A Bright Idea: HR Portal Helps Osram Sylvania See the Light

Business portals are hot - and with good reason. The idea of a central aggregation point for corporate data, tools and links accessed through a familiar browser interface appeals to firms whose information and business processes are scattered across many different reports, applications and systems. When it comes to building your first portal, however, it may pay to "think small." Rather than trying to create an all-encompassing enterprise portal that links everyone to everything - with all the hassles and expense that might entail - many companies are building focused portals that solve a pressing problem in a particular department or business function.

That's how our small, motivated team of IT and business staff at Osram Sylvania approached it when building HR InfoNet, a portal focused on human resources. The North American division of Osram GmbH of Germany, with $3.7 billion in sales, Osram Sylvania manufactures and markets lighting and precision materials and component products for a number of industries; and with 12,500 employees in 30 locations in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Mexico, the HR InfoNet offers a variety of challenges. Today, several years later, the portal serves as the focal point for the firm's job postings, requisitions and hiring workflow, as well as the interface to HR benefits for all employees, including the many hourly workers that don't have computers on their desks.

This article explores the challenges our team faced in building the portal, including how a team philosophy of "think small" led to some large accomplishments. For one, the company saved $500,000 per year by taking outsourced HR benefits administration in-house.

The initial impetus for a human resources Web portal came about because HR is so strategic to Osram Sylvania. The lighting industry is highly competitive, which makes finding, recruiting and hiring specialized scientists, engineers and hourly staff a challenge in the best of circumstances. Back in 1995 at Osram Sylvania, recruitment was more difficult because the company relied on an inefficient job requisition system based on paper documents, forms and workflow by interoffice mail.

Employee benefits administration was another trouble spot, since the company used an expensive outsourcing solution that included an unwieldy voice recognition system that employees used to access the benefits program. We began to consider the possibility of a self-service portal application.

The recruitment problem needed a faster solution than the existing "paper chase" system. Everything, from taking headcounts to gaining ap-provals on job descriptions and hiring decisions, required finding the right forms: Both the forms and the information needed to complete them were hard to come by. The workflow was slow and tedious. HR staff had to write a job description for an open position, the hiring manager had to approve it, and then other managers submitted their final, overall approval. If a manager made a change, the whole process had to be repeated. The system was so slow it could take weeks, or even months, for an open job to reach the advertising stage.

On the benefits front, an interactive Web portal for employee self-service would solve several problems. The first was improving employee service. The voice-activated system was user-unfriendly and limited in its capabilities. During the annual open-enrollment benefits period, for instance, employees had to listen to voice recordings and punch in arcane codes to change their coverage. They couldn't do any "what-if" comparisons or even see the cost of the programs they chose - they had to refer to weighty paper instructions, not unlike filling out their income tax forms. Another problem was that the system couldn't handle "qualified life status changes" at all, such as adding a spouse or child to a family's benefits. For this type of change, employees had to call HR staffers, who entered the data on paper forms. And the phone system didn't allow employees to check balances in the company savings plan or perform other self-service tasks. Together, these problems made it clear that there had to be a better way.

Bringing job requisitions and benefits enrollment online were the initial goals of HR InfoNet. While the IT requirements were relatively straightforward, two internal issues added to the challenge. The first was the fact that only 4,000 of Osram Sylvania's 12,500 employees have computers - hourly staff simply don't need them in their daily work. The other issue was my personal situation. I had been hired in 1995 to head up the PeopleSoft system group, a team of three, charged with maintaining and extending the PeopleSoft HR system and the interface to our Ceridian payroll. When I came on board, we were just converting to Ceridian from a GTE payroll system (GTE was Sylvania's owner before it was acquired by Osram in 1993). In 1995, we were so busy with the conversion that we couldn't begin looking into the HR portal until early 1996.

In those early days of the intranet craze, the company had been running Lightweb, an intranet on NT server using Microsoft's Web technology that was very successful for disseminating corporate communications information, mostly static pages. This led us to want to utilize it for interactive applications. Mehrdad Laghaeian, then head of Systems Engineering and now our Vice President of IT, had thought from the start that the intranet was the place to run our HR portal and static data, as well as interactive applications, and that became our plan. I drove the project from the IT side, and Geoff Hunt, Vice President of Human Resources and Nancy Dobrusin and Julie Thibodeau, my functional counterparts in the HR department, drove it from the business side. In addition, we had ongoing support from Michelle Marshall and the Corporate Communications department throughout the process - especially with the implementation of the HR InfoNet kiosks.

