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3/21/2003
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E-Mail For Everyone

Companies are experimenting with low-cost, stripped-down E-mail that all employees--from bank tellers to factory workers--can access

Workers at the company's printing plants and distribution centers already use shared PCs to access the HR portal, and R.R. Donnelley is configuring those machines to support multiple Notes users. Printing-plant employees use E-mail to show changes to customers for review. "The increase in communication and collaboration across the company has been dramatic," Sutula says. "It's made doing business a lot easier."

But do you really want employees checking HR information online instead of running the printing presses? Accessing HR info on the shared PCs hasn't proven to be a drain on the productivity of line workers, who used to have to visit the personnel office to take care of personal business, Sutula says. And he's received positive feedback from employees who access Notes at home, because it lets them bring their spouses into decisions about medical benefits and retirement savings.

DuPont & Co. has been using a Web-based E-mail suite from Critical Path Inc. to support about 5,000 factory employees for more than a year. The system, which is integrated with DuPont's vast Lotus Notes deployment, has proven so effective that some business units within the company are considering Critical Path instead of Notes for less-frequent E-mail users, says Judy Sengelaub, IT architect for messaging and directories.

Before using Critical Path's suite, the maker of specialty chemicals and materials relied on factory managers to print E-mails about changes in procedures and HR news, then circulate them among their staffs. The process was inefficient, and workers felt left out of the information loop, Sengelaub says.

As DuPont became more dependent on E-mail for internal communication, it became clear that using it to deliver corporate information and factory announcements directly to deskless employees made sense. But expanding the company's feature-rich Notes system was hard to justify. Sengelaub estimates the cost of buying and maintaining Critical Path is about one-fourth that of Notes, and because the company's factory workers don't need the collaboration and calendar features that DuPont's 65,000 knowledge workers have, the trade-off in functionality with Critical Path was easy to accept. "These aren't users who send E-mail all day long," Sengelaub says. "They check E-mail three or four times a week."

Companies considering a large-scale transition from Outlook or Notes to lower-cost mail options such as Critical Path will find other drawbacks, though, including a lack of third-party products for spam blocking, virus protection, and archiving, says Meta Group analyst Matt Cain. And he questions whether companies that look beyond their existing E-mail vendor for such services will achieve the cost savings they want. The licensing might be less--what's known as commodity E-mail can be as low as $2 per user per year compared with about $30 per user per year for Exchange or Notes. But the cost of supporting users of either system is probably similar, and a company might have the added costs of supporting a second, Web-based infrastructure, Cain says.

That's why Mannington Mills gave Microsoft Outlook Web Access, a Web-based version of the Outlook desktop client, to several hundred factory workers. The company standardized on Microsoft Exchange 2000 more than two years ago. The decision to rely on Outlook Web Access was more to ease the burden on IT staff than to save money, says John Leonowich, director of technology services. An Exchange mailbox costs the same if accessed through Outlook Web Access or the Outlook desktop version of the software, but the setup and maintenance are much simpler. "We'll take any savings that we can from a support perspective," Leonowich says.

Most Mannington plant workers now use E-mail to receive employee announcements and HR information, as well as for end-of-shift and quality reporting, either on shared PCs at the company or on their own computers at home. Very few IT support problems have come up. "We know the users are out there, but they never call us," Leonowich says. "That's good for them, and it's good for us."

Leonowich says giving hourly workers access to E-mail on the factory floor hasn't proven to be a distraction. "Employees are disciplined enough to use it as a business tool," he says. The goal is for all plant workers to be on E-mail as soon as possible. And the Web-based approach may not stop there: The company's executives and sales staff are interested in Outlook Web Access, so they can check messages by borrowing a customer's unused PC or using a public computer at a trade show, instead of lugging their notebooks on brief road trips.

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