HR Technology: Unifying Your Enterprise

With a Global HR Portal HR can enhance the adoption and value of a global solution.

By Mar 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, March 2006 Employee self-service has well-proven benefits to businessin particular, better service to employees while cutting down on HRs workload. And the best way to deliver HR services is through an employee portal that gives workers single sign-on access to all services.

Portals are entities that employees first become accustomed to, and then dependent upon, says Greg Fittinghoff, vice president of business systems development at Time Warner Inc. in New York.

While many companies have an HR portal covering their operations in a single country, establishing a portal for a truly global organization presents a unique set of challenges. But for those employers that master the task of designing and deploying a global HR portal, the rewards for employees and the enterprise can be great.

According to Fittinghoff, the payback is in uniting the global workforce and directly connecting with employees.

Time Warners portal, called Employee Connection, gives its 80,000 employees, depending on their role and business unit, access to benefits enrollment, compensation planning, merit review confirmation statements, total rewards statements, stock option administration, payroll (paycheck viewing, direct deposit and W-2 forms), HR forms, travel planning and expense reimbursement.

Think Globally, Plan Carefully

Creating a successful portal starts with processes, not technology. Most portal software contains far more features than a customer needs. The question is how to merge technology and processes in order to meet business goals. When it comes to developing a global HR portal, there is a distinct difference between meeting the HR needs of a multinational firm and one that operates globally.

The notion of a global organization is one that has programs and activities that require some degree of consistency across the globe, says Joe Loya, a consultant with global HR firm Mercer HR in Norwalk, Conn. An organization that might operate locally in many countries is not global; global is those organizations where broad and consistent communications are valued.

These distinctions manifest in several ways: culture, language, content, services, regulations and support. And all of these factors need to be considered when developing a global portal. One of the most obvious is, of course, making sure the content on the portal is in the language that employees speak. Setting a language strategy for the portal (English only, some local language, etc.) is a critical success factor, but not the only one to be considered. Some decisions reflect more-subtle differences in how a global workforce operates.

You need to think globally but remember local culture and customs, says Fittinghoff. I have heard of instances where color choices and graphics accepted in one geography can be offending in another location.

In addition to design and content, cultural issues can affect work processes as well. According to Loya, people process information or socialize information somewhat differently depending on where they are in the world. Some deal very much by consensus, for example, in contrast to the command-and-control organizations that exist in other parts of the globe. In setting up a global portal, a company needs to ensure that the processes and content are relevant to the employees around the world, which may require setting up country-specific aspects within the global portal.

The definition or the perception of what is important to the individual and the organization will vary based on local programs, culture, language and so forth, says Loya. For example, in the compensation and benefits world, the notion of ownership and equity is very important to a large part of the U.S. market, and to a degree in parts of Europe. But in other parts of the world, equity is not a performance driver for the workforce. Whatever compensation philosophy the company selects must be reflected in its portal.

In addition, divergent regulatory and governmental structures affect not only what can be offered in a particular country, but also what employees need from an HR portal. Health care, for example, is a big issue for U.S. HR departments, but in many other areas it is provided by the government. Putting open enrollment features on a global portal wouldnt be appropriate for employees in countries that have a nationalized health care system.

In the United States, a lot of the focus and the cost of a global HR portal is around ensuring the employees make health care decisions, have the right information and modeling tools, and do the election every year, says Michael Rudnick, global portal and intranet practice leader for Washington, D.C.-based human capital consulting firm Watson Wyatt. Outside the United States, there is much more of a focus on manager self-service and performance management.

While a well-developed portal has a full array of services, in practice, services are rolled out gradually. Since health care is a major administrative responsibility for employers in the United States, arranging self-service in this area early can lighten HRs and managers workload.

Local regulations regarding taxes and privacy can also affect global portals. For example, the European Unions Data Privacy Directive restricts the types of data that can be collected and stored, and to whom they can be transmitted. A multinational company with some offices in Germany, for example, may have to store all the data on German employees on servers in Germany and block access to employees in other parts of the world.

There is also the challenge of providing 24/7 support for the equipment and users, since support staff will need to be available around the clock, not just during the business hours of a single country.

We are still adapting to global access, says Time Warners Fittinghoff. Just getting to a working model that meets 75 percent of your global needs is a huge accomplishment.

Gearing Up

Getting to a fully functioning global portal is not an overnight task. It can take several years. According to Rudnick, most large corporations tend not to have a single, global HR portal. But many more are moving in that direction.

Hard drive manufacturer Seagate Technology LLC in Scotts Valley, Calif., plans to unveil a new global portal in 2006.

