HR Magazine, January 2001: HR Technology - HR Knowledgebases: Stepping Beyond Self-Service

By F. Jay Fox Jan 1, 2001

Knowledgebases could expand self-service systems and call center to help employees answer their own HR questions.

Most HR professionals are familiar with employee self-service systems. Employees use these systems to go online to change or add personal data and to receive basic information about benefits and policies. Technologically savvy HR professionals also may be familiar with knowledge management systems, which allow businesses to collect and coordinate their intellectual capital and use it to stay competitive.

Now, get ready for “HR knowledgebases.” These systems combine employee data with eligibility rules to create more specific answers to questions when used in either an HR call center environment or in an employee self-service system.

How does a knowledgebase differ from knowledge management? Knowledge management generally involves leveraging a company’s existing intellectual capital to enhance its business competitiveness. HR knowledgebases use specific information about employees and the company’s HR policies and benefit plans. While knowledge management deals with business data, HR knowledgebases offer information to help employees make sound decisions about life events.

Going Beyond Facts

If you already use employee self-service systems and you’re thinking, “But we do provide employees with knowledge,” think again. You probably provide them with data, maybe even information. But chances are, if they’re still calling the HR office or your HR call center with questions, your self-service system isn’t up to the challenge of providing knowledge.

Typical employee self-service solutions are comprised of web pages that deliver pre-defined information from the company’s HR management system (HRMS) database. In some cases the system will allow employees to create transactions, such as updating dependents’ information, changing home addresses or enrolling for benefits. These transactions update the HRMS database.

The advantage to employee self-service is that the system delivers data to the employee and, in certain instances, allows the employee to create a paperless transaction. The short- .coming is that you can’t ask intuitive questions in plain language and receive answers. You can see only the data placed on the page created for the self-service system. The system lacks the knowledge to answer specific questions that then go to HR or to a call center representative.

Isolated facts about medical plan co-payments, medical coverage, medical plan deductibles, etc.—which is what most employee self-service systems deliver—are not much help by themselves. If you are able to see isolated data for each eligible plan, then you have information. But if you can get this information for each benefit plan and place it all side by side to help you choose a plan during open enrollment, you add knowledge and allow employees to make a more informed decision about life events that affect them.

Employees call their HR offices or call centers to ask questions that typical self-service applications can’t answer because the answers must be tailored to the employee’s particular circumstances. These ques-.tions can vary from “What do I do now that insurance has turned down this benefit claim?” to “Do I count time off for this doctor’s appointment as sick leave or personal leave or neither?” to “How do I change direct deposit to a new bank?” to “I need time off related to adoption of a child; what do I do to request it?”

A knowledgebase can be a “one-stop answer shop” for all these questions about a company’s HR policies and employee benefits.

Tools for Knowledgebases

To have a solid HR knowledgebase, you will need an HRMS, such as those offered by PeopleSoft, SAP, Oracle, Lawson or others, as well as a separate knowledgebase software application with eligibility rules regarding HR policies and procedures and employee benefit plans. You also will need a mechanism for delivering knowledge to employees—namely, the Internet, an intranet or an HR call center.

Many of the HRMS vendors offer proprietary self-service solutions that deliver demographic information about employees—such as the benefits for which they are eligible or payroll data—but those self-service applications don’t deliver answers to the kinds of specific questions that employees normally pose to HR generalists.

HR knowledgebases are specialized tools and, currently, no major HRMS vendors offer a knowledgebase application as part of their suite of products. Two companies, ProAct Technologies Knowledge Management (until recently known as CFN/iExpert) and Authoria, are today’s chief providers of knowledgebase applications. A prediction: The major independent software vendors of HRMS applications will begin developing their own knowledgebase tools soon.

HR knowledgebases should provide access to employee information on health and welfare, defined benefits, defined contributions, business expenses, payroll and compensation, employee relations, leave, employee services and employment and job postings.

The two major HR knowledgebase applications come with more than 6,500 researched questions with legally compliant answers that can be fine-tuned to accommodate a company’s needs. Some of the questions an HR knowledgebase can answer include:

  • If I quit the company, am I eligible for COBRA coverage?
  • How much do I have to pay for medical and dental premiums?
  • Is my child covered for orthodontics?
  • I just broke a tooth. Am I covered for a crown?
  • What funds are available for investment of my 401(k) contributions?
  • What is the maximum annual amount I can contribute to my health care or dependent care flexible spending account?

Unlike those of most employee self-service applications, the answers are not generic and they are not static text; they are crafted individually for each employee based on the established eligibility rules and demographic information for the employee contained in the HRMS and the knowledgebase. The answer is tailored specifically to the employee who is logged into the HR knowledgebase.

Because benefits vary based on employees’ eligibility, knowledgebases can qualify the answers based on an employee’s role within your company—part time vs. full time, hourly vs. salaried, management vs. union and so on.

