IT innovators turn great ideas into action. Use these winning InformationWeek 500 projects to spark your creativity and advance your plans.
This year's InformationWeek 500 winners shared inspiring stories of how technology improved customer service and employee productivity. We've picked the 20 best tales of innovation worth borrowing. (Some might call it stealing.)
Two common themes this year are the use of Web-based collaboration tools and mobile apps that take up arms against bloated software and workflow complexity. Home Depot, for example, launched MyInstall, a personalized Web portal designed to help customers keep close tabs on each phase of a home improvement project. Public relations firm Ketchum built IdeaShop, a searchable database containing great ideas that were never sold to clients but are still ripe for use.
In the healthcare realm, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center did an extensive study on OpenNotes, a movement to allow patients to view their doctors' notes via a secure website. Well-being improvement company Healthways developed a Web-based survey that measures the financial, social and physical status of employees and uses predictive analytics to help reduce healthcare costs. Radiology practice Virtual Radiologic integrated an automated consult workflow engine to speed up and streamline how radiologists do consultations with other physicians.
In education, both the University System of Georgia and Arizona State University built Web-based tools for class registration, online courses, and attendance and grades monitoring. The results: improved student retention and performance.
Are you a mobile app advocate? Check out how the Dallas Cowboys' mobile app enhances the in-stadium experience, and how the Salvation Army embraced mobile apps to track the number and type of goods being donated and to give social workers quick access to information on people in its substance abuse program. Meanwhile, Mitsubishi and Procter & Gamble have put mobile devices and apps into employees' hands: Mitsubishi with a secure BYOD program, and P&G by replacing sales reps' paper catalogs with iPads.
The foundation for all this progress is the cloud and big data. Web portals and smartphone apps don't mean much if the data they contain isn't measured. One champion of data analytics is UPS. The package-delivery giant uses custom software it calls PFT (package flow technology) to collect package data that helps route 16 million shipments per day and accurately alert customers when packages will arrive.
Can you do something similar to make your employees and customers happier and your bottom line fatter? Take a look at these 20 great ideas that worked -- and make one work for you.
Two UPS initiatives -- package flow technology and telematics -- offer examples of how the shipping company puts data to work. Package flow technology (PFT) is UPS's custom software that lets it deliver 16 million shipments per day by predicting package deliveries. Nearly all those packages now have data electronically transmitted to the company prior to UPS touching them. UPS uses this information to route products most efficiently to their destinations. UPS estimates its route-optimizing software saved it from driving 85 million miles in 2011, conserving 8.4 million gallons of fuel. In addition to supporting the PFT system, the package-level data helps UPS more accurately tell customers when a package will be delivered.
The second example, telematics, is the integration of telecommunications and informatics. UPS created a proprietary system of telematics that collects information on how a vehicle has been driven. The data lets UPS use delivery vehicles as "rolling laboratories" to test ideas for improving things such as fuel efficiency. UPS captures data on vehicle-related elements including speed, RPM, oil pressure and seat belt use. In 2012, UPS saved 206 million minutes of idling time from delivery drivers in more than 80,000 telematics-equipped vehicles.
Schools under the University System of Georgia's purview -- including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech -- have online collaborative degree programs in which students can enroll in courses at other USG schools and attend online. In 2010, USG, governed by the Georgia Board of Regents, developed and rolled out INGRESS (Intra-Georgia Registration Sharing System), a middleware app integrated with USG's existing student information system (SIS) and its online learning management system (LMS) to automate sharing course registrations across schools. As students register in a SIS for online courses, INGRESS balances the available seats across USG schools. As students register for and/or drop courses, INGRESS adjusts the available seats in the SIS and removes enrollments from the LMS. INGRESS also helps administrators manage registration, attendance and grades data across all schools on one platform.
Before INGRESS, if a student wanted to take an online course at another school, he or she would need to apply and register as a transient student. INGRESS eliminates unnecessary processes and automates others -- students register for online courses and credit is automatically applied to their degree programs. As of this summer, 17 USG schools are using INGRESS for registration across different schools.
Would you want to read your doctor's notes? According to a yearlong, multi-location study by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), most patients say yes, feeling more in control of their care after viewing doctors' notes. BIDMC's study analyzes the use of OpenNotes, where patients can view their doctors' and nurses' notes on a secure website whenever they want to. The BIDMC study reflects the views of 105 primary care physicians and 13,564 of their patients who had at least one doctor's note available during the program. Patients with access to notes reported better understanding of their medical issues and were more likely to take their medications as prescribed.
