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May 1, 2000
When employees at Dell Computer Corp. need to update their addresses, checkon their career paths, or handle an array of other human resources functions,they log on to the company’s intranet and click their way to the forms orinformation they need. They can view personal records, type in changes, andglean information about company policies. The system is useful, but not a lotdifferent from similar setups at scores of other companies that have constructedHR intranets over the last few years.

Take a closer look and you’re likely to notice that Dell’s site isanything but business as usual. For one thing, employees can view a snapshot ofpersonal data from a single customized home page dubbed "You andDell." With a few clicks of a mouse, they’re able to access an array ofHR services. The portal, available through PCs and kiosks on the factory floor,eliminates the need to hit various company intranet sites and use multiplelog-ons. For another, HR closely monitors systems so that everything isoperating at peak efficiency. It uses an arsenal of tools and strategies toensure that the site runs fast and is simple to navigate.

"Traditionally, companies offer HR services through static intranetsites. That forces employees to click through material to find exactly what theyneed," says Terril Brummett, director of human resources info management.But at Dell Computer, which now employs more than 36,500 workers at its RoundRock, Texas, headquarters and beyond, HR is mimicking the Dell Direct model thathas helped make the company the No. 1 manufacturer of personal computers in theUnited States. "We want to deal with employees directly and remove anyadministrative overhead," states Brummett.

In all the hubbub about moving at Internet speed and adopting leading-edgee-business and e-HR systems, the fact that a site must perform efficiently andprovide simple and streamlined access often winds up lost in the shuffle. Andthat’s a recipe for problems. "It’s not good enough to merely develop asite and offer various electronic capabilities," states Kim Mathias, vicepresident of EurekaDIGITAL, a Burbank, California, e-business professionalservices company. "If you want to achieve success, it’s essential tocreate an outstanding customer experience. A company must achieve a positiveinteraction with employees."

On the front end, that means designing Web pages that are navigable and fast.It means making the user experience easy and pleasant -- while keeping up withthe rapidly evolving look, feel, and functionality of the online world. But italso requires attention to an array of technical details, including assessingthe scalability of the underlying architecture, ensuring that adequate bandwidthexists, and managing tools that can make or break site performance."Managing traffic and bandwidth is a huge challenge," states Alexis dePlanque, program director for consulting firm Meta Group in Stamford,Connecticut. "Without the right technology, an organization risks losingits audience or customers."

The net effect? HR must develop a well-conceived strategy and forge a solidrelationship with IT. In fact, unless all the pieces are properly in place,employees are likely to assault the human resources department with phone calls,e-mail messages, and personal visits as they become frustrated and confused byvarious functions -- and lack of functionality. "The tools that anorganization uses to optimize performance go a long way toward defining successonline," states Matthew Kovar, a senior analyst for the Yankee Group, aBoston-based consulting firm.

Custom content brings users home

Dell Computer certainly believes that Kovar’s words ring true. Over thelast couple of years, it has worked closely with its HR information managementstaff to transform a strategy into a reality. The human resources department hasdivided the initiative into three main components: the user interface, productmanagement and deliverables, and technical IT issues. It has established teamsto manage each of these areas, and when HR puts all the pieces together, theresult is a highly focused strategy.

A few years ago, for example, a manager at Dell had to click to the proper HRhome page in order to gather specific information about policies and procedures.The manager would then have to click to another HR home page to handlepromotions. Today, the same person can venture to a single online HR page,select a particular employee, and view only relevant, contextual informationabout policies and procedures. If the manager wants to promote the employee orenter a new salary, it can route all approvals. "The information isorganized so that the manager can view it and act on it more quickly andeffectively," says Steven Moritz, senior manager of HR systems management.

Dell’s HR department doesn’t rest on its laurels. It is constantlytweaking, adjusting, and refining things to improve the user experience. SaysBrummett: "An HR department shouldn’t view employees any differently thancustomers. The user experience determines whether they will turn to the site orsteer away from it." In fact, Dell’s goal, as HR delivers a greater arrayof content and services online, is to integrate and streamline servicesseamlessly. "We’re steering away from a silo-based approach that forcesan employee to jump from one site to another and deal with multiple passwords.We’re working to get HR out of the middle of the transaction."

Mathias points out that several factors play an important role inconstructing a top-notch site. One of the most crucial is personalization. It’sno longer good enough to slap together generic content for all employees. Justas Yahoo! and Excite have transformed the way consumers use the Web --aggregating news, information, and even personal account data such as bankbalances and frequent-flier miles -- human resources must provide options."Personalization is what keeps a person coming back to the site. It’swhat holds their interest," she says.

Indeed, the problem with a general approach is that most people are alreadyoverwhelmed with information. "Once you start providing information that’sperceived as unnecessary or irrelevant, employees begin to tune outeverything," Mathias adds. On the other hand, a portal or site that lets aperson make choices about content can "seduce" them into using theonline capabilities to monitor general company information and personalaccounts, such as a 401(k) or benefits selections. However, she warns that it’simportant not to flood employees with too many choices. "The goal should beto understand what’s critical, what’s desirable, and what’sunnecessary."

