If you build it, they will come — well, maybe not

Whenever the hero of W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe doubted his mission, his muse would utter those now-famous words: “If you build it, they will come.” Similar sensibilities seemed to have inspired the creators of most corporate and commercial Web sites over the past few years — it appears as though many Web site creators believed they simply needed to create the site in order to generate traffic.

As most of us have now discovered, this is for the most part, not true.

Our thinking about the Internet and how people use it has evolved at, well, Internet speed. We now know the success of a site, in terms of the desired traffic and interactions that most site creators crave, is not dependent solely on the technology of the site itself, the design or the cool content. Rather, site traffic is a complex interplay of these three elements: how well the site works (technology), how it looks (design) and whether users can do something useful once they’re there (content).

In addition, another critical insight gained over the past few years has more to do with human behaviour than with the Internet or Internet technologies per se. We are now much more cognizant of the fact that most people simply do not spontaneously change their entrenched behaviour solely because there is a “new and improved” way to do what they’re already doing.

Changing behaviour

This last insight is particularly problematic for creators of HR intranets or portals, since almost all of the business benefits expected from HR intranets accrue when people begin to change their behaviour and do the things they’re currently doing differently and in a more efficient or cost-effective manner. For instance, HR expects that users will:

•fill out their own forms online leading to decreased administrative costs;
•share their knowledge, once the infrastructure is built, resulting in the firm becoming more competitive; and
•browse Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and get their own answers to HR questions resulting in a decrease in the time and cost of managing inquiries.

But these expectations rest on an underlying assumption about the behaviour of corporate users that has proven itself to be untrue: many employers assume that people will spontaneously change the way they do things (ask for information, search for knowledge) when a new, alternative approach (the corporate HR portal) is created.

Most creators of HR portals or intranets, faced with the issue of site traffic, will typically focus on matters related to attracting users and encouraging interaction: What techniques can I employ to get users to the site? How can I get them to do their own transactions? What incentives work best to create the desired behaviours so that I can make my business case work? What can I do if the level of interaction I forecasted doesn’t materialize?

Instead of focusing on how to get users to adopt new processes and technologies, site creators should examine a more fundamental issue. The question HR portal or HR intranet creators must be able to answer clearly and unequivocally, and with deep knowledge of their user communities, is “why?” Why should users who have been successfully interacting with HR professionals and conducting their HR business “the old-fashioned way” (some of them for decades) suddenly change their behaviour because an HR portal exists? What’s in it for them?

The user value proposition

The needs of the user communities should be the foundation for site development efforts. For the most part, intranet technologies have evolved to the point where they no longer constitute a constraint for delivery — in other words, if you really want to enable a business process using HR portal technologies, you can probably do it. But a more important question is should you do it — and the answer to this latter question lies in understanding the needs of your users.

The most elegant technology in the world, coupled with the best design and the most interesting content, will not attract users or compel them to change their behaviour unless they want to change it. A site must offer better “value” for the user’s time and transaction than the method that is currently in use — and value is a highly individualistic proposition. In this context, the overall value proposition is not limited to financial value.

Take online banking for example (for the purposes of this example, let’s assume that all banks’ online capabilities are not equal — although they are becoming very similar indeed). For me, the ability to pay bills online has a very high value. I have no desire to step into a bank branch to pay my bills. The ability to pay bills online will have a material impact on my selection of a bank, perhaps equal to other criteria such as the institution’s branch network. I will, therefore, tend to favour banks that allow me to pay bills online. My mother, on the other hand, does not value this capability at all. If my bank builds its online capability assuming my level of value for online transactions, and most of its customers turn out to be like my mother, it will have spent a lot more than needed to on creating transaction technology.

And if this institution’s business case rests on converting most of its users to online transactions, it is headed for trouble. No amount of coaxing and promotion is going to turn my mother into an online banker — conducting transactions online has no value for her. My mother and I value online banking differently, and although we are both potential users, we have different user profiles, and should probably belong to different user communities.

In creating an HR intranet or portal, HR must understand the user’s value proposition — because understanding the basic value proposition from the user’s perspective is critical in attracting and retaining user interest. In addition, it is important to know if there is consistency among users or whether a number of different user communities exist.

Aligning site development efforts with the user’s value proposition will have a material impact on adoption rates — a critical early warning sign of whether you’re on track to deliver anticipated benefits. Like the canary in the coalmine, lack of adoption by key user communities means that the business case may be in jeopardy — a situation that may require revisiting the original business case and reassessing whether the originally anticipated benefits were indeed achievable.

If users’ needs are truly being met, efforts to attract users to the site and coax them into interactions will probably not be as extensive as they might be if you had selected business processes to automate at random (or perhaps, on the basis of what your technology is capable of doing). While this makes intuitive sense to most people, a remarkable number of Web sites are created without a sufficient level of knowledge about the needs of user communities.

Advocate for the user

It’s tempting to get caught up in all of the excitement of how “cool” intranet portal technology can be, and what the technology could do for the organization. But more important for the success of a project, is how well one understands user communities, and how well aligned technology creation efforts are with the needs of those users.

And who better to act as advocates for the users than the organization’s HR practitioners?

As subject matter experts in HR processes, HR practitioners know more about how transactions currently transpire than any other group in the company. In addition, they can provide critical insights into the existence of various user communities (or stakeholder groups).

HR practitioners can also play a lead role in seeking to understand the needs of the user communities and articulating the user value proposition.

In many ways, HR practitioners are best suited to get the answer to “why” users will visit the site, and to make sure site development efforts are aligned with the needs of the users.

Ed McMahon is a senior consultant and practice leader, eHR, in Watson Wyatt Canada’s Toronto office.
He may be reached at 1-866-206-5723 or (416) 874-4925 or
[email protected].

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!