Doctors participating in the OpenNotes trial at BIDMC, Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., and Harborview Medical Center in Seattle reported that most of their fears about offending patients did not materialize, and that trust and communication with patients improved. "Patients are enthusiastic about open access to their primary care doctors' notes. More than 85% read them, and 99% of those completing surveys recommended that this transparency continue," said BIDMC physician and Harvard Medical School professor Tom Delbanco, a co-author of the study.
The Salvation Army has embraced the mobile app revolution. The charitable organization built its own apps using HTML5/CSS3/jQuery, which can run on Apple's iOS, Google's Android, and Microsoft's Windows Phone, RT and desktops (using the Chrome browser). With the help of feedback from users and workers, it has released 32 new apps. Two apps have had a major impact: one summarizes sales for all stores in real time, and another tracks the number and type of goods being donated in every location, helping improve the distribution of inventory.
The Salvation Army's mobile strategy has a human element too, in the form of an app for social workers who provide services to men and women in the organization's substance abuse rehab programs. The app provides quick access to a client's personal and medical treatment information to help Salvation Army counselors provide better treatment. Simply giving social workers the ability to see clients' photos and call them by their names has strengthened relationships within the rehab program.
Dish Network Service (DNS) is responsible for all of Dish Network's home appointments. With 15,000 field technicians responding to 23,000 customer home satellite installation and repair appointments per day, DNS requires a lot of coordination. In 2012, DNS replaced expensive three-year-old Windows tablet PCs, push-to-talk phones and in-vehicle GPS devices with a program it calls SmartMobility. SmartMobility consists of mobile device management and an Android device -- the Samsung Galaxy Note "phablet." The program's key benefits include the use of a more modern hardware/OS/apps package through Android and Samsung; less training for technicians already familiar with the consumer-friendly OS; the elimination of third-party GPS devices and $1,800 Windows tablet PCs; and low replacement costs when devices get old.
Savings from SmartMobility over the past year came in at several million dollars from consolidating to one consumer-grade device, using pooled voice minutes and a single data plan, and eliminating tablet PC repair costs. Replacing a Windows-based machine with an Android smartphone has decreased reboots, increased battery life and reduced time spent in-vehicle because technicians can always carry the devices with them.
When it comes to power outages, Texas electricity company Oncor needed to stay ahead of the customer by improving its ability to identify and repair problems fast. So in 2012 Oncor merged its Advanced Meter System (AMS) and Outage Management System (OMS) and integrated a melting pot of equipment and software, including a radio frequency network and meter data management system software from Landis+Gyr and Siemens. In March 2012 the company deployed the integrated AMS-OMS in two districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and by May all advanced meters were fully integrated with the systems. The company says that 20% of outages are now resolved without a customer call. Since March 2012, Oncor has resolved 3,400 outages without customer interaction.
An essential feature in Oncor's system is that the meters are set to trigger anytime the voltage dips to 80% or less, allowing Oncor to take proactive steps to make repairs before a serious service disruption.
Oncor used IBM to integrate the AMS and OMS projects. The revamped system covers 3.2 million meters and 11,000 communication devices. Oncor plans to keep honing the AMS-OMS system and add data analytics this year.
A typical radiologist may analyze 100 or more MRIs or X-rays every day. But because radiologists are either generalists or subspecialists, they often need to consult with other radiologists who are specialized in other areas. National radiology practice Virtual Radiologic (vRad) has more than 400 radiologists serving more than 2,000 U.S. hospitals, and 75% of its radiologists are specialized. vRad radiologists diagnose exams remotely using a proprietary, cloud-based telemedicine platform built with Microsoft .NET technologies that include an FDA-approved medical imaging diagnostic system.
But managing subspecialty consults is still the biggest challenge for vRad. If radiologists are interrupted, turnaround times for patient care can be affected. To avoid this, vRad developed and integrated an automated consult workflow engine into its cloud-based imaging platform. Among other things, the system can display subspecialists available for consults based on workload, make exam images instantly available to the accepting subspecialist, and let the requesting radiologist scroll and annotate images in real time that are visible to the accepting subspecialist via desktop remote control. vRad says the consult workflow engine has increased productivity by making it easier for subspecialists to take consults during scarce minutes between exams.
One of World Vision's missions is to recruit people to sponsor a child in the developing world for $35 per month.
