When employee web portals first emerged, much of the hype centred on their ability to empower staff to take more control of the people processes that affected them. They became a symbol of a modern organisation – a reflection of a good employer brand. Now, their potential to streamline processes means there is also a pressing business need for them.
“Companies are using portals to create a competitive edge,” explains Philip Hutchinson, a principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. “This is the main driver for having them now as they help companies be more efficient and can increase productivity.”
A portal is an online gateway to a range of services and functions that an organisation can provide to its workforce. These can range from self-service HR functions up to management planning tools and even e-procurement. A portal could also link to other online gateways at the company, such as a benefits, learning or recruitment portal. In some companies, the intranet is the portal, and in most cases it is branded with a company logo and often its own name.
As a gateway to a raft of company and employee data, portals empower managers to make more informed, strategic decisions in areas such as workforce planning.
“Databases are like a treasure trove of gems, and companies need a way of getting these gems out to managers,” says Jan Paxton, human capital management product manager at HR and payroll software company CedarOpenAccounts. “They are now seeing the benefit of pulling all of their data together and allowing it to be accessed via a portal.”
Too much too soon
Designing portals presents a dilemma for many organisations: the more content and features placed on them, the more valuable they are for both employees and managers. However, too much content and too much functionality can dilute what you’re trying to communicate or simply confuse users. In short, a portal’s major strength can also prove to be its fatal flaw.
“Some organisations want everything now. In our experience, you need to draw a line and work out how you get to that point,” says Eric McDonogh, project manager at HR systems supplier Snowdrop.
The most important factor is to ensure functions on the portal have a perceived value to the user.
Paxton says: “Look for that big win, that killer function. Expense management is a popular one. Identify what is going to get you buy-in early on.” She adds that a single sign-on, security features and report writing are among the three current must-haves for portal clients.
The same principle applies when providing tools and services for line managers on the portal, says Hutchinson. “If one of the ways you measure performance is through metrics, then giving managers tools to measure absenteeism will be welcomed,” he says.
Cultural obstacle course
There are fewer technical barriers to integrating functions into a single portal than before. These days, obstacles tend to be cultural ones, like dealing with the change associated with moving to self-service HR, as well as practical issues such as ensuring data is correct and up-to-date.
“We were working on a front-end for an HR system for a client and five people on the payroll were already retired,” says Hutchinson. “Sometimes companies need to spend up to a year cleaning their data.”
Other practical issues revolve around training and support. It is essential to ensure that everyone knows how to use the applications within the portal and that everyone knows the basics. Inputting information incorrectly means the data will not be sufficiently reliable to form the basis for management reports or strategic planning.
McDonogh says: “Make sure, for instance, that a line manager knows how to log the right kind of sickness. Remember that line managers may not have dealt with these sorts of things on a day-to-day basis before.”
The beauty of a portal is that companies can take a modular approach, adding functions as they feel ready. There is no limit to the number of applications that can run within the portal (as long as the software is compatible) and the next phase for many firms is to add more advanced planning tools.
Edge Hill University, for example, which has a number of sites in the North West, invested in software from CedarOpenAccounts to gain greater visibility of its budget across a number of departments. Uploading budgetary information into the university’s general ledger now takes only 10 minutes instead of two weeks and the design of the tool mirrors the spreadsheet it used previously.
Helen Adams, management accountant at Edge Hill, says: “By communicating directly with budget holders, we will be able to monitor budget activity on a daily basis and ensure everyone is keeping up-to-date with agreed budget levels. We also intend to use the collaborative planning system for salary budgets, which will take the headache out of the collation of salary information for more than 1,500 staff and should cut down the time spent on the task by more than half.”
The university plans to implement the e-procurement module so that requisitioning and purchase orders can be done online.
Although many portals start as self-service HR tools, they can also provide a way for HR to show that it can extend its remit beyond pure people processes and get involved in providing tools for management and budget planning. Ultimately, a portal is about bringing coherence, streamlining and accessibility to the processes and data that resides within an organisation – and then extracting maximum value from it.
“This is still a service to staff,” says Paxton. “And in providing access to current data, it means that employees and managers are all working on one version of the truth.”
Who’s installing what:
- Acas to roll out HR and payroll system The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) is to implement Northgate HR‘s ResourceLink HR and payroll system as part of a five-year contract for integrated HR and payroll to its 900 staff. The system will include training and recruitment modules.
- Masterlease opts for flexible benefits Fleet management company Masterlease has rolled out flexible benefits using 4th Contact’s online delivery system to 500 employees. It hopes that a flexible system will help it focus on a ‘total reward philosophy’ rather than just pay.
- Online assessment in place at Mace Management and construction firm Mace has put in place a web-based 360-degree feedback assessment tool developed by Balance Learning. It will measure the behaviour and performance of senior managers to help assess their personal development needs.