When the technology downturn took the exuberance out of the software business, Mapics Inc., an Atlanta supplier of enterprise systems, decided to shed real estate rather than people. The company made such a commitment to telecommuting that three-fourths of its staff now work from home, client sites, or other remote locations on any given day.
A slimmed-down headquarters keeps the overhead low, but it poses a number of managerial challenges. E-mail, chat rooms, and, of course, telephones keep communication and collaboration alive, but what about the more mundane aspects of life at the office, such as distributing benefits forms or the voluminous paperwork associated with hiring, job changes, and annual health-care enrollment? For those and a growing number of similar tasks, Mapics, like many other companies, relies on an employee portal, a one-stop, Web-based window that allows employees to sign in and have instant access to a range of software applications and data sources, often tailored to their specific needs. One Mapics executive calls the portal "the heartbeat of our organization" and says it allows almost every department at the company to operate off-site. Except finance, which continues to show up at the office every day, mostly because of the demands of Sarbanes-Oxley.
The emergence of the portal has also been a boon for human-resources departments at companies where most of the employees are on-site, enabling them to escape the role of paper-shuffling middlemen, particularly when it comes to questions about various benefits. Payroll history, comparisons of health plans, an explanation of the vacation policy, and much more can be presented as, essentially, an online company handbook.
Using a portal, employees practice self-service to update their personal information, enroll in benefits programs, and get answers to a host of questions that formerly entailed a knock on the door of a beleaguered HR employee. At a time when nearly everyone is familiar with navigating Web pages, the portal is instantly recognizable and simple to use, with training almost unnecessary.
But that very simplicity creates a problem: plenty of other software is being retooled to be delivered via portals, and many companies are consolidating the various intranets that have cropped up in their organizations into a unified enterprise portal that often competes with the HR portal for resources and employees' attention. Portals have also become a popular way to connect with business partners and customers. That creates plenty of potential for portal overload, not to mention turf wars as companies struggle with how to manage a technology that cuts across many departments.
While the portal is simple to grasp from a usability standpoint, behind the scenes it takes plenty of work to produce, deliver, and update the content, an undertaking that usually involves an often uneasy alliance of businesspeople and IT staff. And, as useful as portals are, analysts believe they are a mere stepping-stone to composite applications, which combine pieces of several different applications in ways that allow workers to do things no single application can address.
For example, an employee who has recently become a parent might enter that information in a "life events" composite application that automatically connects to a number of separate, underlying applications involving tax withholding, life and medical insurance, and college savings plans. Today's portals bring those applications together in one place, but don't integrate them. However, analysts say such integration will be common in four or five years and will provide a substantial productivity payoff.
Therefore, it's important for companies to avoid conflict; by managing portals well today, they can leverage immediate benefits and lay the groundwork for future advances. Success, analysts say, hinges on the triumph of governance over politics. "Right now it's a fight for screen real estate," says Michael Rudnick, national intranet and employee portal leader at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human-capital consulting firm. "HR owns a lot of valuable data on employees, including the employee directory, which is always the most-used application in an employee portal."
But HR does not always oversee employee communications, the department that usually produces the employee newsletter and lots of other topical content — including messages from the CEO and CFO. And neither HR nor employee communications owns the technology that delivers all this information and functionality. "No company has a 'Department of the Intranet,'" says Rudnick, "so it becomes a question as to who fills up the intranet or portal; who manages it."
Mapics has a simple solution, albeit one that other companies may find difficult to emulate: Sandy Hofmann holds the dual titles of CIO and chief people officer, making her the logical "owner" of the portal, with direct responsibility for the technology and the content. At other firms, however, "portal anarchy is common," says Pamela Stanford, director of IBM Workplace Solutions. "We had 8,000 intranets at IBM at one point. They're easy to launch, but the more you put up, the harder it becomes to find anything." Often HR departments, having rolled out those self-service capabilities via a portal, feel uneasy as newer, more-ambitious portal strategies threaten to overshadow their achievements. But Stanford says it doesn't have to be that way.
"Companies often talk about breaking down silos," says Stanford, "and a smart portal initiative is a good way to do that. HR can lead such efforts," in part because it already spans the organization — everyone, after all, gets a paycheck, enrolls in benefits programs, and looks to HR for information on a host of issues.
One way to proceed, she says, is by creating a "program office," which she says is distinct from a project office because projects have a finite life span (in theory, anyway), whereas programs are ongoing. The program office would gather input from various departments and manage it in a coherent way.
"A portal program office that oversees and refreshes all content, from HR policies to performance metrics to company news, is a great vehicle for up-and-coming executives to rotate through," adds Stanford. "It's a great way to learn all facets of the business." Successful launches of such initiatives, she says, depend on HR executives working closely with CFOs and CEOs, with IT in a supporting role.
Whether or not HR plays a lead role in portal management, HR functions will continue to move to a portal-based, self-service model. That will certainly boost efficiency and convenience regarding the more mundane aspects of HR. But as HR departments embrace IT for E-learning, talent management, and other, more strategic, contributions to the enterprise, they may find that the increased visibility they seek in the executive suite hinges in large part on the visibility they enjoy on employees' desktops.
"You don't want to get bogged down by ownership issues," says Mapics's Hofmann, "and you don't want information on the portal getting stale, so the key is to involve all groups — HR, IT, and the various lines of business — in a discussion of portal design up front. If everyone agrees how the portal will be maintained and updated, then you're much better equipped to avoid conflict and keep the portal a valuable information-delivery vehicle."
Scott Leibs is editor of CFO IT.