For decades, sponsorship transactions have been done on paper. Although the selection process switched to the Web years ago, correspondence about a child's progress is still done by mailing letters. Last year, the humanitarian organization began the switch from paper to using videos for correspondence and is now starting to use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. By last fall, World Vision had deployed the necessary technology such as more storage and search capabilities for rich media, and WAN acceleration tools to increase bandwidth to 1,100 locations. It currently transmits 150,000 videos per month to sponsors via the World Vision website, YouTube or an email video greeting card.
The project has been a rewarding opportunity for World Vision's IT, marketing and field operations groups to work together. Initial results have been an increase in revenue in markets where videos are available and a 30% greater retention of sponsors. Once the video project is completed, World Vision expects revenue to be $25 million.
Procter & Gamble owns 300 consumer brands, and it relies on a fleet of salespeople to visit stores to sell products. Until recently, the company used binders full of papers detailing product and customer order information that was too often outdated. P&G addressed this problem with a new system it calls Paperless In-Store Selling, which combines iPads with 10 commercial and custom-made apps for sales reps. The apps are connected with P&G's back-end infrastructure, so sales reps get data in real time for showing multimedia presentations, capturing a customer order or doing a store compliance audit. Customer order information, which had previously been captured manually and later reentered into systems, is now captured in real time using a custom tablet app.
P&G estimates the move to iPads will save the company $3 million this year due to reduced printing and paper distribution costs and increased speed and efficiency of tablets. P&G will equip 5,000 sales reps globally with iPads this year and estimates its paperless strategy will generate 12,000 hours of additional selling time, 5,000 additional sales calls each week, and $22 million in net sales.
Who says an established insurance company can't think like a startup?
Northwestern Mutual's Enterprise Venture Fund (EVF) program was created so leaders across the company -- not just in IT -- can evaluate and fund new technologies and implement them on a small scale before rolling them out big. Essentially, the EVF ensures that Northwest Mutual's technology investments either succeed or fail quickly and affordably, and that resources and needs are aligned.
Before the EVF, business units took on the financial burden and risk of a tech implementation. The EVF absorbs some of that cost and risk by letting the company take the technology for a test ride first, thereby avoiding costly mistakes.
The EVF brought a startup mode of thinking to what is a very traditional 156-year-old company. Some of the technologies the EVF has brought to bear include the Microsoft Business Intelligence suite, mobile device application development and unified communications technologies. To date, the EVF has produced 322 unique ideas and 93 projects from 127 idea submitters, with 500 employees engaged in pilot programs. The company says the value added by the EVF over five years totals $17.3 million.
Like any elite PR firm, Ketchum tirelessly brainstorms ideas for clients that will hopefully become multimillion-dollar campaigns. But even great ideas sometimes get passed over. Ketchum's "unsold ideas" were the impetus for IdeaShop, a searchable database of Ketchum-owned creative ideas. Employees from around the world can access IdeaShop. Ideas are tagged and searchable by client industry, target audience and idea type, enabling Ketchum teams to find the most relevant ideas.
To prevent client conflicts, all ideas are edited to remove client and country-specific identifiers. All IdeaShop entries are linked to a profile of the employee who originally submitted the idea so colleagues can contact him or her. A reservation system gives users exclusive use of an idea for a set period; once the idea is sold it is removed from the database. IdeaShop was built in-house by Ketchum developers with PHP, MySQL and jQuery, and it runs on Linux.
Because anyone at Ketchum can submit an idea to IdeaShop, employees at every level can get global visibility. More than just an idea factory, IdeaShop has also succeeded in connecting employees worldwide.
The Healthways Well-Being Improvement Solution is designed to advance care for the chronically ill, reduce health-related risks and keep healthy people healthy.
A key facet is a Web-based survey that measures a person's overall financial, social and physical status. Data from this survey informs the Well-Being product's predictive models and identifies ways to improve employee performance and reduce healthcare costs. Because the survey is usually administered during a company's annual health benefits enrollment period, load times can reach 100 times the average intensity for short durations.
Healthways has deployed hundreds of servers in its data center. However, to cut costs and adjust scale as needed, it needed a more flexible cloud-based alternative that also met rigid healthcare security regulations. Healthways worked with Microsoft to use Windows Azure as the platform for a public cloud/on-premises hybrid setup. In short, Healthways moved some of the survey code into a Windows Azure cloud, and now 21% of well-being assessments are completed using Azure, with the ability to better scale capacity as needed. By moving Web survey code and administration to Azure cloud technology, the average cost of delivering the survey dropped by 67% per survey.
