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HR and the WWW

The Business impetus for Web usage

I recently presented to the Institute of Personnel and Development on this topic. As I was preparing my talk I scanned the Sunday paper for some up-to-date statistics on Web usage. The Business section of the UK's Sunday Times (13/2/2000) had no fewer than 12 major articles about the Web - from the recent attacks on commercial web sites to the investor's growing preference for Internet over Blue Chip stocks.

Even since that date two major stories have been in the headlines. One is the move to un-metered telephone access to the Internet, removing one of the main barriers to growth in Internet usage in the UK. The other was the overhaul of the FTSE (the UK stock market index) when nine profitable, household name businesses exited the index and were replaced by dynamic technology companies. Out, for example, went Whitbread, the employer of 98 000 people with pre-tax profits last year of 365 million. In came Baltimore Technologies, the employer of 500 people and a loss in 1999 of 31 million.

By 2001 it is forecast that e-business will be worth 1, 700 billion worldwide - that is about 7% of world GDP and more than the economies of the UK, France and Germany combined! (Source Nortel) This is accounted for not simply by new Internet start-up companies, but by the embracing of Internet technology by well-established businesses in a combined strategy known as 'clicks and mortar.' My own bank has recently added PC banking, not as a substitute for telephone banking, but as an additional option for customers. Not only do they dramatically reduce transaction costs every time a customer clicks rather than dials, but the customer, who now has more options, perceives this as improved service. What's more, companies can revive their flagging market values as Reuters found recently, by wholeheartedly embracing an Internet strategy.

The real story then is that the Internet, once the preserve of the hobbyist surfer is now the domain of big business. It represents increasingly:

  • How customers want to buy (at least some of the customers, some of the time)
  • Who (bright, young) people want to work for
  • Where the competition is coming from (new sources)
  • Who the market wants to invest in

    What does this mean to HR?

    Firstly, new technology frees employees from the shackles of location. The mobile office is already a reality for some - work is wherever there is a telephone socket to plug into - and soon, with the advent of mobile computing, not even that will be needed. Virtual teams now have fast and efficient ways of co-ordinating their work across the boundaries of geography, time zone or organisation. They don't even need to share an Intranet, as Internet-based services are developing to meet their need. Just as the Internet is transforming businesses and markets, it will change the shape and structure of our organisations, our working practices, our contracts of employment. It will require new skills of our employees - not just the ability to use the technology as some sort of 'add on skill', but the ability to integrate and use the technology to perform many of their work activities.

    To take a simple example, Intranet technology can transform administrative processes. In companies that adopt self-serve HR processes employees can submit expenses, book a temp, request their holiday dates, change their health scheme options or track their stock options, all online. In one company over 420 paper forms were eliminated in the space of a year - the handful that survived were necessary to meet legal requirements (e.g. contracts of employment)

    A recent survey in the UK showed that the Internet is the preferred option for 60% of jobseekers, yet 30% of top FTSE 100 companies do not have a recruitment website (source Independent on Sunday 13/2/2000). I suspect that many more who find jobs advertised in traditional media will check out the company web-site before attending an interview or even before applying. At a time when there is much talk of 'Employer Brand', what does your Website say about your company, its culture, its values, and its HR practices? If it focuses only on attracting investors and customers, what message does that give to potential employees? And if you have no Website at all, what does that say about your company?

    What can HR professionals use the Web for?

    Although HR has, potentially, a strategic role in equipping organisations and individuals to compete and thrive in the cyber economy, it can hardly take on this mantle if HR professionals are laggards in using the technology themselves. Yet there are many possibilities offered by the Internet to simplify the life of the busy HR manager. To take just 3 examples:

    • The use of 360-degree feedback is growing in popularity for leadership development, yet administering paper-based versions can be an administrative nightmare. As discussed in a previous newsletter for just 20 managers there can be as many as 200 pieces of paper to manage. Web-based 360 instruments can dramatically simplify this task, and are especially helpful where raters are in different locations. Reminders can be sent out automatically and a current status of how many forms have been returned can be viewed. More than this though, the use of Web-based instruments offers a degree of flexibility impossible with paper-based versions. For example, multiple profiles can be made available - even to the point of the individual being able to customise the questionnaire to their own particular requirements. Many different formats of report can be offered, so that the individual can view the data in ways that are most meaningful to them. They may choose to send a follow-up questionnaire six months or so later, which focuses only on the areas they have been working to improve etc.

    • Some of the most difficult aspects of employee communication involve updating and distributing key reference documents such as Employee handbooks, Policies and Procedures. In addition to the costs of printing and re-printing these documents, there is the challenge of ensuring that out-of-date versions cease to circulate. By putting this information on the company's intranet employees can access the latest information when they need it. Web technology can also help meet the challenge of communicating important company announcements simultaneously across multiple sites. Some companies hold 'Net Shows' where employees can engage in Q&A with a senior manager.

    • In this fast-moving environment it is more critical than ever that the HR manager stays abreast of latest thinking, understands the new resource base that is building and can confidently seek out answers to her questions. Recently, a simple e-mail newsletter produced an answer within 24 hours to a request from one of my clients for a Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking trainer based in Asia who could deliver a course on objective-setting.
      There are data-bases to search for courses and resources and libraries-worth of reference information, much of it free. Even with subscription services, if they enable you to complete in minutes or hours what used to take days or weeks, then HR managers can not only benefit from the time released for other work, but can deliver exceptional services to their clients.
    You will find links to many useful sites on my Links page

    Published on HBC Web-site 03/2000

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