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Workbrain trying to push past blue-collar ERM image

Employee relationship management is being increasingly eyed as a way to cut costs and become more efficient.

While CRM has been hogging the limelight, many companies desperate to cut costs and perk up operating efficiency have begun to explore employee relationship management (ERM) as a possible solution.

This young market is still fragmented between players that have always seen their role as automating the interactions between employers and employees and companies that tangentially touched this relationship and decided to expand their footprint into this market. Workbrain, a company from the former camp, has recently taken the wraps off its newest ERM application suite, version 3.0. And while the company's future is still clouded, its current focus on an all-inclusive view of what employees should be covered by ERM could help it carve a comfortable slot for itself.


When outspoken Siebel head honcho Tom Siebel announced that he saw the market for ERM outstripping the market for his company's CRM crown jewels quite soon, many observers sat up and took notice. Although several vendors had been chugging along with little fanfare building applications that automated every part of an employee's working life at a company, it took the entrance into the market of an applications giant to get people to pay attention. Once Siebel made its intention to take over this space known, the smaller vendors already plying their wares looked like they would need to run for cover. But Workbrain and its ilk have been pushing the best-of-breed message and hope to hold their own in the future.


While other ERM vendors attempt to build their products, either through technology or hype, into the single application needed to manage employees, Workbrain's goals are more limited, and also more realistic. The company tries to automate many of the time-consuming and sometimes complex interactions between a company and its employees. As an example, the company often leads its pitches with time and attendance management, surely not the sexiest use of technology ever created, but necessary drudge work for large organizations. These time and attendance features automate all of a company's pay rules and also include such things as holiday management and labor and production metrics. Workbrain even offers optional modules for overtime equalization and incentive pay calculators.

The base product also includes a skills registry that can be used to manage training. This feature can not only make sure that employees are up-to-date in their skills, it also gives the company an easy way to ensure that it has the skills needed in-house to compete in its business.

Besides skills and training management, this new J2EE version of Workbrain's ERM product also focuses on employee self-service with more than 70 different pre-built applications, including online surveys.


In the past, companies have used both human resource systems from the likes of PeopleSoft and Oracle and workforce management systems to manage their employees. Workforce management vendors are usually smaller, more specialized companies with names such as Kronos and Open Wave, companies that usually operate under the typical corporate buyer's radar. While Workbrain does not actively compete with these vendors one-on-one, it does threaten to alleviate the need for their packages in accounts that sign on for all of the Workbrain functionality. A more precise fit for title of direct competitor would be Extensity, a company that has found the going quite hard of late and has responded by targeting focused market niches.

More troubling for Workbrain are Siebel and the numerous human resources vendors that have entered the ERM market. Although Workbrain claims these vendors have done little more than slap Web access onto their core applications and that they continue to focus on developing applications targeted at HR and white-collar employees, these are still the companies that could put a major crimp in Workbrain's expansion plans.


Although Workbrain has managed to garner some large customer wins, including Levi Strauss and British Airways, its product is still seen as more appropriate for midsized manufacturing firms. This impression is reinforced by the company's stressing of multiple access technologies. It is about the blue-collar workforce that can not log onto a corporate network from a desktop computer, and instead needs to be able to use a kiosk or a telephone. This focus on crafting a product that includes all sorts of employees is, in fact, Workbrain's defining characteristic.

As the presence of British Airways and some utilities on the company's customer list shows, though, Workbrain is trying to push beyond those limitations. The extremely long shadow cast by Siebel seems to be the major obstacle in the way here. To truly be capable of tackling the CRM king, Workbrain would likely need to expand its functionality into the areas of helpdesk and project management, either through acquisition or, more likely, through a partnership. What is more probable, however, is that Workbrain will settle comfortably into the role of an ERM supplier for more blue-collar-focused companies.

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