Empowering employees

After concentrating on improving their customer relationships, federal agencies may now be looking to strengthen ties with their employees.

Under the emerging concept of employee relationship management (ERM), organizations are beginning to use technology to offer their workers expanded access to human resources information and services, often in a self-serve mode, in exchange for potential improvements in efficiency, productivity and employee retention.

Although ERM applications have generated buzz in the commercial market, government agencies have taken only limited steps to deploy them. Further inroads are likely to encounter budgetary and cultural barriers. However, it is still early, and ERM remains a work in progress.

ERM is less a discrete product set than "a strategy to leverage technology to optimize the [employee] relationship," said Jenni Lehman, vice president and research area director with Gartner Inc.

The technologies involved are employee Web portals, transactional applications and information delivery, according to Paul Hamerman, research director at Giga Information Group Inc. Enterprise software, customer relationship management (CRM) software and niche software companies offer these components.

Many Perspectives

Although they agree on the potential benefits of the applications, vendors tend to offer different perspectives on the nature of the solution. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors, such as People.Soft Inc., Oracle Corp. and SAP AG, are eschewing the ERM moniker and placing the technologies in a broader enterprise solution context.

SAP has placed ERM under the concept of "enterprise workforce management," which is part of "a more holistic collaborative solution" that includes human resources management, CRM, business intelligence and a collaborative portal, said Eric Stine, director of the CRM business unit at SAP Public Services.

CRM specialist Siebel Systems Inc. embraces the ERM concept and offers an ERM-specific product. "We define ERM as a broad set of employee and management facing applications that are helping companies to drive organizational performance," said Stacey Lawson, vice president and general manager for Siebel ERM.

Siebel's ERM 7.0 includes a Web portal and technologies that automate such functions as performance management, time and expense reporting, and project management.

Then there are niche vendors, such as ProAct Technologies Corp. and Authoria Inc., that often find themselves working with Siebel and the ERP firms.

"There is nobody offering a solution" that addresses all of the potential ERM functional areas, Hamerman said. He identified five such areas:

* Human resources, including payroll, benefits, performance and compe.tency appraisals and training.

* Administration processes outside HR, including time, attendance and expense reporting; information technology help desk and facilities use; and maintenance.

* Corporate and employee communications.

* Workplace services, including e-mail, instant messaging and scheduling software.

* Specific job information, which, although not currently available, would provide access to applications specific to a task.

Most ERM applications do not go much beyond traditional HR tasks, focusing more on managing employees rather than providing them with services, Hamerman said. Nonetheless, he argued, ERM, even in limited use, offers benefits that can justify investment — a sentiment that not surprisingly has been echoed by vendors.

Easy Pickings

Those benefits begin with automated paper-driven processes, such as expense reporting, benefits and payroll, Hamerman said.

Trading in legacy systems for commercial products also saves money, said Mark Johnson, vice president of federal sales for Oracle. The upfront costs to deploy commercial off-the-shelf products may be significant, "but over a five-year life cycle, they will [probably be] a small portion of what they would pay" to maintain legacy systems, he said.

That's what Tennessee Valley Authority officials had in mind when they decided recently to replace homegrown self-service applications with new ERM technology from Workbrain Inc. to handle time and attendance functions. TVA wants to move from a client/server to a Web-based environment and save on hardware and maintenance costs, said Kim Patterson, senior manager of employee accounting at TVA.

TVA opted for the WorkBrain product in part because it was the only true Web-based product on the market, Patterson said. It can also "accommodate all of our complex payroll. We are very highly unionized, which tends to give rise to complexity...and we could build out from its core time and attendance functionality into other areas, such as workflow management and workforce scheduling."

Savings can also be gained by streamlining processes, said Sherry Olson, product manager of Human Resources Management Systems at Microsoft Corp. Great Plains Business Solutions. For example, employees can go online and change information in their personnel record or file travel expenses, she said.

Similarly, they can access up-to-date, personalized information about their benefits programs and options, said Bob Bouton, a senior marketing consultant for ProAct Technologies. "Typically, a government...organization has people whose only function is to explain those programs," Bouton said.

The system also could be used to facilitate communications between employers and employees via a Web portal. "Many companies today struggle to deliver the...strategy and vision of the company to frontline employees," Siebel's Lawson said.

Tough Sell

Even with this litany of benefits, implementation of ERM solutions still faces challenges in the federal space.

The first is convincing cash-strapped agencies to make the purchase — a task that has been complicated by the events of Sept. 11. Since then, acquisitions of these types of technologies have "really slowed down," said Gartner's Lehman.

Agencies also have to worry about obtaining the necessary bandwidth to support ERM applications, as well as ensuring security and employee privacy.

"The technology is the least of concerns," said Tim Vigotsky, director of the National Business Center at the Interior Department, which is deploying SAP self-service applications. In most cases, the problem is "that the workforce is not ready for change."

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Virtual HR

Employee relationship management (ERM) applications are built on three technology components, according to Paul Hamerman, research director at Giga Information Group Inc.

* The employee Web portal provides a personalized access point to human resources information and transactional services provided by the employer.

* Transactional applications automate paper-based business activities, such as time and expense reporting, benefits and payroll adjustments.

* The information delivery component includes a range of ERM capabilities, from accessing personal information to knowledge management. It can include systems that "push" communications — such as company news — to employee portals or to repositories of information, such as company policies and benefits. The repositories can then be queried on a self-service basis.

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