HR firm builds portals to serve clients

To meet the rising demand among its blue-chip customers for better insight into their HR data, HR outsourcer Hewitt Associates designs a collaborative Web-based portal based on products from Informix, Lotus, and Epicentric.

HR pros glean greater insight into their employee data thanks to a collaborative Web-based portal designed by HR outsourcer Hewitt Associates based on products from Informix, Lotus, and Epicentric.

For Hewitt Associates, taking care of client data is nothing new. Hewitt, a huge human resources outsourcer, has been storing its clients' employee records electronically since 1994, and keeping hard copy documents on file for even longer. Lately, though, many of the 60-year-old company's blue-chip customers are clamoring for more ways to access and use these HR statistics.

"Our clients kept telling us, 'You have all this data, and we want to be able to measure it,'" says Tim Hilgenberg, chief technology strategist for Hewitt's Line of Business group. With a worldwide staff of 12,000, Hewitt counts among its clients more than two-thirds of the Fortune 500 and one-third of the Global 500. The Lincolnshire, Ill.-based consulting firm provides outsourcing and management services in areas ranging from HR strategy and technology to benefits administration, health care, and retirement and financial management.

Over the years, Hewitt has been gradually integrating the Web-based self-service and electronic document management applications into an architecture called Total Benefits Administration. TBA now provides both Web-based and call-center workstation "views." To provide the additional services clients were requesting, Hewitt had to implement data mining and collaboration applications. In late 2000, Hewitt began developing a Web-based portal called the Plan Sponsor Site (PSS) specifically geared to HR administrators. Unlike TBA, PSS wouldn't provide access to individual HR records.

"The HR people want to use this portal to look at general trends," Hilgenberg says. "For example, is participation in 401(k) plans running high? Are employees optimizing their investments? Are employees tending to move to preferred provider organizations? Are workers using the Web channel or the call-center channel to access information?"

HR collaboration was a requirement. "Our customers are quite interested in establishing a community. They want to be able to talk together about 'best practices' kinds of things," he explains. "For instance, if you have a PeopleSoft implementation, you might want to talk with other customers about how they are integrating their PeopleSoft applications with Hewitt's systems."

Hewitt launched an evaluation phase for PSS in September 2000. During the ensuing three months, the company narrowed the field to two players to evaluate in the categories of portal software, collaborative software, security, database, and business intelligence tools, then made a final selection for each.

"When it came down to data crunching, we found the Informix data warehouse best suited to our needs. We've been extracting data from IBM's DB2 database, loading it into Informix, and using Cognos' PowerPlay, UpFront, and Impromptu tools to create data marts for the PSS portal," Hilgenberg says.

For the collaboration features of PSS, Lotus' QuickPlace and Sametime products won out over eRoom Technology's eRoom. "We're a big Lotus shop, and we have a lot of customers who also use Notes and Domino. Typically, if other things are about equal, we'll go with a strategic vendor," Hilgenberg explains.

The Lotus environment provides electronic discussion rooms, meetings, forums, and team applications for information sharing, according to Hilgenberg. "HR administrators might want to share information about mergers and acquisitions, or about pricing for health benefits," he says. Hewitt also uses the collaborative space to post HR-oriented news and expert Webcasts.

For portal software, Hewitt chose Epicentric's Portal Server over Plumtree's Corporate Portal. "Epicentric had been on the market long enough to go through three or more versions," Hilgenberg says. "Also, several large firms had already implemented production installations, running business work at sizeable volumes."

Integrating multiple vendors' software products posed a major challenge. Hewitt toiled for three months on software coding. "We wanted to get everything done in time for our annual customer conference, so April 2001 was a hard stop for us," he says. Wherever possible, Hewitt opted for products that would work well together, to help speed implementation. In the reporting tools arena, Cognos' business intelligence tools emerged victorious over a suite from Business Objects, the other finalist, owing to closer integration between Cognos and Epicentric, according to Hilgenberg.

In the end, Hewitt had an application that worked well. The experience of developing PSS underscored Hilgenberg's long-held conviction that solid planning holds the key to smooth deployment.

It's too early to quantify the return on investment from Hewitt's PSS, according to Hilgenberg, but clients are already receiving better access to data about plans and operations, he says. For example, the system lets companies quantify levels of employee participation in various health-care plans. If participation levels are low, employers might then decide to intensify their benefit enrollment drives. From Hewitt's perspective, the advantages so far include more efficient client interactions and improved client relationships.

Although PSS is only at release 1.0, Hilgenberg says that so far, "the portal seems to be very well-received. People particularly appreciate the ability to 'talk amongst themselves' about HR issues. But we will be evolving the portal over time. First, we need to get more feedback about how people are using the site, and what they like about it."

In January 2002, Hewitt expects to add more "openness" to its Web self-service application by adding the Apache Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) 2.2 run-time toolkit to its current implementation of IBM's WebSphere. Hilgenberg expects to deploy services providing financial advice to benefit holders using applications that take advantage of SOAP, XML, and Web Services Description Language. "We've been separating data from presentation before, but in a more proprietary way," he says.