Focus On Technology


Taking the E-HR Plunge by Frank Jossi
G0901cover.jpgeneral Motors, internationally known as the worlds largest manufacturer of automobiles, today likes to tout itself as an e-commerce company that just happens to build cars. From consumer web sites to business-to-business portals linking the company with its vast universe of suppliers, GM has gone at the Internet with a vengeance, even creating a special e-GM unit to lead the charge.

Internally, some of the companys efforts have focused on e-HRHR programs that seek to push as many HR-related activities as possible into an online environment. The companys four-year-old intranet sitewhere employees once linked to 85 different GM-related sites providing information on everything from retirement accounts to flexible benefit enrollmenthas been transformed into an HR portal.

To the average GM employee, the real difference between the old intranet, dubbed Socrates, and the portal, MySocrates, is personalization. Employees now can receive news and information tailored to their position in the company when they log on to MySocrates. (For more information on creating portals, refer to the HR Technology column in this issue on page 131.)

As with every major corporate technology initiative, GMs portal project will be an ongoing endeavor. The August launch represents the beginning stages for the portal, which now delivers customized content to two classes of employees but will, in the future, provide it to several levels. In pursuit of this goal, GMs information technology (IT) staff has been hard at work portaletizing data so it can be directed to the appropriate pool of employees.

We feel very good about our decision [to build a portal], but it has been difficult. And the main challenge has been the complex executionits a lot of work in a six-month time period, from the infrastructure on the network side to giving attention to the security, says Mark Hillman, director of HR information technology at GM in Detroit. We were concerned about protecting the privacy of individuals, and we spent a huge amount of energy on that [as well as] on directories and on the portalhow its configured and how content is attached to be able to drive channels of personalization.

The GM Portal Takes Shape

The idea behind e-HR and what GM calls the Employee Service Center part of the portal is part of an overall transition that will help focus HR on more strategic, consultative and operational issues, and less on transactional issues, says Katy Barclay, vice president of global human resources at GM in Detroit. The portal will further our goal of a web-savvy workforce and enhance our ability to communicate and collaborate with one another. The Employee Service Center does this by cutting out HR as the middleman, and allowing employees to directly modify their HR-related information.

Beyond the grand strategy of transforming GM into a wired company lies a more fundamental business case: A portal saves a significant amount of money and time. A customer service representative administering HR-related issues costs GM $1.50 to $2 a minute, while the web equivalent costs less than a nickel a minute, says Barclay. The portal also allows GM to move to interactive voice response systems and a smaller call center staff, she says. Doing transactions over the web should reduce cycle times, improve quality and provide more accurate personalized information to the employee.

In devising a portal to help employees navigate GMs digital mountain of information, Hillmans staff decided to create a role-based environment in which an hourly employee will see different information on the screen than a salaried one. A role-based portal allows GM to deliver customized information to different audiences, a salient advantage in a company with an employee population larger than many U.S. cities. As the portal evolves, more roles will be added, Hillman says, but it made sense to start first with the two major compensation groups at GM.

Already a large user of outsourcing services, GM figured the portal project would become a reality more quickly by handing it off to another company. Hillman and his co-captain on the project, Mark Johnson, director of e-HR at GM, discovered that no single company could provide every aspect of the project. So they cobbled together a deal in which Workscape Inc., a Reston, Va.-based company, produced the portal with the help of the companys HR IT staff.

Workscape will host the site, using servers designed by, in an application service provider environment, says Johnson. America Online serves as the Internet service provider (ISP) for GM employees, who can sign up under a special deal that costs just a couple of dollars a month.

When we went out and said we were putting together a role-based portal based on a directory [of employees] and gave people an idea of what we wanted, we didnt see that it was available in the marketplace. So we built a foundation by pulling together partners, says Johnson.


MySocrates offers tailored messages to different GM audiences on the front page and gives users a large menu of information optionssuch as reading e-mail and a message from the companys chief executive officer; learning about a new program; changing their addresses; creating a personal profile and seeing their pay stubs, says Hillman. On the HR side, much of what once required paperwork and perhaps a visit with a supervisor or HR now takes place on MySocrates.

Another major advantage that the new portal offers (and that the previous intranet site did not) is that employees can access the site through the Internet, via user names and passwords. Previously, salaried employees generally used the intranet only at work because access from home required special access telephone numbers. And hourly employees worked in plants that lacked large numbers of computers for accessing the companys intranet. Nor did these employees bother attempting to log in from home, even though they could.

With security concerns largely solved, employees now can use MySocrates from anywhere through the Internet. The company continues to investigate kiosks and other options for allowing access at manufacturing plants, says Johnson.

The portals goal always has been about freeing employees to do their jobs more effectively. The bottom line focusthe keyis about the productivity of the employee, not the productivity of HR, adds Hillman. Certainly you would get productivity improvement for HR, but the underlying tenet was productivity of employees: How do I make the work and life of employees more productive? The portal becomes a framework for work-related job information that you can tailor and customize in a big organization.

Stage 1: The Pre-Portal Site

For every portal, there once was a simple intranet site. The Employee Service Center began as a skunk works project in 1997 involving some IT folks who had trouble even getting people in HR to attend their meetings, says Hillman. IT created a site with static documents, such as employee handbooks, various HR-related enrollment forms, 401(k) transaction forms, flexible benefit enrollment forms and requests for direct deposits.

