Building a powerful corporate portal
can provide an invaluable information resource to
your employees through employee
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
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
MORE INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC:
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This was first published in August 2001