Why staff portals are not just HR’s responsibility

One
of the biggest misconceptions about employee portals is that they are
predominantly an HR project. As Thomas Otter, strategy director at Pecaso,
points out, the real picture is much bigger, and organisations embarking on a
portal rollout need to be wary of a range of political, cultural and technical
challenges. With some 30 employee portal implementations under his belt, Otter
argues that HR needs to rethink its whole attitude to the way that technology
is transforming the workplace.

Q.
Organisations face a wide range of challenges when they go down the employee
portal route. What should they be particularly aware of?

A.
The biggest single issue is a political one. It is very interesting as to who
thinks they own it. There is a cosy community in the HR world that thinks they
own it, finance thinks they own it, and IT thinks they own it. One of the
biggest dangers is not getting all these people around the table early on.

Q.
Why is there so much interest from other parts of the organisation?

A.
HR is just 20 per cent of the story. Employee information, change of address,
what jobs are available, work policies – those are all important. But what is
more important to the company is what sales orders are outstanding, what
customers are about to leave – to think of portals in an HR-only context is to
miss the point. Other areas include finance, budgeting – you have these things
to get the information people need to make real decisions. You have got to
differentiate between an employee portal and an HR portal. An HR portal will
deliver HR information and processes – but the end goal should be bigger than
that.

Q.
That seems to minimise the significance of HR in what is an employee-centric
initiative.

A.
The HR data can play a bedrock role. The information it provides is useful, but
more important, if it is well integrated into the portal, it plays a key role
in the personalisation of the other services. For example, you can look at what
job function an employee is in, how long they have been in it, and devise their
training requirements or provide news services.

Q.
From a cultural perspective, employee resistance is often cited as a problem in
rollouts of HR self-service through the portal. What is your experience?

A.
I’ve done 30 or 40 employee self-service projects, and I have never had any
resistance. I have had HR resistance in the past – when they do not trust
employees to maintain their own data – but most have seen that this is basic
common sense. Managers are more interesting – it really depends on the way the
project is sold, how easy the technology is to use, and the computer literacy
of the manager. Where literacy is lower, there is some fear from managers, who
see it as HR dumping its work on them.

Q.
What about employee literacy?

A.
If you have got an organisation with limited web access – for example, with
large numbers of blue-collar workers – you have got to be careful not to
provide lots of services over the web where people cannot access them. Kiosks
are one option. Some organisations have established cyber cafés – they make it
a pleasant place to be, putting it next to a coffee machine, where you are
drawn to it. That works exceptionally well. You have got to make them
available. Once individuals are on it, they tend to find it very useful and
interesting ñ for example, to look at online payslips.

Q.
How does rolling-out an employee portal compare to a customer portal?

A.
The employee portal is more complex. A customer portal exposes systems like
accounts payable, the order system, knowledge management with information about
products and services. In the employee portal, the number of applications that
need to be integrated is much larger.

Q.
What are the biggest technology challenges?

A.
You can split this into two areas – structured and unstructured data.
Technically, unstructured data is very straightforward – it doesn’t require
rocket science to build a content management system. There are some very clever
search engines out there. Where it gets interesting is when you start to access
structured data, such as lying in an SAP system. Few portal vendors can do that
well – it takes a huge technical investment, and knowledge of back-office
applications. Everyone says they can integrate, but it is always bespoke
programming – the whole idea of a portal is to be flexible, but you can’t be
flexible if you have to do bespoke programming each time you want new kinds of
data.

Q.
Are users typically aware of these issues?

A.
No. When organisations have a list of requirements for their portals, much of
it will be features and functions relating to content management. Then there
will be one point at the bottom – can you integrate to SAP? Technology choices
involve a lot more thought than what has the nicest front end. A lot of HR
functions ignore the integration challenges.

Q.
How will this impact the development of the portal vendor market and
organisations’ buying decisions?

A.
Content vendors will have a lot more difficulty moving into the structured side
than the structured side moving into unstructured. So middleware vendors like
Tibco, and enterprise software vendors like SAP and Peoplesoft, will be in a
strong position. I would be wary of buying a start-up portal application.
Within a couple of years there will be four or five big players – one
standalone player, then the likes of IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Peoplesoft, SAP
etc. There will not be masses of bespoke, specialist portal vendors.

Q.
How do you advise users to approach a portal implementation?

A.
On these projects, think big, but bite off small – get the vision, senior
management buy-in, but roll things out in small pieces and rapidly. Also get
constant user feedback about what they want in a portal. And monitor usage ñ
deliver what people want.

Q.
In your experience, are HR heads leveraging this kind of technology
effectively?

A.
I think the HR function has largely ignored the impact of technology on the
workforce. Today, when virtual workforces are designed, the HR function has
passively abdicated or been excluded – many HR functions have not really taken
IT seriously enough, and the portal is just the latest iteration of that. The
best HR functions I deal with are highly IT-literate, but many don’t see it.

Pecaso
is a service partner of SAP.

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