Practical portals

An
employee portal is the easiest way to access self-service functions that make
employees and managers more efficient, but there are a number of key
considerations for HR. Keith Rodgers presents a guide on how to create a
successful portal

Driven by the need to cut costs, improve internal communications and raise
productivity, more organisations are looking to capitalise on their internet-based
communications infrastructures by building employee portals that add
functionality to their company intranet. With many early adopters touting
measurable returns from their investments, portals are seen as a practical
solution to the inefficiencies that blight typical HR administrative functions,
as well as a strategic platform for improving working practices and employee
development.

The evolution of employee portals covers several key areas. While they are
typically viewed from an HR perspective, in practice, portals draw information
from across the company, providing a central workplace for employees, one point
of access to applications and personalised information feeds. Within the portal
infrastructure, employee self-service allows individuals to carry out a range
of administrative tasks, from changing their bank details to enrolling in
benefits and viewing online payslips, and also provides the tools for
collaborative working. Manager self-service devolves responsibility to
departments, allows for improved decision-making in areas such as salary
planning and enhances performance management.

At an organisational level, the portals provide a powerful communication
mechanism for the enterprise, expanding the reach of the company while allowing
it to personalise its messages, and building its ‘brand image’ as an employer.
At each stage, the benefits are a combination of hard and soft measures

As with any HRIT investment, however, users’ experiences have been mixed.
Even at a rudimentary level, employee portals change the way that individuals
interact with the organisational structure and throw forward a host of
challenges, both technical and cultural.

Building a successful portal strategy requires the HR function to tackle
four critical issues upfront

1. Planning the initial rollout

Although the concept of employee portals and self-service is relatively new,
most organisations already have some kind of intranet infrastructure in place
to provide the basis for online HR services.

In large organisations, this can be highly complex, with multiple intranets
serving different communities: in smaller companies it may be relatively basic,
consisting of online versions of employee handbooks, an internal telephone
directory or initiation information for new recruits. As Charles Gunn,
programme manager for HR software developer Rebus, points out: "It is
important in building new features that you keep consistent with what’s already
there. It must not look like a bolt-on that has been brought in from a third
party – by adopting existing web style sheets into the product, it looks like
the existing site and employees recognise it. Also, don’t take away current
functionality – keep the existing features."

Vendors and analysts stress that initial perceptions of the portal will be
critical, so companies have to get the basics right. The technology platform
must be reliable from day one, so pilot testing is essential – given that there
is likely to be a large amount of employee interest in the rollout in the first
few days, the IT infrastructure must be scaled to deal with a surge in
activity. Early adopters also favour a gradual rollout of the portal and
self-service technology, a step-by-step approach where companies focus on
tackling pain points and bringing fast, tangible benefits. "Keep phase one
practical and achievable," says Gunn. "Keep it to a limited set of
features – go for six, not 25. Once you have got through phase one, users will come
back and ask for the next set, and that will start to define phase two."
In this kind of phased rollout, the HR department should ensure that it sets
expectation at the outset and keeps them practical: the portal will not change
the working environment overnight, but it should offer a limited number of
measurable benefits from day one.

2 Organisational culture

Although much of the emphasis in portal implementations falls on the
technology platform, the experience of early adopters is that cultural
challenges, rather than technical difficulties, are most likely to make or
break a rollout. These range from resistance at the individual employee or
manager level, to enterprise-wide, organisational issues about HR process.

At an organisational level, users should bear in mind from the outset that
the portal is a key tool in defining and reinforcing the corporate ‘brand’,
selling the company’s strengths and its attitude to its employees. Sue Conder,
partner in Andersen’s People Strategy Team, points out that organisations tend
to put a lot of effort into the design of the portal, from the logo to the
overall look and feel. While these are important – particularly an easy-to-use
interface – "it’s not just the logo, it’s the way it’s structured, what’s
in there", she says. "It’s about recognising that the portal is a
particular communications channel – be clear on what type of messages go
through the channel and the consistency of messages."

Rebus’ Gunn points out that organisational culture will also impact the way
in which portal processes and workflows are designed. For example, some firms
will insist a managerial approval process is built in when employees enter data
about their academic qualifications – others acknowledge that they do not
currently check qualifications, and continue basing the process on trust.
"If data affects an employees’ terms and conditions and benefits,
including pay, you have got to think about the authorisation process,"
says Gunn.

Gunn’s experience is that companies’ attitudes vary widely in areas such as
data visibility – some organisations are happy for managers to be able to view
personal employee data, such as date of birth or marital status, while others
are concerned about the implications in any future discrimination dispute.

Attitudes also vary widely within organisations. Some managers would allow
employees to enter their bank details online, arguing that if they get it
wrong, it’s their problem – a payroll manager, charged with resolving the
problems afterwards, would most likely disagree.

HR managers may also find that ownership of the portal becomes a political
issue within their organisation. By taking a lead in developing an employee
portal with self-service capabilities, the HR function can position itself at
the heart of the enterprise. The experience of several US adopters, however, is
that responsibility can become a battleground. As organisations seek to build
closer relationships with customers, trading partners and suppliers, ownership
and development of the overall corporate portal infrastructure needs to be
shared with other groups.

3. Employee and manager buy-in

Rolling out an employee portal is a delicate balancing act between catching
the imagination of end-users and avoiding bombarding them with too much
information. Buy-in cannot be taken for granted – a common reaction to the
introduction of self-service is that HR is simply farming out its own work to
the rest of the organisation. Likewise, it’s hard to second-guess what
information employees actually want to receive. When it first carried out
research about rolling out a self-service application, US software and services
supplier Hewlett-Packard initially assumed that the most popular applications
among users would be in areas such as retailing and travel offers. The feedback
it received, however, demonstrated that end-users were looking for integrated
business applications and tools to enable collaborative working practices.

