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Reach Out to Expats Via the Web

March 1, 1999
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Internet, Featured Article
Advances in information technology, in general, continue to present both challenges and opportunities for managers. Whether it’s the electronic movement of employee data from one country to the next or virtual private networks, the rapid spread of information is turning the struggle to capture competitive high ground into a global free-for-all. HR managers who don’t take the challenge seriously may find themselves browsing the Web for new job listings.

Most companies with operations overseas already use desktop computers, video-conferencing equipment and interactive voice-response systems for HR applications. For example, at San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems Inc., a supplier of internetworking systems, one of the recurring challenges for the company’s overseas operations was the difficulty in communicating and managing benefits programs. So the company implemented a system that linked employees to their benefits via the company intranet to reach expatriates.

"The desktop PC is globally pervasive, and HR managers need to become even more adept at working with their employees over long distances," says Jim Spoor, president of Denver, Colorado-based Spectrum Human Resources Systems Corp., a provider of HR technology.

Keep far-flung employees connected to home.

Around the world and across international time barriers, human resources executives are reaching out to their employees with the help of the Web’s technological capabilities. Of course, it takes a lot more than just an e-mail address to work with employees in separate locations around the world. These days, businesses tend to operate on a globally-integrated basis. Companies are realizing 24-hour productivity, and decisions are being made in real time.

Global technology and use of the Internet allow companies to take HR software applications and address local requirements while still maintaining the information at a corporate level, says Lisa Rowley, senior director of marketing for Redwood Shores, California-based Oracle Corporation, providers of HR software.

The new technology makes it easier for employees to keep in touch with their families and friends. It also enables them to serve themselves through long-distance learning, which frees HR managers to focus on other company challenges. "Human resources managers need to make sure they’re meeting employees’ expectations and that the new technology provides a value to all users," says Rowley. "They also need to figure out which skills they’ll need several years down the road. That’s how quickly the technology is changing."

Although the quality of decision making has significantly improved as a result of having access to more information at real-time speed, HR managers need to find new ways of using the technology to maximize the efficiency of both the company and its employees.

The Web comes of age for global employees.

Over the past year, the percentage of U.S. companies using the Web to conduct HR transactions has nearly doubled to 50 percent, rising from 27 percent in 1996-1997, according to "Forging Global Links," a survey by Bethesda, Maryland-based Watson Wyatt of 466 companies employing more than 9 million people worldwide. Just under half (47 percent) of the respondents said they currently make Web technology available to employees in their home country operations, while roughly 42 percent enable employees outside their home country to use the Web for HR transactions.

"When companies look inside their home country and they consider the use of information technology, they tend to look at voice-response systems first," says Steve McCormick, virtual human resources consultant for Watson Wyatt. "Outside the home country, they tend to look to the Web, which is much more suitable for global companies because it doesn’t have any barriers. When you can have information in one shared system worldwide, you can have individuals throughout the world log on and add local information to the shared information database."

Overall, the top reasons for implementing Web technology continue to be enhancing employee communications and improving service to employees. The most popular applications are still corporate communications, job postings, and benefits and retirement information and enrollment. According to the Watson Wyatt survey, 73 percent of respondents reported that their employees found the applications were either useful or very useful.

"The challenge is to know how to use the technology for much more than just shared information," adds McCormick. "HR managers need to find new ways to use the technology to enable employees to be more effective in their jobs. They recognize that the platform can be used for collecting and distributing data worldwide, but they’re not integrating the technology into the job. They’re simply using it as an information platform."

In fact, people are looking at the next technology from an industrial-age perspective—the print world, adds McCormick. "In the print world, we published documents. That’s why most companies are using the Web to publish information. But it’s still just publishing information. The real innovations will arrive when companies begin to look at how they can run their operations worldwide and how employees can use the platform as a tool in the job process."

Never rely solely on Web technology.

Of course, technology is never the only answer to meeting the challenges of global networking. If you don’t have the corporate foundation, managers and employees don’t have clarity, says Brian Anderson, vice president and general manager for the San Francisco-office of Personnel Decisions International, a global human resources consulting firm. He says even though technology continues to leap ahead, the communications skills required to compliment the technology still need "the personal touch."

Anderson says it’s appropriate to use technology to enhance your communications capabilities, but not as a solution to your communications problems. Don’t overuse methods like e-mail and voice mail. Schedule "real" phone conversations and face-to-face meetings to make up for the inherently impersonal nature of information technology. Find a way to use technology to appraise employees’ performance. And frequently ask for feedback as to how the long-distance relationship is working, and make changes accordingly.

"It’s sometimes harder to ascertain the negative issues when employees work in another country," says Anderson. "Just remember that when you do get a chance for a face-to-face visit, make it meaningful by planning activities where you and your employees can work together."

HR executives need to start thinking about how they’ll use the next wave of Web technology to better communicate with employees and to meet corporate goals. Employees in other parts of the world must have appropriate channels of communications and access to available resources, and companies need the foundation to help them get there.

Global Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 46-47.

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