Hitting the hub of the workforce

Ford’s global intranet portal offers 200,000 staff easy access to 300,000 web pages – the key to driving up productivity.

As if the internet needed another helping of alphabet soup, business-to-employee – or B2E – has been spotted on the jargon radar since early this year. With predictions for major and rapid returns from business-to-business e-commerce looking increasingly optimistic, internal projects again seem to be flavour of the month.

For big enterprises, employee-focused initiatives have the considerable advantage of addressing a captive audience. While customers and suppliers need to be persuaded to do business online, a firm has a far greater degree of control over its own staff. Given the right tools, they will have little excuse not to use them.

Corporate intranets – closed web networks linking a company’s employees to a variety of content and services – are well established in most large enterprises. But some of the world’s biggest manufacturing companies are now taking an increasing interest in their intranets, considering they have further untapped potential to boost productivity.

Probably the highest-profile example so far is Ford, which recently completed the roll-out to 200,000 employees of its new web portal, my.ford.com.

The year-long deployment was the result of ambitious plans by the car giant to create a single gateway to what had slowly evolved into one of the company’s biggest resources: its vast corporate intranet.

Ford’s internal network, known as hub.ford, is the largest commercial intranet on the planet. It has a long history, with its roots in the engineering divisions of Ford Aerospace (sold in 1990) in the mid-1980s. It emerged through a desire to share complex data internally and with the US government.

From its early CAD/CAM applications – and especially since the arrival of web-based technologies – the Ford intranet has grown into a monster. It now comprises around 1,500 sites which between them host 300,000 web pages and a million documents used by staff at operating units around the world.

When faced with an online library on this scale, there is inevitably a danger of users not being able to see the wood for the trees.

Some parts of the intranet, especially those concerning human resources issues such as payroll or pension schemes, are likely to be applicable to all employees. But a Ford design engineer in the UK is unlikely to visit the US legal department’s intranet homepage regularly.

The my.ford.com project aimed to give employees a personal ‘front door’ to the areas of the intranet they need, putting key sites and functions on a single, easy-to-use desktop.

Martin Davis, the Briton managing Ford’s worldwide e-portal programme, says my.ford.com was not about revamping the company’s intranet but changing people’s experience of it.

‘The intranet backbone was already mostly in place,’ says Davis. ‘This project was about giving people the information to do their job, and making it easier for them to conduct everyday transactions with the company.’

After evaluating several potential technology providers, Ford settled on corporate portal specialist Plumtree Software to power my.ford.com.

Plumtree had already supplied portal platforms for a number of large companies, including consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. But according to Charlie Abrahams, the company’s European managing director, my.ford.com is of a different order of magnitude. ‘We are fairly sure this is the biggest portal project that has ever been done in the world,’ he says.

Plumtree’s portals catalogue and index the vast amount of content on corporate websites and integrate it with a wide range of e-business applications in use throughout an enterprise.

At the heart of the portal are hundreds of ‘gadgets’, individual plug-in components that bring specific services and content to a user’s desktop. This gives employees direct access to common applications from the likes of Microsoft, SAP, PeopleSoft and Siebel.

My.ford.com was introduced in May alongside the existing intranet homepage, which was removed a few weeks later. Once the portal was in place, Davis and his team had to wait for the judgment of the people for whom it was created: their Ford colleagues around the world. They knew that however technically accomplished the portal was, it would be judged a success only if staff used it.

Early reaction suggests my.ford.com has hit the mark. In the month following its launch, the portal received more than 70 million ‘hits’, and the total so far exceeds 130 million.

More importantly, according to Davis, within a month 27,000 employees had personalised their homepage to allow easy access to the gadgets and information they will use most often.

Ford is not saying how much it has spent on the project, and measuring the return on investment from employee-focused e-business initiatives is notoriously difficult. But Davis says rough calculations are possible based on the amount of time saved through employees having instant access to the information they need.

‘We think, as a conservative estimate, that people spend an average of four minutes each week looking for what they need,’ says Davis.

By helping just a quarter of Ford’s intranet users to eliminate that four minutes, the portal team estimates it can save the equivalent of 19,000 business days per year – $7.5m worth of Ford’s time.

Such finely tuned calculations may be music to the ears of Ford’s finance department, but Davis hopes the benefits will be felt by the users themselves. My.ford.com is the centrepiece of the company’s efforts to create an IT and internet-savvy workforce.

This extends to giving employees computers for home use for a fraction of their real cost, and to encouraging staff across the business to train in IT skills.

Davis hopes the portal will convince his colleagues that it is worth making the effort to use the intranet. ‘From an employee perspective, they are getting faster access to quality information. People are very self-sufficient in many aspects of their lives, and the portal can help them bring that into their relationship with Ford,’ says Davis.

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