to information becomes more and more rapid, we can expect our employees will become increasingly dependent on computers as a source of personal information and a tool for collaboration."

According to Nielsen, prime first targets for personalization are those information sources that contain a huge body of information, and of which only a small portion is relevant to a given individual. For example, he questions the value of a benefit handbook that describes in detail the diverse benefits for a variety of different unions and locations. The technological equivalent can maintain all the data for various groups, discern the unique identity of the user and present only relevant information. "With so much information bombarding employees every day, your first priority should be helping employees avoid reading or submitting redundant information," he says.

Cut down on forms.
Other candidates for automation, explains Nielsen, are all types of forms. "Paper-based forms typically force the employee to repeat data that a computer system already knows, and then humans must key in the information without error." However, he offers a word of caution. "Don't use this new-found ability to offload to employees tasks with which they're unfamiliar. Automation should eliminate redundancy without adding complexity."

ICE's Keefe, in spite of his support for customization, encourages some tempering of enthusiasm, especially when one considers the social implications. "Personalization and other customizing can help us grapple with huge amounts of information, but we still shouldn't ignore the importance of our discussions around the water coolers," he says. "People still work most effectively as part of an [interactive] group."

The wave toward personalization, if it proceeds as some trend-watchers predict, may see many of our decisions influenced by the equivalent of electronic clones. Dubbed intelligent or smart agents, these software tools are designed to search for information and provide advice to us based on our patterns of behavior in the past. For example, if your position calls for you to track the latest trends in compensation, your smart agent would frequently search databases inside and outside the organization for any new information, and then present it to you. Brace yourself, folks... HAL may be alive and well and living in Silicon Valley.

The dumber the agent, the better.
Nielsen is no big fan of intelligent agents, because he questions the extent to which most employees can accurately define what information they need, now and in the future. Because the system can't easily anticipate what may or may not be of value, new ideas and perspectives may be overlooked. He's more supportive of what he calls predictive or dumb agents, which would notify the user of changes that fall outside parameters the user has narrowly defined. For example, the computer could inform the employee if the value of his or her company stock fell below a certain level, or remind the individual to submit year-end health claims.

Keefe shares Nielsen's wariness of agents. He believes these tools will rely too heavily on the patterns people displayed in the past and, as a result, fail to recognize that people—along with their needs and interests—constantly change. For example, an individual may at one point be very interested in information about preparing budgets. Once the budget is developed and approved, however, a new issue may take higher priority. This change in the individual's outlook won't be apparent to the system, unless it's "educated" about the change.

In spite of his cautions, however, Keefe predicts that a level of personalization will become increasingly important, if for no other reason than to make the sheer volume of available information more accessible. "If I do a keyword search in a Web browser and it returns 10,000 possible matches, of what value is this information to me? Smart agents and other refined search tools may be the only way to narrow down the options to find information I can use."

Nielsen believes a continued shift toward greater personalization is inevitable, particularly in organizations where an intranet becomes a central information source. "The external Internet will become increasingly customized, because there will be no other way for any individual to effectively navigate such a mass of information. It follows, then, that employees will have the same expectations and demands of intranets. It really becomes a service issue."

Brian Croft is a communication consultant with the Toronto office of Towers Perrin, a global human resources consulting company.

Personnel Journal, October 1996, Vol. 75, No. 10, pp. 107-109.