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When Kim Mann and her colleagues decided to upgrade their organization’s human resource intranet in 2007, they had more than a few tweaks in mind: Team members wanted to change the way they communicated with employees. Mann, director of compensation, benefits and human resource information systems (HRIS) for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts in Hershey, Pa., knew the technology existed to revamp the intranet from a valued but largely one-dimensional repository of benefits and policy information into a dynamic, versatile and full-fledged portal.
The existing intranet had created important cost savings and reduced administrative burdens by moving paper-based employee handbooks, benefits enrollment and personal contact data online. But the site wasn’t easy to tailor for the needs of Hershey’s diverse employee segments, didn’t have desired employee engagement features and didn’t allow content to be easily updated without calling in information technology staff. In addition, Mann and her team too often had to communicate with 7,500 employees by phone or e-mail, when they suspected the portal could handle more of those duties.
So Mann turned to Enwisen Inc., a Novato, Calif.-based vendor, to help implement a hosted portal called My Path, short for "My Personal Access To Hershey." The portal has delivered on her team’s vision of a customer-friendly site where transactions and communications are never more than two clicks away. The next-generation portal provides a single access point for revamped onboarding processes, employee engagement and wellness surveys, e-learning courses, and new communication tools. Hershey has used the portal to communicate information on the H1N1 influenza virus, for example, and to let employees know if they have to come to work during snowstorms. My Path gives employees 24-hour access from work or home. It also features "in context" decision support tools that help workers make benefits plan choices during enrollment periods.
Evolution of Portals
The evolution of Hershey’s portal reflects a growing movement of human resource intranets away from "link farms"—designed primarily to reduce paper-based costs and promote self-service—toward more-personal, interactive and multidimensional sites. HR portals have been in existence for more than a decade, but experts say those that live up to their designers’ goals remain in the minority. That’s due in part to:
Employees in today’s web-savvy workforce often compare corporate portals to popular sites they use outside the workplace, like Amazon.com or Yahoo.com. Such commercial sites offer the latest in personalization, engagement and search technologies. If your portal’s features and functions don’t measure up, experts say, don’t expect employees to bless you with high ratings or stay on the site any longer than necessary.
There are a growing number of affordable options for making your portal more dynamic and valuable to employees. Some organizations turn to vendors’ hosted services to avoid investing in hardware or on-premises software and to acquire new features and functions.
Costs vary depending on the feature sets and components offered by individual vendors and on functions sought by users. In addition to startup fees, organizations can expect to pay annual subscription fees ranging from $40,000 to more than $100,000, according to Michael Rudnick, national portal, intranet and collaboration leader for Towers Watson, an HR consulting firm based in New York. Mann, at Hershey, pays an annual subscription tab of $75,000 for her company’s hosted portal.
This Time, It’s Personal
Personalization has become a hallmark of many next-generation HR portals. Dynamic portals cater to users who have little patience for slogging through benefits or policy information that doesn’t apply directly to them.At Hershey, for example, employees logging on to the portal see different information displayed on the screen depending on whether they are in the resort or entertainment groups or part of the corporate staff, as well as whether they are part of a collective bargaining group.
Personalization has distinct advantages for global organizations. For example, employees in Brazil or Belgium don’t have to cut through the underbrush of benefits information meant for U.S. workers to find content they need, and local policies based on differing regulations or cultural practices can be addressed.
Online Decision Support
Another defining feature of dynamic portals is online decision support, tools designed to help employees compare benefits plan features, understand insurance coverage relating to specific events and estimate medical costs while enrolling via portals. These tools give workers a "consultant on their shoulder" while reducing the volume of e-mail and calls to HR staff members for help with benefits decisions.
When the state of Montana began looking for a portal platform to consolidate HR information for its 34 separate agencies, officials turned to Oracle’s PeopleSoft 8.9 software solution. With thousands of seasonal workers such as snowplow drivers, parks and recreation staff, and firefighters being hired and furloughed en masse, the platform’s self-service features have proved to be a lifesaver to workers in the state’s personnel division, says Randy Morris, Montana’s HRIS manager based in Helena.
Workers now can enroll in benefits plans on their own, make changes to their personal data, enter work hours on electronic time sheets or search for applicable HR policies based on their specific agencies. These features significantly reduced the one-on-one transactional duties once handled by HR staff.
