GM's SmartNew Portal

General Motors is launching an innovative, Internet service for its employees.

General Motors is launching an innovative, Internet service for its employees. GM’s portal, mySocrates, portends to change forever how employees communicate with their employer. mySocrates’ power, however, could also open up a huge, new market for GM, namely its own, gigantic workforce. It could target them with a mother lode of profitable services; one aim is to win back some of $100+ billion that GM pays out annually in salaries. Marketing to its own employees could also help GM segue into the far more profitable, services business that the automaker hopes to develop.

mySocrates now offers GM employees a cornucopia of information and personnel-related services. It soon will allow employees in particular areas such as product development or manufacturing to get work-role specific information. GM employees can tap into mySocrates from their home or work personal computer. For those without a personal computer, GM also offers a very inexpensive option using a set-top box connected to a home TV.

Handling routine personnel matters, multiplied by 200,000—the number of GM North American employees—costs the automaker a fortune. For instance, another Web-based, self-service employee portal at Hewlett-Packard (HP) is expected to save that company $50-million.

An employee portal handles such mundane tasks as:

  • Online benefits enrollment
  • Online 401(k) allocation changes
  • Changes to personal data, etc.

Without employee portals this work takes place over the phone or via face-to-face contact with a clerk. mySocrates, the self-service alternative, ultimately eliminates the need for most of these front-line clerks.

GM employees have the option today to use mySocrates or contact a live GM human resources (HR) employee. It’s unlikely, however, that GM will continue offering both options forever. In as little as five years, Sextant Research believes GM may make an Internet portal the only way employees will be able to do many HR-related tasks. This could be a problem for older employees who aren’t comfortable with the Internet.

General content available on the portal include employee directories, speeches by GM executives, PR releases and the like. GM can reach its employees en masse to announce new company policies. Today GM employees, via a single sign-on, have access to a million of pages of information and can tap at least 130 previously standalone, internal, GM web sites.

The automaker’s ambitions are no less than to have mySorcrates become the primary portal for its employees in all their non-work Internet activities. GM hopes it will be the first screen they see when connected to the Internet. mySocrates is personalizable by the employee like MyYahoo. It can pop up everyday with one’s horoscope, local weather and the like. The non-GM content is supplied by Workscape (Framingham, MA). This vendor also provided the base HR self-service software. That firm manages mySocrates for GM, as well.

mySocrates links GM employees to a vast array of services from GMAC, the automaker’s financial-services arm. These include vehicle loans, vehicle leasing, home mortgages, credit cards and so forth.

Things become interesting when a single entity is both one’s employer and a vendor aggressively selling to those same people. Unlike third-party financial services firms, GM already has highly detailed personal information on its “sales prospects.” The automaker knows its employees’ salaries, number of dependents, pension investments, and so forth. After getting the employee’s permission to tap personal data, GM can unleash highly sophisticated, personalized, sales offers to that worker. For instance, when the employee receives a raise, GM is obviously the first to know. It can synchronize this event with an offer to the employee to buy a tax-deferred annuity from GMAC.

GM could also aggregate employee purchases. For instance, it could offer discounts at gas stations. Families of its American employees alone buy over 200 million gallons of gas per year. This represents a huge “buy” that could throw off a tidy profit to GM for organizing it. Seeking profitable, new services isn’t a sideshow for the automaker. Its traditional, bread-and-butter business—vehicle manufacturing—is a cutthroat, low-profit, commodity business. Worst yet, the Big Three automakers are steadily losing market share here. Consequently, GM is looking more and more to new service offerings as the source for its future profits. Hopefully GM will not get too heavy handed in tapping its own employees for those profits.

mySocrates operates on Sun Servers and iPlanet. The Web servers are outside of GM’s corporate firewall and are hosted and managed by Workscape. The Web servers have links through the firewall to GM’s backend systems such as its PeopleSoft HR and SAP ERP software. The Workscape servers can pull information in real-time from the legacy systems, such as an employee’s pay-stub information. (This is the most popular feature on mySocrates today.)

Noteworthy on the employee side of mySocrates is the TV option. This is for employees without a home PC. The cost to the worker for both the hardware and Internet service provider (ISP) hook up is only three dollars a month. AOL supplies the AOLTV set-top box and the ISP runs across DirecTV, the satellite service owned by GM’s Hughes subsidiary. mySocrates may also become available to GM employees in their vehicles.

Altogether, several thousand GM employees were using mySocrates as of December, 2001. They are from a pool of 200,000 North American employees that can get online if they simply sign up. GM plans on rolling out mySocrates to other regions including Europe, Asia/Pacific and South America. Those areas will, of course, also have localized content as well.

mySocrates certainly has the potential for dramatically changing how employees interact with their employer. It shows how an employer can vastly expand its reach into employees’ lives and do so with deep, social implications.