Mark O’Dowd, head of HR solutions at SAP UK, says employee response is
generally positive so long as the portal offers more than basic functionality
such as requests for leave and timesheet data. "Make sure there’s a mix of
services," he says, "including those that benefit the employee
outside the office." This could include information about local schools,
employee ranking of local removal firms and so forth. These kinds of services
are particularly helpful for new recruits and, again, help to reinforce the
employer brand. Mark Frear, head of enterprise portals at SAP UK, adds:
"You really need to understand how people work – you can’t just push it in
front of people and expect them to pick it up." That means keeping a close
eye on the online processes – replacing a lengthy manual appraisal process with
a 10-page online document simply will not work.

John Brownhill, who is responsible for HRMS applications at Oracle UK,
agrees that balance is important from day one, pointing out that online
payslips and benefits features have proved popular in Oracle’s own in-house
portal. He also warns that organisations have to manage user demand carefully.
"You do have to control the user base – there’s so much functionality you
could put out there," he says.

Resistance to self-service applications among line managers may be less
predictable, but there are instances where problems arise. SAP’s O’Dowd says:
"There’s a number of occasions where we’ve heard managers have been
resistant to self-service being rolled out – often too many services were being
rolled out too soon." Sometimes this is a perception problem – managers
will believe that HR is increasing their workload, even though the self-service
application is merely automating work they previously did on paper. Sometimes,
however, it is practical. Organisations need to be careful, for example, about
the amount of e-mail traffic that is generated through self-service
applications in the form of management alerts. But as Oracle’s Brownhill points
out, if it is managed properly, self-service relieves managers of
administrative tasks yet still gives them control through inbuilt workflows
that regulate the data approval process.

Early adopters of portal technology are taking a number of creative
approaches to solving these issues. For example, one large Rebus user gave a
demonstration of its portal plans to the head of every division. The reaction
was mixed – some insisted on being involved in every aspect of the project
development, others were less convinced about its relevance. The company took a
representative from both ends of the scale and trained them early, hoping to
harness the enthusiasm of one and overcome the objections of a potential
negative influence in the other.

4. Software and infrastructure issues

Even where the employee portal becomes an extension of existing corporate
intranets, implementation is likely to have an impact on network traffic and
firms need to analyse how well existing infrastructure can cope. Peaks and
troughs in end-user traffic can be anticipated – for example, publication of
online payslips will lead to a surge in demand – and the timing can be
critical. However, SAP says firm should not necessarily assume the worst – at
one site, network bandwidth actually decreased when the portal went live. The
key is the number of clicks – how many pages users are downloading, not how
long they’re spending reading them. The amount of clicks can be reduced if
content is personalised (so that users don’t click onto irrelevant pages) and
if the site is easy to navigate, so users do not need to pick through numerous
pages to find the information they need.

SAP’s O’Dowd also points out that users can reduce their infrastructure
workload by indexing and classifying data effectively. With one of its
customers running 500 departmental intranets, that kind of discipline is
essential.

Security is also a key issue, and one that has climbed high up the corporate
agenda. From a technical perspective, there are numerous encryption and access
systems that can be deployed to ward off unauthorised access to HR data, both
from employees and hackers. The HR function needs to work closely with IT to
establish levels of risk and establish how confidential different data sets
are.

In terms of the portal application itself, implementation techniques reflect
the need for fast, practical results, and most vendors advise organisations to
restrict the amount of customisation they do.

While front-end changes are inevitable – users will want to configure their
screens to suit their own needs – most observers advise against making
deep-level code changes, particularly because this usually triggers further
customisation work whenever the underlying software application is upgraded.

Vendors like Oracle now market their software with an ‘out-of-the-box’
message – the software should contain sufficient packaged functionality to
cover everything from the core infrastructure to key performance indicators.

One of the most significant issues is how much bespoke integration work
needs to take place to link existing systems – not just within HR, but from
finance and many other departments that provide the data employees need to
carry out their roles.

Finally, implementation of a portal may prove to be a drain on resources.
Rebus’ Gunn points out that there’s an argument in favour of building skillsets
internally to handle the iterative development of the portal, particularly
where ongoing customisation is required.

False assumptions

Portals offer huge opportunities for improved communications
and cost savings, but there are other challenges that also need to be
considered.

To begin with, it is often assumed
that by allowing employees to enter their own information and removing the need
for data to be rekeyed by HR, the quality of data should improve. As Charles
Gunn of Rebus points out, this is not always the case. The HR function carries
out a natural filtering process, recognising common mistakes: employees,
however, may make spelling mistakes, or have numerous different ways of
entering the same information [for example, to explain illness absence]. While
some of these issues can be resolved through pull-down menus, errors may
increase. "You get more up-to-date data, you get more data overall, but
the quality hasn’t necessarily improved," says Gunn.

Ease of access to the portal is also sometimes taken for
granted. While it is reasonable to assume that all employees in a professional
services organisation will have desktop access to a system, employees working
on the shop floor will not. Kiosk technology, which provides an alternative in
this kind of environment, can be effective, but brings its own cultural issues.

Vendors also warn that training needs should be taken into
account upfront, and may be more demanding than they first appear. It is not
possible to hold classroom training for 20 employees at a time in an
organisation of 10,000 people, so it is sometimes preferable to take an
informal approach, offering courses in lunch breaks and out of hours.

Finally, Andersen’s Sue Conder warns that feedback mechanisms
for portals are often weak. While organisations can create discussion groups
and carry out surveys, these are not foolproof ways of discovering and
anticipating problems. Above all, she says, it is important to bear in mind
that the portal is one part of an overall communications system, along with
e-mail and face-to-face meetings.

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