Right now we are redesigning our global HR portal and will be launching something much more global and improved in about six months, reports Karen Hanlon, senior vice president of HR. We just completed globalizing our 506 local-country HR policies into 50 global HR policies.

Similarly, glass and materials manufacturer Corning Inc. of Corning, N.Y., which has more than 26,000 employees in 24 countries, plans to move to a single sign-on solution in the near future, either through a corporate portal or a dedicated HR services portal. The company currently uses a web page on its intranet with links to about a dozen back-end systems. Some of these, such as benefits and stock purchases, are outsourced, while others, including its PeopleSoft HR system, performance management and learning management, are handled in-house.

In the process of deploying People-Soft to all our global organizations, there was a fair amount of standardization, says Cory Scott, corporate manager of HR information management. We dont have a long way to go process-wise.

Scotts immediate goal is ensuring that there is good technical and functional support to encourage the portals adoption right from the start, as well as adequate infrastructure to maximize its effectiveness.

Not only do you have to market the system to the employees, he says, but if they are frustrated when they get there, if it takes too many clicks, if the response time is slow, you wont be successful.

This means that an adequate global data structure must be set up to ensure that service isnt slow when the data resides on a computer on the other side of the globe.

Despite such challenges, many businesses find the transition well worth it in the end. Consulting firm BearingPoint Inc. (formerly KPMG Consulting) has a global HR portal for its 18,000 employees in 44 countries. In addition to the main portal, the company has nine country or regional portals. Each one offers global content as well as local content. The services vary depending on the country. For example, employees in China dont have the option of participating in the stock purchase plan because of that countrys laws.

One of the most successful aspects of the BearingPoint portal is the global recruitment area. Called Career Connections, it allows employees to see and apply for job openings across the globe.

The response has been greater than anticipated, says David Muller, manager of global staffing technology and operations. There is a strong interest in cross-border assignments, and this is the first time weve had a tool that allows people to see across the globe.

Another popular feature is the referral section of the portal. The company used to rely heavily on premium job boards, such as Monster or HotJobs, at a cost of hundreds of dollars per posting for thousands of job openings. Now online employee referrals are the firms top source of new hires.

Nearly 40 percent of our new hires are coming from online employee referrals through the portal, says Muller. This has significantly impacted our time-to-fill and cost-per-hire.

Lessons from Big Blue

For IBMs highly mobile workforce of 320,000 employees, the corporate portal is not just where they get information, but also where they do their job.

The desktop is the Internet, says IBM spokesman Jim Sinocchi. More than one-third of our employees are not at an IBM location, yet they have access to everything that an employee at one of our locations has.

Called the IBM On Demand Workspace, the portal can be customized based on roles, location, language and other preferences. In addition to providing job-related resources such as expense reporting, communications, web collaboration and ordering information for customers, it also incorporates HR services, including accessing online W-2 forms and scheduling work hours and vacations.

Within that general portal is a specialized section for more than 30,000 global managers. The success of IBMs dynamic global organization depends heavily on its managers, who must juggle administrative tasks, drive business and collaborate with multiple departments around the world, says Michael Fontaine, IBMs director of HR IT strategy. Fulfilling these broad responsibilities required managers to spend a significant amount of time searching multiple sources for information and critical decision-making tools.

To address this, IBM aggregated more than 2,000 resources, tools and communications into a manager portal that was initially rolled out to U.S. managers in 2003. The first two releases of the portal had five major content areas:

  • Timely topics HR management feature stories, business-related articles and HR policy change information. Find it fastlinks to HR staff, HR phone lists and contact information, and manager forms.
  • Work with your employeestools for reviewing/updating/changing employee work information, performance reviews, salary and compensation, promotions and transfers, awards, and individual development plans.
  • Act now!an alert mechanism for business deadlines or key HR actions.
  • Manager resources checklists for hiring or transferring employees, links to key HR policies, job postings, expense reimbursement, travel, asset management, career development and learning.

Over the next two years, the portal was rolled out globally and now delivers personalized content in nine languages to managers in 78 countries.

To do that, we had to understand the tasks and responsibilities that managers needed to do both on a global level and a local level, says Fontaine. The U.S. solution helped us put our toe into the water, but going global was a much more complex task.

IBM developed a single global template to provide a common look and feel, but the content is personalized on a country or business unit level based on the users login. To ensure that content is appropriate at a local level, a manager user group was formed with 260 managers around the world to serve as a global steering committee that reviews all new designs and enhancements.

Thats where our global network really comes into play; they understand the local needs of our managers and the challenges they face every day, says Fontaine. They work to keep us honest and ensure that the manager portal is not designed and supported only at corporate headquarters in New York, but managed by local teams who understand their audiences.

Drew Robb is a California-based freelance writer who specializes in technology, engineering and business.

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