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Employee self-service: Building a corporate portal

Building a powerful corporate portal

Corporate portals can provide an invaluable information resource to your employees through employee

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self service. But first make sure that you implement your portal for the right reasons and understand the needs of your audience.

Portals can be powerful tools for delivering information to your employees and customers -- but they're not fast, cheap or easy to implement. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Done right, however, they can lead to unexpected benefits through service to employees.

At Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, the initial thought for its HR portal was to automate many of the functions that go into helping employees with their requests for time off, questions about health insurance, explaining policies and procedures -- the usual self-service kind of thing. But as the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company looked at the problem, "we recognized the greater opportunity was to look at broader services integrated in a way that has much more value for employees," said Steve Rice, director of information technology for the company's HR group.

HP wound up integrating a bevy of intranets into one giant corporate portal, complete with different "tabs" for life events, information sources, work applications including email and other categories. In the "marriage" section under the "life events" tab, for example, employees can change their 401k beneficiary information, and then click over to their local department of motor vehicles to find out how to change their name on their driver's license, too. The portal has become most employees' "start" menu.

Benefits include boosts to employee morale and productivity that are not yet quantifiable, Rice said. Others that can be measured include "cost reductions in terms of driving standards and ensuring the content is consistent," Rice said. The portal has meant the closure of "thousands" of Web sites around HP -- and the resulting maintenance and development costs that those required. The portal registers at least 3 million clicks each day, Rice added.

"The biggest surprise has been how the portal has become the lightning rod for discussions of where the value is for providing information to employees, and to break down the silo thinking we've had in the past," Rice explained. "I wasn't expecting that."

Portals can be effective even for smaller organizations that need to solve a more narrow set of problems, analysts say. "A portal done correctly can be utilized in just about every enterprise," said Gene Pfifer, vice president and research director of Internet strategies at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn.

The value of a portal lies in its ability to present information and content in a consistent way, so employees and customers are getting the right data, says Judith Hurwitz, chairman and founder of consulting firm the Hurwitz Group in Framingham, Mass. "You're taking the content you deliver through lots of different mechanisms -- videotapes, brochures, conference calls, etc. -- and putting it all into one vehicle so it's consistent. Everybody has the same information delivered in the same way, and the information isn't locked up in someone's desk."

The portal can be equally effective for keeping employees up to date with changes in product specifications or prices, or it can help customers understand the company's business or unique value proposition. A portal can become a valuable "community-building tool," Hurwitz says, via online chats with company executives and other interactive features.

Just make sure you're implementing the portal for the right reasons, analysts advise. "There are a lot of people that want a portal because portals are exciting and sexy, but they don't think of the business ramifications -- how to make money or how to make employees more productive," Pfifer said. "That comes secondarily to many people, and it may not come at all."

After making the business case, it's critical to understand the audience for your portal. What kinds of information does the audience need, and how should you best present it? Customers need different types of information from employees, and subsets of each group may need yet more customized information. Factory workers, for example, face different issues than do white-collar workers. Spend some time and money on surveys and research to help understand the needs of these different contingents of portal and self-service users, or face the risk that no one will use the portal because it doesn't meet their needs.

Plan on spending some serious cash to purchase the portal or self-service software, and then plan on spending at least twice that amount on deploying, maintaining, and extending the software, Pfifer says. Although portal software increasingly comes with pre-built integrations into some popular applications, if you have a legacy or homegrown system, you're going to have to develop some of those extensions yourself.

Package prices range from the high five figures to the millions, depending on the size of the portal you want and its features and functions. A portal that must integrate with your back-end purchase order system (if it allows customers to order goods online) will be more complex, and more expensive, than one that provides information only. Similarly, a portal that incorporates multimedia will be more expensive than one that uses primarily text.

Other advice from the pros:

- Attend to security for both internal and external users, Hurwitz suggests. Not everything on the portal is necessarily intended for all subsets of the community.

- Take an iterative approach to development and deployment. Gather your users' requirements and emerge in six weeks with a piece of it built -- tweak it, get it into users' hands, tweak it again and so on. "If you go off into a smoke-filled room and then emerge in nine months, the need is gone," Pfifer says.

- Focus on the information, on the substance -- not on the flash. Likewise, make sure the portal is easy to navigate, keeping in mind different users' comfort levels with technology, Hurwitz says.

- Similarly, make sure the information on the portal is up-to-date at all times, or you'll do your reputation serious harm. It might also cause employees to make decisions based on wrong data. To do this, you might need to hire one or more full-time staffers to keep content fresh.

MORE INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC:

>>Test yourself in this Employee self-service quiz<
>> Learn more about self-service with the Self Service Learning Guide

This was first published in August 2001

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