If there's one thing the broad use of the Internet has enabled manufacturers to do, it's empower employees and customers. More companies than ever are rolling out self-service applications for human resources. Other manufacturers are using self-service technology to allow customers and suppliers to get the information they need when they need it. In most cases, manufacturers trying out self-service technology will first test it on their own staffs before venturing outside to connect their suppliers and customers. "It's a lot easier to cut your teeth on your own workforce before you try this with customers and suppliers," says Ed Jensen, a partner and global leader of Accenture's human resources and process and technology practice. Invariably, Jensen says, companies are moving to self-service technology in an effort to drive down the cost of service. Few manufacturers that are using self-service have been able to calculate hard dollar benefits deriving from the technology. But according to an estimate by Gartner Group, a customer inquiry handled by a sales representative over the phone costs nine times more than one handled automatically. Eastman Chemical Co., which began offering employees access to benefits programs a few years ago, has continued to add applications while beefing up its information technology infrastructure to handle the increased volume of activity that has resulted. "Very quickly our company intranet had a traffic jam, and it was difficult for people to get information," says Wayne Armbrister, manager of service center technology. Last December the company rolled out a new employee portal on its intranet. Using software from ProAct Technologies, Eastman created a portal that offered separate "views" for employees, managers and service center representatives. The functionality, or capabilities, available in each view depends on the employee's role. The software package, called ProAct HR and Benefits Communicator, comes with its own basic library of human-resources policies and benefits that can be customized to fit a particular company. "We call it 'Eastmanize,'" Armbrister says. ProAct integrates with the company's SAP R/3 enterprise software system. Eastman's service center has a staff of nine who handle telephone inquiries from 15,000 employees. Besides employee benefits, Eastman has added some new applications in 2002. These include Eastman University, for employee training, and Eastman Recreation, for recreational activities. "The employee self-service has been very well received," says David Sensibaugh, manager of the employee service center at the Kingsport, Tenn., firm. "And we don't have to print the volume of annual benefit stuff for employees to do their annual enrollment." Accenture's Jensen says the trend is toward providing employees with additional self-service applications as well as offering views that are tailored to the needs of managers. "Manager self-service generally includes more complex transactions, such as hiring, transfer and effecting pay raises," Jensen explains. "Big companies can spend $1,500 to $2,000 per year providing these kinds of HR services to employees, and by using self-service technology, they can cut 20% to 50% of that cost." Instead of filling out forms and forwarding them to the HR department for approvals and processing, managers or employees can click on an icon at their desktop computers or kiosks on the plant floor and initiate transactions on their own. Success with self-service technology requires both training and process change, Jensen warns. "You are quite dramatically changing your processes as a result," he says. "If you look at how HR traditionally operated, there were several handoffs and approvals required, some of which were not really necessary, but which left a paper trail. As the new technologies are deployed, these processes have to be re-examined, and the approvals and handoffs need to be reassessed to see if they are still required." In cases where approvals are necessary, the process can be automated by using workflow technology, software that facilitates the approval process without requiring actual movement of paper. "There obviously is a need to have the controls built into the process," Jensen says. "Like any technology, for it to be successfully deployed, it has to be married up with the business process." Even so, Jensen says that for the most part, a rollout of self-service HR applications to employees needn't be too complicated from a training standpoint. "People today know how to use the Internet," he says. "If they've bid on something on e-Bay, or ordered books through amazon.com, they can change an address or look at a pay stub online." Some manufacturers are enabling plant-floor workers to have access to these systems via kiosks stationed in the break room or some other area where workers gather. Jensen says some companies are equipping new hires with handheld PDAs loaded with the company's self-service software. Last April, AMF Bowling, which makes bowling products and operates bowling centers, conducted its benefits open enrollment for 6,000 employees using software from JD Edwards. "Our HR department was able to cut down on paper work and staffing as a result," says Rohana Meade, director of IT at the Mechanicsville, Va., firm. "We are now working on a manager's application that will enable them to do all the work needed for a new hire to get the employee on board and to pay the employee," Meade says. After that, she says, the company will make the performance-review process a self-serve one. "The manager and the employee will still need a sit-down session, but the results could be keyed into a manager self-service application. It would be a huge time savings." On the customer side, AMF Bowling in June began offering customer self-service to about 500 active customers, again with JD Edwards' Customer Self Service software. AMF's customers, including distributors, affiliates, pro shops, and independent bowling centers, can place orders, inquire about the status of orders and check shipments online, all without having to call the company. "We've definitely seen a drop in the number of calls coming in," Meade says. AMF Bowling's customers also can use the company's online catalog of products and parts, which is updated in real time. "The nice thing is that the product catalog is dynamic, so any new part we add appears in the catalog automatically," Meade points out. The company makes bowling pins and pin-spotters (the machines that set the pins), among other bowling materials, and also drills balls for customers to their specifications. The only requirement for customers to use the online system is that they must have a PC with Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher. Alliant Techsystems Inc., an aerospace and defense manufacturer, rolled out a self-service HR system to its 10,000 employees a year ago. "Our application is personalized for each employee," says Brenda Byron, director of HR shared services at the Minneapolis firm. Alliant, a maker of ammunition, propulsion systems, precision weapons and rocket boosters, is using a software package called Authoria HR from Waltham, Mass.-based Authoria Inc. "I don't think we could have built a dynamic system at this price," says Byron. "Authoria has best-practice content that I can customize for my 50 unique employee groups." For example, with different offerings for union and non-union employees, she says, "we didn't have to worry about information being cross-disseminated." She says some of the firm's plants rolled out the system on "public" kiosks available to all workers. "One facility hosted an open house for a week to have HR demo the system and help individual employees through learning to use it," Byron adds. "It was very well received and the usage at that facility went up drastically." What's next at Alliant Techsystems? "In the next six to 12 months we want to provide access to employees from home," Byron says. "We are working out the bugs in providing the necessary security to do that." Another manufacturer delving into self-service is Molded Rubber & Plastic Corp. (MRP), a maker of custom rubber and plastic products. The Butler, Wis., firm is using an online HR application from Best Software called Abra ESS for its 120 employees. Besides giving employees information about benefits, the system also enables them to update their personal data. For MRP, moving to self-service for HR was almost a necessity. "The employees' need for information was growing, and our HR person works part-time, so this works out nice for us," says Marianne Elmer, accounting/systems supervisor at MRP. "It's a time-saver for her and also for payroll and for our employees." MRP took an all-encompassing approach to HR self-service, putting just about everything into the system but the plant sink. Personal data, health-care coverage, life insurance and disability, 401(k), vacation and sick time benefits, and payroll and tax information all are accessible to employees. "They can see their current job and current pay, and at the same time, they can look at the careers and opportunities section that lists the open jobs, as well as the training classes we offer," says Elmer. "There's even a company-wide list of birthdays."