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Any Storm in a Portal?

Portals have been a godsend to HR departments, but behind the scenes, they can create plenty of chaos.

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.

Portal Anarchy

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.

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