Simplicity is essential to site optimization

Another important consideration is how quickly pages load and how easy theyare to navigate. Although the media and consultants have harped on the subjectfor years, many sites continue to implode under the weight of poor performance.Users must slog through pages that load at glacial speed, and they often cannotfind what they’re looking for. The problem is especially vexing among thosewho log on from home or on the road using a 56 kbps or slower modem. In somecases, a site that blazes at T-1 speeds inside a corporation crashes and burnswhen users access pages remotely.

In some instances, the root problem can center on data ownership and whichcorporate systems hold information that’s required to run an intranet. Systemperformance, data consistency, and how carefully a particular department ordivision oversees various databases can all have a major impact on siteperformance. "If a particular page has to load, reload, and regenerateitself so that a person can view it, it’s consuming precious seconds. Theunfortunate reality is that people aren’t patient. If they have to wait, theygive up and go back to doing things the conventional way," says Mathias.

Sometimes, the problem is more insidious than it first appears to be. In oneinstance, Mathias worked with a major bank that had stored documents in morethan a dozen file formats. In order for workers to view and use the files, thecompany had to install the associated programs on every desktop. That, in turn,led to a great deal of disorganization centering on the storage and exchange ofdocuments through the intranet. "People had dozens of different programsand files sitting everywhere, and many of them couldn’t figure out what wasgoing on," she says. The solution? Use only Word and Acrobat applicationsto store files, and standardize the underlying software applications across thecompany so that employees would no longer generate documents in a wide array offile formats.

Yet even the best-designed Web sites and most innovative online concepts canfail. Today, it’s also essential to optimize back-end systems for speed andefficiency -- and to ensure that the site is available 24-7. In fact, simplyadding servers does not necessarily eliminate performance problems, and cansignificantly boost costs. That leads many organizations to load test systems,use sophisticated monitoring tools, and install various performance tools suchas caching, mirroring and load balancing that manage traffic more effectively.

PHH Vehicle Management Services certainly understands the importance ofbuilding a rock-solid systems architecture. The Hunt Valley, Maryland, company-- a division of Avis Rent A Car System Inc. -- leases more than 750,000vehicles to about one-third of Fortune 500 companies. With both public andinternal Web sites providing everything from sophisticated e-business tools toemployee information, the company has learned that upfront testing can go a longway toward ensuring high performance.

Early on, Mickey Lutz, senior vice president of information technologyservices at PHH, turned to Web testing and monitoring tools from MercuryInteractive Corp. to verify that his firm was constructing an efficient sitewith adequate bandwidth. PHH ran traffic-simulation tests across business units,servers, and databases -- and at different time intervals. In the end, theload-testing software was able to generate a "best guess" scenario forhow customers would use the site under various situations and conditions and tomeasure what effect different traffic patterns would have on speed andreliability. The company used the data to tweak and adjust various systems formaximum performance.

Optimizing back-end systems is difficult because every company must approachthe problem in a unique way, says Cormac Foster, an analyst for the New YorkCity-based market research firm Jupiter Communications. Organizations thatgenerate a huge number of dynamic pages require far different capabilities thanthose with static HTML pages. HR departments that rely on an intranet primarilyto manage employee record updates face far different system demands than thosecoping with a crush of transactions during benefits enrollment.

Kovar believes that the solution typically lies in a multi-pronged approach.One way to add flexibility is to outsource operations to an outside hostingservice, which can oversee servers, provision telecommunications circuits, andprovide bandwidth on demand. Because hosting services closely monitor trafficpatterns at a site, they’re able to boost connectivity on the fly. "Mostcorporations don’t have the ability to dynamically allocate bandwidth. Theydon’t have a telecommunications infrastructure that can adapt at a moment’snotice," he explains. Moreover, most organizations are unable to set upredundant systems that can handle major system crashes and other assortedproblems.

Other companies have recently turned to application service providers (ASPs),firms that manage software and systems remotely. Not only is it a way to installtop-tier solutions without any significant investment in IT resources, but it’salso possible to tap into the expertise of the ASP to refine systems for maximumperformance. Yet, even then, an organization or human resources department mustput all the pieces together and ensure that smooth integration exists. Anythingless can cause headaches ... and heartaches.

To be certain, developing fully optimized and integrated e-HR systems is nosimple task. It requires painstaking attention to business strategy andtechnology. "A human resources department must understand its employees,the type of information it is managing, how people access information, and howvarious systems interact," concludes Mathias. In some cases, it’s alearn-as-you-go proposition. "The problem is that if an organization windsup suffering from paralysis and doesn’t move forward, it’s actually goingbackwards. It’s essential to constantly strive to improve the usability andperformance of any Web capability."

Workforce, May 2000, Vol. 79, No. 5, pp. 46-54-- Subscribenow!