A framework for change

IT has come a long way since the days of green screens. But what part does
technology play in the flexible benefits revolution?

Technical innovation in IT shows no sign of abating: product lifecycles are
shortening, and more technical demands are being placed on internal IT
functions and external providers.

As well as changes and development in technology, there are the paradigm shifts
– step changes that revolutionise what we know and understand. And in IT these
significant changes occur frequently. Examples within the last few years
include: the move from centralised mainframe ‘green screen’ systems to
distributed PC-based systems; the advent of graphical user interfaces; and the
adoption of the internet. Each has heralded major changes in computing and
fresh demands on the user community and IT professional.

Since the dotcom boom, demand has exploded for software solutions based on
internet and intranet technologies. The tools and architecture have become
available to build such systems, many of which are immature in functionality
and architecture. The internet environment has been a serious constraint to the
developer, resulting in a restricted application, with a less rewarding user
experience when compared to client/server systems.

The introduction of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, which includes new tools,
architecture and languages, hopes to change this situation, providing a new
model for application development and deployment.

.NET is centred on the concept of web services – loosely coupled systems
collaborating to provide applications that ‘consume’ services provided by
others, all via the internet/intranet, utilising the power of the web in a
programmatic way.

Part of this change will also make way for a much more diverse range of
smart devices, including mobile phones and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs),
for employees to interact with their HR data enabling anytime, anywhere access
and action.

The future will see a mixed mode environment where some users will work with
wireless mobile devices. New devices will emerge combining mobile phone and PDA
facilities, offering an array of differing form-factors and capabilities. New
applications must seamlessly adapt to this mixed mode environment client
device, without the overhead of having to ‘code’ specific facilities in the
application to support this variety.

This forms the backdrop to the introduction of a new generation of flexible
benefits software applications solutions. Using .NET, provider RebusHR, is able
to make its flexible benefits applications available as a hosted service or a
software package for in-house deployment.

Deployment

Peaks in demand typically occur during the enrolment period when employees
are asked to register their flexible benefit choices. As this typically happens
at set periods within the financial or calendar year, in the past it could have
impacted the hosted service, as there can be many organisations with
overlapping enrolment periods and consequently times when there could be a
large number of active users.

The .NET architecture allows the application to easily scale up and out if
required. As well as the database configuration options, the use of Visual
Studio for Applications means that customer specific business rules can be
written around organisations’ flexible benefits offering. .NET Remoting is used
for communications between the front-end, where employees can select their
benefits, and application servers, where the flex calculations are made,
providing for scalable distributed systems.

To ensure the integrity of information, customers have no direct access to
the database and all transactions must pass through the business rules within
the application. However, to improve performance, there are separate databases
for production and reporting.

Ease of use

Because of the technology used, RebusHR’s flexible benefits applications can
be web-browser-based, providing full web functionality and a familiar user
interface tailored to meet a company’s requirements. For employees, the
application is essentially self-service and links directly to benefit
providers’ websites if further information is required in the decision-making
process. Policy and other documents are available online for ease of access and
review, and to speed the process of selecting benefits or making claims. For
the administrators, the processes of data entry and deployment are simplified through
the use of workflow.

Administering flexible benefits in the workplace

The introduction of flexible benefits
has been held back by fear of an administration avalanche. Developments in
information-sharing technology mean these issues can be dealt with more easily,
with automated systems of administration and web portals for employee access.

RebusHR has developed a flexible benefits application using a
workflow system that automates all the processes involved in the flexible
benefits calendar. The application encompasses benefit supplier details,
benefit plans, options and coverage, eligibility rules, date-driven processes
and premiums and benefit contributions for employees and employers. It uses the
latest Microsoft .NET technology to allow organisations to open up access to
people across their workforce, and to customise their ‘user interface’ to meet
particular needs.

This is how a flexible benefits scheme would work. The
application evolves around the five stages in the lifecycle of a flexible
benefits scheme: plan, contract, data, enrolment and review.

Plan An organisation will decide on the range of
benefits to be made available to employees and the parameters of the scheme,
including the proportion of the overall remuneration package that can be spent
on benefits, the administrative process and the timetable.

Contract During the contract stage, the company will
arrange deals with the organisations whose goods and services are available
within the flexible benefits scheme, negotiating group discount rates and other
terms and conditions.

Data The application is populated both directly and via
interaction with existing systems that hold relevant data. This includes
employee data, which may be held in an existing HR application from RebusHR or
another supplier, employer data and benefits data. The application can also
provide access to information, such as claims procedures, stored elsewhere via
the internet.

Enrolment Employees are invited to make their flexible
benefits selections. This can be undertaken on a yearly basis and for specific
ad hoc instances such as new employees or a lifestyle change (such as marriage
or childbirth). This is a self-service process whereby the employee researches
the options and makes their choices via a web browser interface.

The application allows employees to run ‘what-if’ scenarios so
that they can experiment with various combinations of choices. This
functionality will be available via mobile devices such as PDAs enabling
employees to, for example, make the decision with consultation from their
partners by using the application from home.

Review The final review stage is an opportunity for the
scheme administrators to evaluate and assess the scheme. This will provide them
with opportunities to, for example, renegotiate benefit provider rates based on
take-up levels from the previous year or address any common areas of confusion
by modifying the way the scheme is communicated to employees accordingly.

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