Magazine Article | September 1, 2002

Surround Yourself With Content

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Until $1.5 billion Maritz built an enterprise-wide intranet, employees jumped through hoops to find key content.

Integrated Solutions, September 2002

Network file sharing is a beautiful thing. When you need a file created by one of your colleagues, you simply head out over the LAN. You search the file system, highlight the file name, double-click, and, whoomp, there it is. Yes, network file sharing is a beautiful thing.

But, even beautiful things can turn ugly. Once again, you head out over the LAN, but this time the trip isn't quick. You troll around, trying to sniff out the current customer list for metro Dallas. Intuition is no help, thanks to some logic-challenged colleague in another department. Unbeknownst to you, this genius took the "Dallas Accounts" file, renamed it "My Targets - August," and buried it in the shrewdly titled "New Plan" subfolder. So, on you go, hammering away at your mouse pad. Scroll, guess, click, close. Scroll, guess, click, close. Whoomp, there it isn't.

Even if the collective brainpower in your organization rivals that of a national Mensa meeting, key information can get locked within departments. It's a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Actually, it's a case of the left hand not realizing the right hand might be interested in what it's doing.

At $1.5 billion corporate services provider Maritz Inc. (St. Louis), individual business units weren't in the habit of imagining who else in the enterprise might want to access their departmental content and data. To support their internal communication channels, many business units had gone beyond network file sharing and developed their own intranets. Ironically, opening these browser-based paths had done little to make cross-enterprise data exchange more efficient. In fact, those separate little intranets merely proliferated the number of information silos keeping data locked within departments. And, even when resourceful employees successfully burrowed into other departments and pulled out information, it ended up getting inefficiently replicated across several intranets. (Say good-bye to version control.) Moreover, the task of maintaining multiple intranets placed the burden of site design, content management, and IT support on too many people.

It was time to take the s off intranets. "The company wanted an Inc.-level solution that could handle everybody's needs," explains Corby Leinauer, technical solutions architect for Maritz. "The idea was to get all of the information into a central repository that could be managed by a smaller group." What emerged is a single corporate intranet that delivers content anywhere in the enterprise via Web portal interfaces.

Push Content Through A Common Interface
The outsourced corporate services Maritz offers include travel management, meeting and event management, marketing research, brand alignment, learning solutions, customer loyalty programs, and programs for employee awards, incentives, and recognition. Because Maritz' large corporate customers are candidates for many of its services, individual business units often need information created and housed somewhere else in the enterprise. In designing a conference agenda for a customer, the meeting and event management group may be interested in seeing customer feedback the travel management group collected about a particular destination. In putting together a sales presentation, an account rep may want to incorporate materials that the awards and incentives group created for a rewards catalog. In addition to specific departmental content that needs to be made available to other departments, there are common corporate files and data all employees need access to: frequently used forms, phone and e-mail directories, company policies, health benefits, and so on.

To efficiently get the right information to its more than 6,000 employees, Maritz now relies on portal development and content management tools, part of the VIP Enterprise 8 suite from Gauss. "When the company considered the business case for consolidating the intranets, it still wanted to give a line of business view to individuals in different parts of the organization," Leinauer says. "We're using portal technology to do that." Content editing, system administration, and QA (quality assurance) functions are supported by the master Windows 2000 server on which the Gauss suite resides. Proxy versions of the Gauss tools run on three production servers, which push approved content and the portal interfaces to users. All of the content - whether it's an image or a piece of text - is stored on an additional server housing an Oracle database. The multiple-server design enables Maritz to separate site design and content creation from content access, eliminating competition for usage and memory. It also gives Maritz the flexibility to do load balancing on the production servers.

With the Gauss suite in place, each business unit still has its own URL (uniform resource locator). When an employee in a particular business unit types in that unit's URL, a portal interface pops up on screen. Through the portal, the employee has access to common cross-enterprise information, as well as to content specifically earmarked for that business unit or even for that individual. "All of the portal interfaces on the central intranet have a similar look and feel, and a lot of the information is pretty much the same for all business units," says Leinauer. "But, some of the content differs. For example, news items and lists of product and services differ depending on what business unit you're in."

Users can still pull up the interfaces for other business units; however, the need to bounce around from URL to URL - standard practice in the old multiple intranet days - has been greatly reduced. "We've set up the repository with a common metadata set so content can be tagged for multiple uses," Leinauer says. "Once it's in the Gauss system, content can appear in various areas, depending on how departments and individuals define their needs." The system maintains user definitions based on business unit affiliation, as well as access control lists for maintaining differing authorization levels. Information about the classification of a particular piece of content determines how it should be presented and to whom. Classification attributes include not just the application used to create the content or the format it is in (e.g. a Word document that includes embedded images), but also the type of content - whether it's a case study, presentation, white paper, and so on.

ECM Drives Workflow Efficiency
Despite the flexibility of sending content through the Web portals, each business unit still maintains data and documents that aren't accessible via the corporate intranet. In fact, the Oracle database currently holds only 20 GB of content for the Web portals. Of course, issues of security, access control, and limited applicability will always prevent some content from making it to the intranet. However, at Maritz, the reluctance to completely open the departmental repositories has less to do with secure access than it does with current DM (document management) procedures. "Each line of business still establishes its own DM processes. But, we may look at centralizing DM functionality as well," says Leinauer.

Even without a change to the company's approach to DM, Leinauer confirms that moving to a centralized system for managing some content has brought much of the communication efficiency Maritz was looking for. "In a large company like ours, putting information at people's fingertips can be a slow process," she says. "The system has eliminated a lot of sit-and-wait time. By centralizing the editing and review process, we've cut by half the number of workflow handoffs it takes to get particular content approved for Web access." As more and more departments and individuals get in the habit of preparing content to be pushed to the portals, the system will continue to reduce another big time-waster: those annoying minutes spent finding and pulling files from the LAN. "The portals have already begun to take the place of file sharing over the network," Leinauer admits. Yes, portal technology is a beautiful thing.