I don’t want to oversimplify the case for online enrollment of worksite benefits, because whether or not it’s the right approach for a particular case demands on the needs of the client. However, if you do offer online enrollment and administration, you need a suite of capabilities.

A number of important principles apply:

1. All Web-based systems have to be secure and HIPAA compliant. Logins for employees must be secure, and backup systems must be thorough and tested.

2. Using a centralized, rules-based system for a Web-based application is superior to client-server arrangements that require security precautions and more system and software maintenance.

3. Deployment is key. Whether your client’s human resources department uses homemade Excel spreadsheets or has enormously complex and expensive enterprise systems, the results are only as good as the process. Too many spreadsheets are out of date and unreliable, while too many expensive systems are incompletely installed, making them neither as practical nor as robust as the vendor claimed.

In the end, understanding client problems will give you better insight into solving client needs through Web-based enrollment.

For one thing, I’ve found few clients are realistic about the preparation they need for a successful enrollment. Like facing tax day on April 15, many postpone the inevitable.

They often find they don’t understand business rules for plans, they have unresolved issues about their contribution levels for certain benefits and are anxious about new programs like consumer-directed health plans with associated healthcare spending accounts.

In some cases, you may find the employer does not maintain current enrollment data well. While HR and finance departments ensure the payroll database is current, they seldom take the steps needed to integrate that data with benefit eligibility and management requirements.

Another problem is clients that confuse processes. For instance, they may not appreciate that shopping the renewal with the broker is not the same as implementing open enrollment and then administering the continued benefits program.

Successful website enrollment demands a thorough analysis of the customer’s requirements. HR often needs a team to help arrange the annual open enrollment, and the best place to start building an enrollment team is usually the broker.

HR also needs to be able to scale the enrollment to fit a variety of circumstances, including employees who will not or cannot use the Internet. They are best served with laptop enrollment by an onsite enroller or by a call center. The remainder can be enrolled on the Internet.

In addition, many clients need to provide basic site navigation in more than one language. The population of workers where English is a second language is enormous and growing steadily. (See chart.)

The trend to managing benefits online is inexorable. The world ranges from “heat seekers” to “reluctant adopters.” Not everyone is using Microsoft Vista, yet few folks are doing without computers altogether. Just like getting the fast pass for the highway, more and more HR departments use Web technology to enroll and manage employee benefits year-round.

Virtually any benefit can be enrolled and subsequently managed online, despite a widespread belief that certain benefits must be enrolled by human beings. Although medical insurance is seen as an obvious candidate for Web enrollment, conventional wisdom states that life, disability and long term care, for instance, need to be enrolled by people. Herein lies one of the central conflicts of the worksite-website dilemma.

Understandably, HR does not want a sales force soliciting their employees inappropriately. In the vast majority of situations, however, it is sales commissions that pay for the enrollment services. It would be ideal if everyone came clean on this issue. This would permit costs and benefits to be assigned more appropriately.

Until the public becomes more familiar with self-service and marketers learn how to make their worksite products more appealing, having a human enroll many worksite benefits will solve the penetration problem and thereby make the insurance proposition actuarially sound.

Here’s a recipe for online deployment. Combine the following:

1. One part seasoned technology vendor that offers the flexibility, scalability, capacity and level of support needed. It must also have an interface that is reasonably foolproof for the employee to use. For instance, it will fill out all the forms that are needed and only require the employee to click on the completed form, while data is securely shuttled to the various carriers with minimum effort by HR.

2. One part patient and thoughtful HR that is in touch with the needs and abilities of their employees and users.

3. One part broker that can help find the products that meet the needs of HR for both core and worksite venues.

4. Enough time to make the deployment a reasonable collaboration tempered by a healthy dose of persistence and understanding by all involved.