During this process, GM decided to put General Motors University classes online, which turned out to be a major undertaking that required IT to program a middleware package just to transfer the data from the universitys system to GMs intranet site. IT convinced management to reduce the amount of paperwork involved in registering for a class by putting the process online.

It amounted to the biggest stab at creating an interactive environment in the pre-portal stage. The system allowed an employee to enroll in classes online, to look at his training history [and to] build a personal development plan he and his supervisor can review and maintain, recalls Hillman. That immediately started getting high volume use, especially with our policy that no approvals were required for employees. They just needed to enroll. We wiped out middle bureaucracy after we learned it was acceptable to the organization.

Early on in the intranets development, GMs IT department enlisted the communications staff to assist in the content architecture, the interface and user experience. We had some folks designing web sites and pages for quite a few years and they were very experienced, says Len Marsico, staff director of the GM Media Bureau in Detroit, a division with a global staff of more than 400. Were working on the look and feel. We think its been a good approach to have us working on the communications part of the site since thats our role in the corporation.

After a little more than a year in operation, GM saw as many as 15 million to 20 million hits a month on its pre-portal intranet site, with many users heading directly to the Employee Service Center part of the site for HR-related information and to use the handful of interactive tools available. The popularity led the company to move the center from IT to HR to sponsor further development.

Accounting for the high acceptance among employees, Hillman figures, was the success of the Internet and of e-commerce sites such as If employees could perform transactions on the Internet, why couldnt they also perform them inside GM?

Fortunately, GMs service center had the makings of a mini-Internet on the companys intranet, and people noticed. We luckily started displaying content and capability the same way the market was displaying content, says Hillman. Those things coming together provided a lot of fuel.

With HR and management enthusiasm running high, Hillman and his gang of programmers moved forward to add more functions, among them job postings. They never stopped to make a business case for adding a function, knowing the bureaucracy would ensnare them in a web of strategy sessions and endless approval processes. GMs executive staff gave Hillman and his team partial carte blanche to get the job done.

We didnt do the old classic Hey, lets take this work out of the organization before we can make a business case for adding a job posting systemwhich we did last year, he notes. If we got into the bureaucracy at too low a level to make a business case we wouldnt have gotten it done. Those decisions were made at the senior level.

The strategy worked. The success of the web site and the service center proved so great, HR did not hamstring Hillmans staff, but instead, showed a tremendous appetite for moving even more HR content on to the pre-portal site. Muchbut not allof that content was static rather than transactional, yet employees used those parts of the service center site as much as any of the interactive areas.

If that may come as bad news to web designers who prefer concentrating on creating spinning globes and greater interactivity on the site, it represents what most employees want and need, Hillman observes.

The business of HR is about providing information and forms to the employees, says Hillman. Thats valuable and we cant dismiss that as not cool, not that slick. Everyone wants to do this new and cool transactional stuff. Yes, thats absolutely great stuff. But do this basic stuff that you can do fast and inexpensively [first], and it has very high value to the organization.

Stage 2: The Future HR Portal

Although GM plans to study how employees use the initial phase of the portal before launching new services, Johnson has a few ideas in mind concerning future developments. For example, GM plans to make the MySocrates portal template available to international divisions and expects them to work toward their own versions soon.

In addition, more roles will be added to the North American portal, among them personalized information directed at managers, for example, or for retirees. As it stands, managers see the same portal information today as do other salaried employees. In the future, they will see content directed at them that will not necessarily be available to other salaried employees. Marsico, meanwhile, has plans to match the roles with individual corporate messages focused on each target group.

MySocrates is never going to be a done deal. Hillman plans a new release every six months, with more functions, features and services being added all the time. The portals interface may not change every six months, but the continued personalization of information will make the project forever changing and growing, he says.

Moving custom information up the ladder also will become a focus, says Johnson. He foresees a day when leader or manager self-service allows supervisors to see in one place everything they need to know about employees, from performance reviews to compensation and benefit packages, from the courses they have taken to their history with the company.

He also wants event-based options built into the portal. For instance, a birth would trigger appropriate information and forms to change health insurance coverage. And an employee relocation would generate pages offering moving assistance, and so on.

Of course, employee self-service through the web brings a time of transformation for HRwhich arguably will spend less time filing and maintaining employee records and more time in business units solving problems. The portal is transforming the function of HR within the organization, Johnson adds. It will free us up from mundane activities and allow us to participate in more value-added strategies and activities and services.

Neither Hillman nor Johnson would discuss precisely how much the ongoing project is costing GM, but Hillman strongly advocates that companies offer as much information online as possible. Even a static site without personalization or much interactivity will draw plenty of users, as the tremendous popularity of the early versions of Socrates showed.

With web design firms hitting hard times, today a company might be able to cut a sweet deal at costmuch less than, say, it might have paid a year ago for an HR-related site. And off-the-shelf portal-in-a-box applications allow even smaller companies to provide content and interactivity at a bargain basement cost.

So while GMs e-HR strategy is on a different plane than most of the world, Hillman sees no reason why smaller guys cant enter the game and begin providing their employees with customized information.

Frank Jossi is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn., specializing in technology, HR and business.



Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job

HR Professional Development Education in a City Near You

SHRM Seminars are coming to cities across the US this fall.

Find a Seminar


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect