Improving Intranet Usefulness

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Apr 1, 2008
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HR Magazine, April 2008 To get greater HR value from your intranet, put users first when planning its design and functions.

American Electric Power had just about every type of employee and manager self-service technology on the market. The Columbus, Ohio-based electric utility, with 20,000 employees, provided all HR policies, procedures and forms online, too. The problem was that few employees were actually using the technology.

“People were still calling the service center for information and coming into the [HR] office,” says Barry Kemp, manager of HR information systems at American Electric Power (AEP). All of the information that employees wanted, he says, “was somewhere online, but it wasn’t easily discoverable to them.”

Kemp’s team set out to find out why, and discovered a problem that plagues many companies: The HR pages on the corporate intranet weren’t easily accessible. AEP’s HR department took on an intranet redesign process, and eight months later the company had an awardwinning intranet that substantially increased traffic on pages featuring some HR transactions.

Experts say HR professionals at companies of any size can realize similar benefits. The key: adopting a systematic approach to intranet design that values user contributions, establishes content and style standards, keeps navigation as simple as possible, and creatively addresses business processes and tasks.

Your Starting Point

First, assess what you already have on your intranet. Ask information technology (IT) staff how often each intranet page is accessed. For employee selfservice features, track the percentage of transactions processed online compared with those completed on paper. Compile the questions that HR staff members receive most frequently from employees and managers, and identify how accessible each answer is via the intranet.

Follow up with a reality check: Ask your users. “Just sit with them and watch how they use [the intranet],” says Kara Pernice, director of research at The Nielsen Norman Group, a technology design and usability consulting firm based in Freemont, Calif.

Surveys and user-group meetings also yield valuable data. At the Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, N.J., employees completed a simple survey on the company’s intranet functions. Questions focused on what worked and what didn’t, and information and functions employees wanted but didn’t have at the time. Forty-five percent of the respondents provided critical feedback for the intranet redesign, according to Victoria Colaneri, Campbell’s director of global HR technology and processes.

Improving the Process

Second, to use their intranet’s potential, many employers need to examine their processes. At AEP, “the usability focus quickly moved to process flow,” Kemp says. “We were looking at everything we did through the users’ eyes.”

At London-based British Airways, an intranet redesign was approached as a way to gain efficiencies after the industry downturn in 2001. The company focused on standardizing and simplifying common HR transactions across all business lines. Across divisions, “it can be hard to adopt one standard,” says Allen Huish, manager of British Airways’ employee self-service program. “We had a relentless focus on making sure processes are done the same way through the whole organization.”

As part of such a review, look for new ways to consolidate HR information and processes online. At Campbell, Colaneri and her team visited a cross section of facilities to learn how employees in each location received and disseminated HR information. She explains: “We asked, ‘How are people using the intranet? What are people hanging on their walls? What posters are on the bulletin boards at our manufacturing locations? How can we provide that electronically?’ ”

Be practical when prioritizing. Says Huish: “Go for the high volume. It isn’t worth doing an intranet page for a transaction you do three times a year.”

Set Some Standards

Experts say a cohesive approach to style and design aids navigation. If you can make things look similar across the intranet, users get up to speed quicker, advises Pernice. “Users get frustrated when they can’t find what they want.” Standards should include specifics on font style, type size, use of color and navigation tools. If your company isn’t ready to adopt across-the-board intranet standards, start by establishing style guidelines for the HR pages.

Content and placement should also be subject to some control; many companies have intranet editorial groups to review and approve content before posting. For example, Save the Children, a global nonprofit humanitarian organization based in Westport, Conn., has 50 editors worldwide who submit intranet content every day for SaveNet. A smaller group of SaveNet moderators review submitted content before posting, says Michele Dugan, associate director of collaborative systems.

Some contributors may balk at this, but, Pernice says, “You’re responding to vice presidents around the organization, all saying, ‘My stuff is important, put it on top, put it on the home page, make it a bigger pushbutton,’ and it’s hard to say no. But if everything is at a top level, users don’t see anything—it’s just a whole bunch of clutter.”

Leave room to grow. “Make it scalable,” Pernice says. “Make sure that if you have to add six more menu items, they won’t be falling off the page.”

Home Sweet Home Page

The home page is the jumping-off point, so make yours functional. “Put stuff on the home page that people want to get at frequently,” Kemp says. Examples include access to pay stubs, paid timeoff balances and functions for updating personal information. Consider adding a frequently asked questions link that directs users to online resources.

Many intranets enable users to customize their home pages, boosting employee engagement. Options may include stock prices, weather, external news feeds and internal news by division or brand.

Integration of human resource information systems allows the intranet to provide custom home-page content based on the users’ sign-ons. At Campbell, a personal home page called myCampbell provides content specific to the employees’ job grade, managerial responsibilities, business unit and location. “It helps [users] find information faster because it knows who they are,” Colaneri says.