Think Small, Strategize Big

We weren't given much in the way of resources to develop HR InfoNet - no dedicated staff, no funds to hire consultants, no budget! But like many IT professionals, we wear many hats. I'm a project manager, but I'm also the lead programmer on the PeopleSoft team and have two programmers under me, so I aimed for a solution that we could create ourselves. This meant "thinking small," in terms of a solution that conserved both money and our precious time. But, we also needed to "strategize big," in the sense that our development platform and solution architecture had to handle current point solutions, as well future applications, as the portal grew.

At the time, we had been using Lotus Notes on NT for groupware applications, such as document management and sales force automation, but we had not tried it for the Web. Our groupware manager, Jeff Ruck, suggested we look at Domino, which had just come out, for its ability to easily display Notes databases on the Web. I had been experimenting with Active Server Pages and other possible solutions, but after studying Domino, it seemed like a good fit, so we decided to use it.

At that time, there were no Domino training classes, so we jumped into it, experimenting and learning from the manuals. A short three months later, we had our first success - a portal application for posting job requisitions. Written in LotusScript and using Notes/Domino databases with agents, it allowed an HR specialist to create a job posting and publish it to our intranet for a specified time. Developing this application so quickly proved that our tools and approach were working, so we continued with the next application, which allowed employees to see their benefits profile and correct any errors. If errors were found, they could specify them and use workflow to route the feedback to HR staff, who would then enter the correct information into PeopleSoft.

Both applications required accessing data from PeopleSoft - the job descriptions based on job codes are stored there, as are the employee benefits profiles. We decided not to do this in real time, but to download data in batch mode each night from the UNIX server - where PeopleSoft runs - to the Notes NT server. Then, a data integration software tool called ZMerge picks up the data and puts it into the appropriate Notes database for access on the portal. Today, our portal includes real-time links to HR suppliers, such as the Siemens Benefits Service Center, which administers our company savings plan.

For employees without computers, we rolled out kiosks that use standard browsers instead of a proprietary kiosk operating system. In effect, we created kiosks by putting a PC in a metal box with a touch-screen monitor, running just a browser. Thus, the kiosk user sees the same application as the desktop user. The only problem is one of security - the desktop application identifies users by their network logon, but for kiosk users, security and personnel identification are more complex. Hourly employees are now given network IDs and training on how to enter their information into the browser. We also developed a method of forcing network authentication through the browser in order to address the problem of secure logon. With this system, employees are automatically logged-off to ensure privacy, once a benefit session is complete. Our commitment to developing HR InfoNet access for hourly workers, while a large initial effort, has paid off significantly. This year's enrollment involved far less training and far fewer ID issues.

Phase two of the job requisition application process was to create an intranet-based workflow, which allowed managers to describe job openings and route them to the correct HR person, using online forms. From this information, HR staff would create job postings, submit them to management for approval, and then place the available positions on the company intranet. Now, these postings can be submitted directly to our corporate Web site, www.sylvania.com. After we successfully created the initial HR InfoNet portal, we expanded it to include more HR benefits and compensation information. Today, the portal allows employees to view their benefits, compare the cost of different programs, access information to help make their benefits decisions, change benefits enrollment, and perform many HR management duties, such as developing plans for salary reviews, management bonus programs, headcount reports and retirement packages.

Employee feedback on these new HR capabilities has been extremely positive. Recruiting cycle time has improved and HR productivity is better. HR benefits administration is much more user friendly, and even kiosk users have embraced the system - they're becoming computer-savvy enough to have requested that a mouse be added to each kiosk, in addition to the touch screen and keyboard. And by taking benefits administration in-house, the company has saved $500,000 annually of the previous outsourcing cost - an excellent return on the portal project.

