employee portal

The evolution of the Employee Portal

If you’re as old as me, you may remember the early, pre-google days of internet search. Sites like Altavista, Yahoo! And Ask Jeeves had rudimentary search engines which were generally lousy. The more common way to find sites was to browse through a library of links and categories until you found something of interest – then bookmark it so you didn’t have to go through the process again! 

AltaVista home page

Figure 1: Early search engines had more focus on 'link farms' in a library structure

Google changed all that, launching with a simple home page that did away with all the ‘link farms’ of competitors and replaced that library-style layout with a single search field.

Google home page

Figure 2: Google's home page on the day it launched

It wasn’t long before company intranets started to pop up, starting out as not much more than company news sites, evolving quickly into company internal versions of 90’s Altavista. The early 00’s saw company internal websites made up of libraries of links with all the downsides of those early search sites - no personalization; broken URLs; out of date or missing content. Some companies will still have sites like that today!

The birth of the employee portal

Portals were meant to change that, starting with integrated identity management – the intranet should ‘know’ who you are and personalize the content accordingly. Light touch integration to enterprise systems started to emerge, beginning with simple employee directories. Ironically most employee directories were commonly sourced from the company’s email system, like Active Directory, rather than what should be the true ‘source of truth’ for employee data – the Core HR system

Sharepoint became ubiquitous by the time 2010 came around and the concept of the employee portal started to emerge as an alternative to those clunky Self Service experiences delivered by on-premise ERP like PeopleSoft and SAP. 


Figure 3: Sharepoint 'employee portal' circa 2010


You might go to Sharepoint to see employee information and org charts but be ripped out of a generally pleasant interface into the underworld that is on-premise user experience. Already a disconnect was forming in the employee’s journey. 

Want to find out HR policy information? Go dig around the intranet and hope for the best. 

Want to find out where a colleague is based or who they report to? Go to the Sharepoint site and explore.

Want to do something like book leave or view your payslip? Get redirected into whatever HR or Payroll system was being run in your business. Or call HR, if no ‘direct access’ had been provided. 

It was getting messy.

Cloud saves the day…or does it?

Cloud ERP emerged at around the same time as Apple was changing the world with iOS Devices. Suddenly, user experience was a top priority for HR Leaders and vendors alike. Modern systems like Workday and SuccessFactors could deliver that Sharepoint-style employee portal alongside traditional employee/manager actions for a more integrated experience. Throw a bit of mobile access in and it seemed like disjointed user experiences were to be consigned to the ’00s. 

What actually happened is that Cloud technology allowed vendors to innovate and evolve much more rapidly than in the days of on-premise software. By controlling the hardware, the software vendors could deploy new features and products to customers as soon as they rolled off the R&D production line – something that was simply not possible when customers had to install new versions of software themselves. 

New vendors popped up who declined to ‘go broad’, instead focusing their products on one HR ‘Pillar’. You might buy one app for talent management, one for recruiting, one for learning, one for wellness and benefits, one employee surveys, and so on. 

This explosion of innovation went down well with HR leaders who have spent the last decade on a buying spree – the average enterprise now has 11 different HR systems in their technology portfolio; employees and managers usually have to interact with all of them. 

The ‘portal’ problem of 2010 evolved into a more sophisticated problem in 2020: with so many systems that the average user has to understand and work with, how do you bring all of that together without reverting to the days of the 90’s link farms?

Portals in the 20s

The need for a simplified employee portal is more pressing today than ever. Employees and managers are confused and frustrated, HR is getting overwhelmed, business is running inefficiently, time and money is being wasted. 

The word ‘portal’ can seem a little archaic in IT circles. It’s a term very much associated with the boring, non-personalized intranets of the 2000s. Instead, you’ll see new buzzwords like ‘Digital Experience Platforms’. At Applaud, we deliver what we call a ‘Workforce Experience Layer’. 

Whatever you want to call them, they are addressing the same need as portals did ten years ago – solutions that simplify the end user’s experience by consolidating enterprise search, support, knowledge, and employee/manager services. 


employee portal on mobile devices


Crucially, the idea of a ‘single entry point’ is also on its way out with new tools like Slack and Yammer deeply integrating into back end systems so the productivity tools workers use on a day to day basis can be the tools they use to do simple HR tasks too. 

The new breed of portals further blurs the line between where your intranet stops and your backend HR systems start, to the point that your workers shouldn’t even notice. They remove the traditional friction you see when managers try to perform HR actions like transfers or promotions. They allow Google-style searches for knowledge and data. They deliver truly personalized content so users aren’t overwhelmed with irrelevant information.
They deliver more than just company news and employee profiles. 


To learn more about what you should be looking for in a ‘next-gen’ digital employee experience, read '5 features you need from a modern-day portal'

Published October 26, 2020 / by Ivan Harding