But Morris also wanted to include decision support tools on the portal to aid state employees in making annual benefits choices. That feature is now integrated with the PeopleSoft platform, enabling employees to search for, compare and evaluate benefits plans that best meet their requirements, as well as estimate medical costs.
Owing to its features and user-friendliness, the portal has gone from receiving 300 hits per month in May 2007 to averaging 14,000 hits per month in early 2010, with many employees now logging on after work hours. Morris says the portal’s self-service features have reduced his department’s transactional costs by 38 percent in that period and freed up staff to spend more time on strategic initiatives such as talent management and workforce planning.
Seek Single Sign-On
Utilization rates and satisfaction rankings of many first-generation HR portals are often low because they lack single sign-ons to access third-party vendor content, such as 401(k) balances. Because content on HR web sites often is derived from independent rather than bundled sources, it’s helpful for employees to be able to navigate to all of those areas seamlessly to complete transactions—without receiving multiple login prompts.
The benchmark for gauging a portal’s third-party integration quality and navigational dexterity is, surprisingly, not colleagues’ web sites but rather Amazon.com, the online seller of books, electronics and other products. The e-commerce company pioneered the use of "web services" technology that enables visitors to easily access a mishmash of content from third-party providers without ever traveling outside the site.
Whether searching for Amazon products or those provided by other manufacturers, the look, feel and navigation on the site remains constant. "You always see the Amazon interface [and] use the same navigation and check-out process even if you are buying a camera from a Canon web site," Rudnick says. "That’s a good model for today’s human resource portals."
Show, Don’t Tell
As bandwidth capacity expands and executives gain insight into employees’ communication preferences, video is playing a more prominent role on HR portals. When BB&T Corp., a banking company based in Winston-Salem, N.C., held its annual benefits enrollment in 2009, it posted on its portal a short instructional video covering key changes to benefits plans and enrollment processes.
"Our usability surveys found that employees weren’t big fans of reading text documents," says Steve Reeder, senior vice president and benefits manager at BB&T. "We spend a lot of time in HR writing documentation about our benefits plans and enrollment processes, but we discovered our employees much prefer to watch a video and be told how enrollment works."
Reeder has stepped up the use of video clips on his portal—many are vendor-generated, and others are developed in-house—to educate employees about, for instance, recent landmark health care legislation, wellness issues and defining terminology in insurance plans.
Some HRIS managers say web-enabled video is replacing podcasting as the "new wave" communication medium of choice on many portal platforms.
HR professionals with in-demand portals have learned that they have little time to rest on their laurels. Their advice: Don’t assume the heavy lifting is over once planning and initial implementation are complete. Administrators of portals that have high employee utilization and satisfaction rankings tend to see their sites in perpetual beta mode.
"We initially fell into the trap of ‘We built it, employees are using it, and there’s not much more we need to do,’ " Mann says. "We quickly discovered the downside of having outdated information on the portal. So, we created a system to keep it fresh and highly useful."
One person on Mann’s staff dedicates half of her time to updating portal content, but keeping the site current and relevant requires all HR hands. Because Mann is most familiar with Hershey’s benefits plans, she might spot something that needs modification. Yet HR managers in operations units "usually know when things change in the handbook before I do, so we need their input and eyes on the portal, too," Mann says.
To make sure the portal stays user-friendly, Mann’s team also conducts a regular site "optimization," a type of usability study that helps them ensure that the information Hershey employees search for most frequently is easiest to find.
The Coming Wave
As HR portals continue to evolve, many experts say the next wave will feature social networking-type tools that encourage employees to share expertise, join communities of practice or connect in other ways. Some organizations already are using a feature of Microsoft’s SharePoint portalsoftware dubbed "My Site," which creates a Facebook-like version of employee directories. Employees use these personal sites to post contact information and to list areas of expertise, job skills and project experience, among other things.
"Tomorrow’s human resource portals are likely to be much more engaging, two-way communication tools," Rudnick says. "Employees will become more active participants, whether it be choosing benefits plans, rating the quality of e-learning content on the portal, mentoring others on career planning or sharing lessons learned as subject matter experts."
The author is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.
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