Managers’ home pages can include links to the applicant-tracking system and time and attendance database, as well as task reminders such as payroll review and approval. Sales staff members can see their period-to-date progress toward goals; other employees might receive reminders about benefits enrollment or training registration. Providing reminders complete with links to appropriate intranet pages improves response time and compliance with HR policies.

This approach boosts HR efficiency. The intranet can recognize HR staff members and provide custom links to systems used only within the department, such as I-9 management and pre-hire screening systems. At AEP, HR staff members’ home pages include links to relevant associations and reference groups’ web pages, and access to less frequently used transactions, such as leaves of absence and military call up.

At BD Diagnostics in Sparks, Md., a unit of the BD global medical technology company, HR staff members use the intranet for information sharing among widely separated locations. Using the intranet’s collaboration software, staff members can post and share Power-Point presentations, white papers and other documents.

The department has also developed a meeting-tracking system that improves follow-through. “No more e-mailing [meeting] minutes,” says Diane Polk, SPHR, worldwide HR director for BD Diagnostics. “Now we can all see the decisions we made as a team, track the action items, and it’s all housed on a database that is forever accessible.”

Communication, a Key

Intranets are natural vehicles for reinforcing corporate culture, boosting morale and fostering team mentality. Use the intranet to share success stories, recognize employees and remind users of objectives.

At Save the Children, Michele Dugan, associate director of collaborative systems, reports that 80 percent to 90 percent of all employee communications are distributed through SaveNet. Once a week, the organization sends an electronic newsletter called Room Service, highlighting new pages, links to announcements and tips. This approach has been particularly effective for field employees, many of whom do not have regular connectivity. “People in the field would rather have one e-mail with 20 links instead of 20 e-mails,” Dugan says.

Computer access during work hours remains problematic for employees in many environments. Managers with experience in intranet redesign report that remote intranet access is a high priority for employees; British Airways found that home access was the No. 1 employee preference. As more HR transactions become automated, home access becomes more critical to ensure equal access for all employees. “Self-service is about employees having more control,” Huish says. It’s “empowering to people.” Today, 75 percent of British Airways’ intranet usage originates off company premises.

Aim for Integration

An intranet typically serves as a portal for entry into other HR applications on a company server or hosted by a service provider. Some applications prove easier to integrate than others. Wherever possible, work with vendors to tailor applications so they adhere closely to design standards and offer cohesive navigation.

Access is important too. Experts say requiring separate security sign-ons for each system becomes a major obstacle for users. “How do you get large-scale adoption for workers at every level if everyone has to remember 15 different passwords?” Huish asks.

Single sign-on programming allows all applications to accept the same user ID and password. Yet some programs still will require separate sign-on. Passthrough authentication provides an elegant solution: code passes the credentials from a user’s intranet sign-on through to other systems. With passthrough authentication, users need to enter their user ID and password only once.

Implementing single-signon or pass-through authentication requires collaboration with HR technology vendors and corporate intranet or internet security experts. These functions can be time-consuming and costly. But if resources are available, experts say, it drives usability and adoption.

Not Just for the Big Guys

While access and security issues can be big-ticket items, basic intranet design and content management remain affordable -- sometimes even free. In some instances, an efficient intranet can be built using open-source content-management software downloaded from the Internet at no charge. To find a reliable source, confer with colleagues at similar-sized companies and do some research. One source: www.newsforge.com, an online “newspaper” on open-source and other technology. Also, look for certification indicating that the download is “Open Source Initiative Approved.” To learn more, visit www.opensource.org.

There are also various intranet portal and content-management systems on the market. They range from more affordable turnkey options to enterprise systems. Solutions can be licensed and run on corporate servers or hosted by the vendor for a monthly fee—an option that can be attractive to cash-short small businesses.

Costs depend on the complexity of the intranet design and its functions. “It can vary from a thousand dollars to millions of dollars,” Pernice says.

No matter the budget, intranet functions should be assessed regularly—some companies do it three or four times a year—to maintain standards, improve navigation and keep content fresh. Intranets, Pernice says, “are definitely organic. Organizations change. You can’t just put [an intranet] out there and never look at it again.”

Just 10 years ago, intranets were often an afterthought. Today, managers in corporations of all sizes learn to leverage their power. Pernice says, “We have to give people in our organizations the right tools.” If you don’t have a strong HR presence on your intranet, she says, “you’re falling behind the times.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM article:

HR Benefits Portals: If You Build It, Will They Come?
(HR Magazine)

Report:
Global Intranet Trends
(Jane McConnell) 

Web sites:
Intranetblog.com 

Newsforge 

Open Source

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