Natural Selection

Oracle system evolves with National Geographic’s self-service needs.

by Tony Kontzer, August 2010

Sometimes IT departments need to break free from the shackles of Moore’s Law. The postulate that processor speeds double every two years has long had a seemingly intoxicating effect on IT executives, conditioning them to expect to upgrade or replace technologies at a similar rate.

But at the National Geographic Society, a portal built on PeopleSoft applications in 2003 continues to deliver compelling value seven years later, proving that even a modest IT investment can deliver long-term business impact.

The genesis of National Geographic’s Portal 1 can be traced back to 2000, when a committee started looking at turning the nonprofit’s fledgling intranet into something more substantial. When the project stalled, a group of executives eager to modernize National Geographic’s payroll process decided to take charge.

“They were kind of spinning their wheels when we wanted to deploy the self-service applications,” says Steve Vick, vice president of financial planning and operations at National Geographic. “We couldn’t wait to put payroll on the intranet, so we rolled it out as a portal, and the two evolved independently over the last seven years.”

The intranet became a companywide communication platform built around its internal publication, the Insider, with a number of divisions having developed their own pages that allow them to communicate directly to their specific employees. Meanwhile, the portal has become home to an expanding slate of self-service applications, helping National Geographic streamline business processes and sharply reduce paper use.

Now, National Geographic managers are determining how to bring the two systems together, creating a Web 2.0-powered intranet that will allow employees to do everything from filing expense reports and managing their personal data to accessing online collaboration tools.

Transforming Payroll
Launched in 2003, the portal has long been a success in its own right. The new payroll process was built on three self-service applications using PeopleSoft Portal—one for managing time; one for maintaining payroll data related to taxes, direct deposit of pay, voluntary deductions, and viewing paychecks; and a third for managing employee personal information.

Prior to deployment, employees were manually filling out time sheets, which were delivered to the payroll department. Payroll staff would manually process and prepare checks and distribute them to employees. Out-of-state employees required overnight packages of paychecks and time sheets. Inevitable exceptions—which often resulted from incorrect or outdated employee data—further complicated the process, which all added up to a lot of wasted paper and wasted employee time.

“Any time something came up—a change of any kind—we’d have to go back, attach a piece of paper, file [the time sheets] again, and enter them in the system,” says Jeanette Scofield, payroll manager at National Geographic. “This automated time and labor system completely changed the whole scheme. Not only do we not have to be burdened with all that paper; everyone who needs access has access.”

Access was a key impetus for developing the initial trio of applications. Budget managers, writers, photographers, and film crews all increasingly required remote access, and more employees started working in locations outside of National Geographic’s Washington DC headquarters. The choice was simple: continue to hire more payroll workers to accommodate these trends, or put tools in the hands of employees.

Once the applications were deployed, employees could fill out their time sheets online. Reviews and approvals were handled digitally, and all but one of National Geographic’s 1,600-plus employees agreed to have their paychecks automatically deposited. Almost overnight, the portal was fulfilling its promise.

The system emerged as an excellent starting point for an IT evolution National Geographic executives continue today. Indeed, the decision to make payroll the first step wasn’t just about process improvement and paper savings. There was another strategic driver. “The reason we liked payroll was that it literally touched every employee in the organization, from executive management down to the new hires and from left to right—the whole breadth,” says Vick. Plus, he says, the company had leverage because anyone who wanted to get paid had to adopt the new system. That made the change management burden much less onerous than it might have been otherwise.

Building on the Portal Foundation
Starting with payroll proved to be a wise choice, as Vick learned when it was time to roll out a travel expense management module. Employees had grown comfortable with a casual process of walking into the travel office and handing receipts to an assistant. For noncompensation processes such as travel and expense reporting, management had less leverage to compel use of the new tool. So change management took more time and patience than the payroll rollout.

But even those challenges couldn’t stop a series of self-service rollouts. An open enrollment application helped employees make benefits decisions from their desks. A recruitment tool allows employees and external prospects to submit résumés online and then enables management to access and disseminate those résumés digitally. Another module enables performance evaluations to be submitted by employees, reviewed and approved by managers, and archived by human resources staff, all electronically. There’s also an application for requesting issuance of checks to pay vendor and contractor invoices, a searchable organizational chart, and the travel expense management tool.

“We were very successful at utilizing three tools that people could understand and see the benefit of,” says Vick. “That really paved the way for some of these other things by starting to change people’s minds about doing things themselves.”

According to Scofield, there’s really no downside for employees once they get comfortable with the new tools. “As an employee, it makes my life easier, because I don’t have to go to Human Resources, and I don’t have to go to Travel,” she says. “I can just go online and complete these forms, and they take effect.”

The value of the expanding portal came into further focus when, in 2006, National Geographic acquired the Hampton-Brown Company, a Carmel, California-based publisher of English as a second language instructional materials. Having a suite of online self-service applications significantly eased the process of absorbing Hampton-Brown’s employees. “I don’t think we could have taken in a company of 200 employees as efficiently without having been migrated to this technology,” says Vick.

In addition to the efficiency gains of decentralizing a handful of employee processes, the equivalent of four or five employees was eliminated from the payroll and travel departments, thanks to the reduced time required to manage the various processes. The company also avoided having to address the need for additional payroll staff prior to the portal rollout. And the resulting huge reduction in paper usage, as Vick and other executives are quick to point out, has helped National Geographic to “walk the talk” of being a champion of environmental conservation.

Further fueling the environmental impact, the growing menu of self-service tools has made it possible to meet payroll and keep business rolling during the organization’s 10 annual “Green Fridays,” on which employees are encouraged to work at home. In fact, for some employees, work has gotten a lot greener than that. “Because of the system, I can easily work three days from home, and we could never have done that before,” says Scofield. “I had to be here shuffling those papers.”

Integration on the Horizon
With paper-pushing a thing of the past, Vick says the company is looking at upgrading its intranet and merging it with the portal, with the ultimate goal being an integrated intranet that would serve as the access point for self-service applications, internal communications, and an undetermined assortment of collaboration tools. Once this is complete, National Geographic will have a platform that can serve as a foundation for rolling out whatever self-service applications are needed. And make no mistake: more will be needed, and each new addition will make employees—and the company—more efficient than ever.

Currently, the intranet provides employees with company news accompanied by photos, memos from senior management, the schedule of events of daily goings-on, benefits information, the CEO’s blog, and classified ads.

Seamless integration of the intranet and portal is especially important to Lisa McCloughry, manager of human capital management systems at National Geographic. She is a key stakeholder in the self-service portal’s development and believes that merging the two platforms as a unified intranet, with single-sign-on capabilities, is critical to ensuring that employees get maximum value from the system. “The Insider becomes part of one thing. You’re seamlessly logged on, so you don’t have to think about, 'Well, now I’ll go here, or I’ll go there’; all the functionality you need is available to you.”

That’s exactly the intention, says Vick. “If we’re successful,” he says, “we’re going to be breaking down the barrier where people think, 'Oh, I’ve got to go to Portal 1 to do that because it’s an HR application, or it’s a finance application, or it’s a payroll application.’”

“One you start using technology like this, and you see all the benefits that you get, you don’t want to go backward—you want to go forward,” says McCloughry. “We’ve come a long way in seven years, and we’re looking toward all the good stuff we’re going to get.”

For More Information
Oracle Commitment Grant Funds an Oceanic Effort
Oracle’s PeopleSoft Enterprise Applications
Applications Unlimited


Tony Kontzer is a freelance writer based in Albany, California.


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