Why Try Knowledgebases?

By providing the same answer to an employee every time and not having each HR generalist offering slightly different interpretations of policies, you also can reduce a company’s litigation risk. You also can eliminate “answer shopping,” in which employees try asking different HR practitioners the same question in hopes of getting the answer they want.

Another plus to an HR knowledgebase comes during the benefits open enrollment period, when HR typically receives its largest volume of questions.

For example, one of the benefits vendors offers an instant comparison table of the current enrolled benefits plan, along with two other benefit plans for which the employee is eligible. With the knowledgebase application, the employee may opt to review all provisions of the three plans side by side or he can target only the key provisions that have the greatest impact on him. This can save hours spent trying to create a similar manual comparison. This “what if” modeling and analysis helps employees make truly informed decisions, instead of basing decisions only on cost.

Knowledgebases also can save the employer money, according to Ken Chin, HRMS manager for Verizon Wireless. When Chin was employed by AirTouch, prior to the company’s merger with four others to form Verizon, AirTouch’s 15,000 employees used the ProAct Technologies Knowledge Management System.

AirTouch saved $25,000 to $50,000 annually by eliminating all printed personnel forms with the launch of “HR Connect Online,” a customized interface that integrates ProAct Technologies Knowledge Management with transaction capabilities, applicant tracking, outsourced vendors and payroll, says Chin. AirTouch saved an additional $20,000 to $50,000 per year by reducing paper communications, $30,000 to $60,000 by automating workflow and another $75,000 with the use of online handbooks, Chin adds.

“Our HR groups and employees were so impressed with the improved accuracy of data and the value of self-service that Verizon’s management will roll out the solutions to our now over 50,000 employees,” Chin says.

Call Center Integration

Knowledgebases also may help reduce the cost of hiring representatives to staff HR call centers. If the representatives use a knowledgebase, they don’t need to know a great deal of information about specific benefit plans and eligibility rules or the details of the various HR policies for different segments of a company. Because the representatives spend less time researching questions, they can answer more calls faster and avoid taking calls that the employees can answer for themselves.

“With Authoria HR, we were able to drastically cut our training time for new service representatives,” says Carol Johnson, senior project manager for Wells Fargo. “We especially like Authoria HR’s ability to give personalized and consistent answers to employees’ questions.”

The major HR knowledgebase vendors integrate their products with leading call-tracking and case-management applications from vendors such as Clarify, Siebel, Quintus and Remedy. Integration with case-management and call-tracking applications provides call center rep- resentatives with instant access to historical information and trends regarding employees’ HR and benefits questions. Today’s knowledgebase applications also interface with transaction applications by PeopleSoft, SAP, Oracle, Workscape, TALX, Concur, Interlynx and others.

Build, Buy or Outsource?

If you want to try a knowledgebase, should you build your own, buy one or outsource it? The advantages in building your own knowledgebase for HR: You can get the content and results exactly as you want them and can adapt the system to your culture and needs. There are no large up-front capital expenditures associated with building an in-house knowledgebase, other than expenses for an additional server or other hardware and software.

The disadvantages? You probably haven’t created anything like this before, which means that the project will consume a lot of time. Legal review of

all your eligibility rules and answers will be a huge issue, and you may have to hire consultants to help design the system.

You also can buy a knowledgebase application. An off-the-shelf application can be up and running relatively quickly, providing core functionality in three months or so and full functionality in nine to 12 months. These products have robust “vanilla” functionality and guarantee that their content is legally compliant. You can customize these packages with authoring tools that do not require a technical background.

But knowledgebase applications are expensive. Expect to pay $100,000 for basic benefits functionality to more than $300,000 for full-featured functionality. Expect to spend the same amount or more for the implementation. Note that despite the high costs, in most cases, companies can project a 100 percent return on investment within 18 months of buying and implementing an HR knowledgebase.

You also could outsource your knowledgebase applications. Outsourcing doesn’t require a large capital expenditure, and you still will be able to customize the content. As with a purchased application, the vendor does most of the content work. As the major HR knowledgebase vendors move toward providing more outsourced services, mid-sized to small companies will be better able to afford this technology. At today’s prices, most knowledgebase users are large companies, such as McDonald’s, MetLife, Compaq, Anheuser-Busch and Hewlett-Packard.

The down side of outsourcing: You will have limited control over making changes. Although no large up-front expenditures are associated with this option, it may be more expensive in the long run than building or buying because you will pay per-employee fees.

The more informed employees are about their employers’ policies and benefits, the more value they will find in the company. In the future, HR knowledgebases will play a major role in giving employees decision-making tools. The goal for HR should be to provide employees with a comfortable degree of self-service that makes employees self-sufficient and allows the HR staff and managers to focus on the employer’s strategic needs.

F. Jay Fox is a principal with Working Concepts Inc., an HR management and technology consulting firm headquartered in Columbia, Md.


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