Portals: A one-stop benefits shop

Benefits technology isn’t just about getting staff to update addresses

The technical side of providing benefits and pension services is not just about enabling employees and retirees to complete their own transactions and information updating. It should also include providing necessary information, preferably when it is needed. This could entail providing plan information to an employee during enrolment or making benefit elections, for example.

Technology has allowed the mixing of various benefit and pension information, which can be seen in numerous software and service solutions in the marketplace. Self-service applications are now available through an organization’s benefit carrier or through a software solution. It allows employees to conduct their own benefit-related tasks, including enrolment in benefit plans, updating beneficiary information and viewing the status of claims and other benefit items. This has relieved benefit professionals from these administrative tasks.

But providing benefit services through technology is not just about transaction-related tasks, though. Benefit-related information is just as important to employees and employers as the actual benefit transaction is. There are also technologies that address this aspect of providing benefit services.

Benefit information is comprised of various items including:

•a company handbook;

•details of benefit plans offered; and

•tracking pension contribution and other information.

Employees want access to all of this benefit-related information. The challenge lies with integrating this information with the transactions that take place in an automated self-service solution.

This challenge is compounded by the fact the information can come from multiple sources. For example, self-administered plans are documented internally, whereas external carrier plans are obtained from the carrier. Regulatory information as it relates to benefits and pension plans may be derived from government and professional association sources. An organization’s benefits carrier may be different than its pension carrier, and therefore firms will get information about the plans from different sources. Details about registered retirement savings plans (RRSP) over and above the pension plan may come from yet another source.

Bringing together the benefit transactions with all of this information from various locations is not an easy task. The ideal scenario would be to merge all the benefit-related transactions, along with their supporting data, and make it available in one location. This would allow employees easy access to the information they need, when they need it, and allow them to make more informed decisions. All of these items can be organized and delivered via a company portal.

A portal is, by definition, an entry point to other sites. A company’s portal organizes various links to other sources of information including a link to the company’s self-service transactions. There are also links to the company handbook, RRSP and stock information and various other sources. This content aggregation allows the organization to optimize the employee experience.

The idea of a true benefits portal is one that has given rise to a small niche in the marketplace — traditional benefit suppliers are moving from call-centre delivery services to a more Web-based solution. Web-based portal products, focusing on the benefits area, promise the ability to bring together services into a single delivery mechanism. When an employee makes a choice to enrol in a benefit plan, she will be able to review the details of that plan and to compare it to other options. Employees may also have information provided to them, like information about getting a loan, when they are making an RRSP contribution.

What this means to an employee is, among other things, a single sign-on to the company portal to access information about all of her benefits. No matter how many different links the employee executes from the portal, each content provider will recognize who has signed on and will provide that employee with her own information. But in order for this to work, there must be standardization between vendors so the solutions can talk with each other.

The HR-XML Consortium, a body made up of organizations and vendors, has formed as a means to standardize the transactions between software systems and other service providers. Although portals have an important role when it comes to centralizing data and transactions, employees will not get the most out of portals without a standardization of documents and fields. By standardizing the content of XML documents, it should make aggregation of these services and delivery to employees seamless.

Technology has assisted in moving the delivery of benefits, pension and stock information away from call centres and has automated it through Web and portal technology. Portal technology, combined with industry standardization of transactions, is making it easier for aggregating benefit information and delivering it in a single mechanism to the employee and retiree population.

Outside of payroll, the benefit arena is the one area that most employees care about when it comes to getting information. Technology is making it easier for organizations to provide it and for employees to gather it.

Jeff Koven is executive vice-president of Cyborg Systems Canada, a provider of strategic human resource management solutions. For more information contact [email protected] or visit www.cyborg.com. His column appears regularly in Canadian HR Reporter’s Guide series. Look for the Guide to Payroll in the Sept. 8, 2003, issue.

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