Kiosks Bring Web to the Entire Workforce

Corporate intranets and systems in many cases are only available to computer-literate administrative employees. But other workers sometimes need access to computerized data. One simple, inexpensive solution is kiosks.
Posted November 8, 2002

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

A lot has been written about the right of all citizens to access the Internet. Billions has been spent placing computers in classrooms and libraries, and stringing broadband to rural communities. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, has donated vast sums to wire Navajo reservations in the Southwest.

But you don't have to be the world's richest man to make a difference. And the motivation doesn't have to be altruism so much as boosting the bottom line. You see, the digital divide isn't just a broad societal problem. It exists right inside many companies. Corporate intranets and systems, in many cases, are only available to computer-literate administrative employees. For factory workers, drivers, retail sales staff and others without a computer, life still revolved around the distribution of paperwork or trips to HR to get the information they need.

Many companies have realized the value of installing intranets and HR self-service modules to enable staff to check their own payroll figures, check leave entitlement and keep track of other information without having to ask an employee or leave their desk. What they haven't realized, though, is that much of the workforce may not be able to take advantage of such services.

"It's not cost-effective to pay people to handle simple, repetitive questions," says Mukul Krisna analyst for Frost and Sullivan in San Antonio, Texas. "Having online services helps companies save money on printing and distribution."

Ford Motor Company took one approach to addressing this issue when it provided employees with a computer, printer and home Internet access for $5 per month. While this is a step in the right direction, it is expensive and doesn't necessarily improve work performance since it may only be used by the employee's kids to surf the Net. It also fails to address the more fundamental issue -- lack of familiarity with computers.

Employee Kiosks

One simpler, inexpensive solution is kiosks to access the intranet or employee self-service applications. This concept is similar to bank ATMs or the machines used to purchase lottery tickets. Companies take two approaches: they set up a PC in a common area; or buy a free-standing information kiosk.

Alticor Inc., based in Ada, Mich., takes low-end PCs which are approaching the end of their useful life and sets them up in manufacturing buildings. The PCs are configured to boot straight into Internet Explorer and employees then can access the HR Knowledge Base and all corporate communications. This keeps costs low.

"You want shop floor staff on the line, not at a kiosk doing personal activities," says Alticor's David Moore. "Making services available online gives employees the option of accessing the data from home."

Others prefer a ruggedized system designed for multiple users. While these carry a higher initial cost, in the $3,000 to $6,000 range, they may be cheaper in the long run due to wear and tear.

"All our kiosks are built of a combination of powder-coated aluminum and steel to meet the rigors of heavy-duty public usage," says Karla Guarino, vice president of sales for Kiosk Information Systems, Inc., located in Broomfield, Colo. "They are designed to withstand the dirt, dust and debris found in a manufacturing environment."

Input devices can either be a touch screen, keyboard or pointing device. Some include printers so employees can print out forms, pay stubs or other information. They can also incorporate security features such as bar code readers for employee badges, fingerprint ID devices and a telephone handset to speak to someone in the help center.

"Some of our divisions use HR kiosks, particularly for hourly employees," says Marien Kaifresh, corporate Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) manager for Parker Hannifin Corp. in Cleveland.

Parker Hannifin uses kiosks for employee self-service tasks such as allowing employees to view their pay stubs online (and print them, if necessary), view work history, compensation history, benefit elections, 401(k) balances and elections, dependent information, and stock options (if eligible). Employees can view/change emergency notification information, educational profile, professional affiliations, certifications, completed and future coursework, relocation preferences, languages spoken, and career objectives.

Saving Time, Reducing Mistakes

The company uses homegrown software for the kiosks which are connected to the corporate intranet. The system is populated by the HRIS system which includes HR, Payroll and Benefits modules. Most kiosks are located in break rooms or in the HR department.

"Employees can now complete their own profiles without asking HR to do it for them," says Kaifresh. "This saves time and decreases the number of errors made."

Kaifresh cautions that you need to ensure the kiosk has security features. For example, when one person signs off, the PC cache needs to be cleared so that the next person is not able to click the Back button on the browser to see the previous user's information. Some kiosks are equipped with proximity sensors which wipe the data as soon as a person steps away from the kiosk.

You also need to understand that kiosks supplement, not replace, personal contact with HR. You don't want kiosks to be a barrier, but an easy way to get assistance.

One thing to keep in mind when implementing employee kiosks is that you will be working with people typically less familiar with technology. Plan on extra training and support when rolling out such a system.

"You'll always have employees who need a little extra help when signing on the first time, no matter how easy it is," says Kaifresh. "We had our Benefits Help Desk handle those calls."

She also advises a gradual approach to rolling out the services rather than trying to impress people with all the wonderful features right from the start.

"You can't give employees everything on Day 1; they'll never be able to absorb it all," she says. "Instead, you keep adding more and more transactions until even the 'die-hards' will have to adopt the technology."

In the end, the effort is worthwhile. It saves HR time that would otherwise be spent dealing with routine questions and it engenders a greater team spirit since all employees get access to the corporate communications.

"Employee self-service has never failed to meet my expectations," says Kaifresh. "It has been a very exciting and worthwhile undertaking."

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