Guidelines for a "Thinking Small" Portal

To what can we attribute our success in building HR InfoNet in such a short time, using so few resources? Overall, the "think small, but strategize big" philosophy has worked well for us. Instead of thinking big and trying to solve every problem at once, we used a focused approach, tackling the key problem first, and then moving on to the next one. Thinking big can lead to million-dollar budgets, hiring programmers, preparing thousands of pages of specs; instead, we tried to "strategize big," by devising a game plan and technology strategy that helps achieve some quick successes, while offering a solid foundation to build on for the future. Here are some practical insights into applying this philosophy.

Draw upon "hidden" talent. In keeping with "think small," we created HR InfoNet using a small group of staff in the PeopleSoft group, at virtually no cost to the company. Often, mounting expenses can kill this kind of project, but we succeeded, in part because management gave us the chance to take on the challenge, and the extra work. Our group has talents beyond just maintaining PeopleSoft - our main job - and we welcome the variety. True, it's a big obligation, but we want to do interesting, valuable work. People are quitting all the time to go to e-business startups; why not bring e-business here? And it's very exciting to be collaborating closely with the business staff on a Web project of great value to the company. Of course, we also had the strong support of our IT infrastructure staff, such as those who maintain the Web server, administer the Notes server and our corporate databases, design desktop environments and support the kiosks. Such strong support was critical to our success.

Partner with the business staff. This leads to another key to success - partnering with the business staff, not just in words, but in reality. We have an advantage here because at Osram Sylvania, PeopleSoft is a line-of-business application, so I was already working closely with my functional counterparts in HR business systems, benefits and compensation. To facilitate real partnership, try to situate your office near the business staff, as mine is, to help in joint planning and collaboration. And don't come to them with "schemes" concocted by the IT staff; rather, find out what their needs are, and come back with suggestions on how IT can meet those needs. In the case of our HR portal, the business people really wanted it, so their enthusiasm inspired us.

Use an iterative process. In keeping with the theme of thinking small, we didn't try to draw out specs for every aspect of the portal in advance and try to get managers to sign off on it. This can bog you down in huge, unreadable documents that don't advance your goals, and create divisions among the team. Instead, we used an iterative process, where we sat down with the business staff and worked out an agreement that described what we were trying to do. Then we developed a prototype, and the many ongoing iterations became the application. By working closely with the HR business staff sitting right around me, we quickly moved the project along. As we progressed, we garnered employee feedback via focus groups and other means, which helped us stay on track.

Choose the right technology tools. We chose Notes/Domino as our Web development platform, a good decision that helped us succeed. First, we were already using Notes, so it didn't cost us anything. Creating thin-client, server-centric applications with Domino helps us leverage our limited resources - a key element in thinking small. We also benefit from the integrated development environment, compared with other labor-intensive approaches that cobble together different tools and products to create the application. Everything we use in Notes is integrated: LotusScript is the language of Domino and it also represents the Domino Web application server. We also appreciate the many integrated features, such as workflow, which means we didn't have to learn to create workflow applications from scratch. Such integration speeds the development process.

Another key benefit is that Notes/Domino is based on an object database model; this suits the Web better than a relational model. All the talk about XML touts its ability to separate the display of something from the data itself, but Notes featured this from the start. If I want to change the display, I just create a different form, or multiple forms, and then suddenly the same data appears differently. From an application viewpoint, that's a revolutionary concept. Because Notes is so document-centric, it's well suited for the document-centric Web. And since HR InfoNet is a document and form-centric Web environment, Notes is the perfect tool.

We also take advantage of Notes' flexible agent technology. For instance, before a Web page comes up you can have an "query-open" agent filter and process the data in the database - such as finding the benefit programs you're eligible for and presenting them on the page. This speeds up the application by dynamically composing pages that fit your presentation, much easier than having a series of pages for different kinds of benefit programs.

The Future of HR InfoNet

Success leads to success, so the future of HR InfoNet is more of the same. By starting with applications for job requisition and HR benefits administration, we proved the validity of the portal concept. Today, we continue to develop new applications in succession planning, performance management process (PMP), and time and attendance. Initial findings from a study by International Data Corporation project that, over the next three years, Osram Sylvania will achieve a 251 percent ROI and a savings of $1.5 million. Our team of IT and business staff in the HR department, and the IT infrastructure and support staff, are proud of the success HR InfoNet has achieved, proving that by thinking small, it's still possible to achieve results that are big.