In addition to manufacturing world-class wind turbines, GE Renewable Energy aims to use technology to educate. To this end, the GE Renewables team created interactive life-size games to provide an entertaining digital experience that also promotes renewable energy.
The IT team worked with six different internal groups to develop game designs. Microsoft Kinect was chosen for its ability to utilize hand and arm movements. Two games made their debut at the American Wind Energy Association's WindPower 2012. With the "Build Your Own Wind Farm" gesture wall, users select a landscape and choose among six turbines from GE's product portfolio. Players use arm gestures that resemble spinning wind turbine blades to fuel their wind farm and can see in real time how many homes are powered and how much fuel is saved.
The "Climb Time" wind turbine climbing experience was the backdrop to an evening event for GE employees, suppliers and customers. The game allows players to play the role of a GE wind turbine service technician, simulating climbing the turbine, opening hatches and performing maintenance activities. Both games are on display at GE Renewables' headquarters in Schenectady, NY.
Paper and packaging supplies maker Unisource sells a variety of materials to places like computer manufacturers and grocery stores. One of its customers' biggest challenges is inventory management. When things go wrong, it hurts both the customer (a supply emergency) as well as Unisource (unplanned shipments). For example, Unisource is affected if a grocer mismanages inventory and finds itself without enough food trays to package meat.
To address such issues, Unisource developed SmartSync, a Web-based inventory management system that uses the cloud-based Salesforce Force.com platform. SmartSync bar-coding technology captures item numbers, reorder quantities and pricing, and automatically sends inventory orders to Unisource. When Unisource materials arrive, customers can use SmartSync to scan and add materials into stock. Any smart device that has Internet access and a Bluetooth bar-code reader -- including traditional handheld scanning devices, tablets or smartphones -- can use SmartSync.
SmartSync is free for Unisource customers. The company says that SmartSync customers buy 15% to 20% more products from Unisource than customers that don't use it, and SmartSync customers' orders are 10% to 15% larger compared to non-SmartSync customers.
With the MyInstall portal, Home Depot aims to curb the logistical and financial hassles common in home improvement projects. The online tool is built so customers can monitor every detail of that long overdue bathroom renovation, for example, from start to finish.
When customers sign up at the Home Depot site for an install service, they provide their email address. The site then invites them to log in to their personalized MyInstall homepage. Here customers can keep tabs on information about an install order, connect directly with the project's primary contact and send questions and requests to the licensed contractors doing the work. Customers receive status email notifications about project milestones and instructions about how to prepare the home for each phase of the project. MyInstall also gives customers information about after-sales support such as a warranty repair.
Home Depot says that MyInstall's use of Web technologies to clarify customer expectations early and bring transparency to each step of the installation process has resulted in higher customer satisfaction scores and fewer customer care help tickets since MyInstall launched in 2012.
On the field, the Dallas Cowboys contend with Giants and Vikings, but the organization's biggest enemy may be the high-definition TV. Sensing the threat, the Cowboys' IT team rushed to develop a mobile app that gives fans attending games at the NFL team's AT&T Stadium a unique experience that goes beyond just watching the game.
Downloaded 420,770 times last season, the Dallas Cowboys mobile app includes standard features like social media integration and videos, but it also adds step-by-step mapping and stadium directions that find you a parking spot and provide a turn-by-turn guide to your seat. And you'll never get lost, because the app keeps you apprised of where you are in relation to your seat. Another highlight is the SnapTags feature, which allows quick access to contests such as Cowboys jersey giveaways -- simply use the app to scan SnapTag logos on walls and screens throughout the stadium. You can also use the app to order Cowboys gear at a digital pro shop and have it delivered to your seat. The Cowboys' IT team has listened to fans and is piloting more features, such as a mobile wallet, digital ticketing and live streaming video.
Comcast Cable's NextGen BuyFlow system replaced a patchwork of disparate software and systems (the result of a series of acquisitions) that delivered pricing offers to prospects in more than 6,000 local franchise areas. Comcast needed a unified system that could scale, since at any given time Comcast counts 1.2 million published offers across its markets.
NextGen BuyFlow localizes online offers using the IP address and ZIP+4 location of a potential customer, which reduces the abandon rates that typically result when an e-commerce customer must provide personal details such as a home address. Since Comcast launched the NextGen BuyFlow system nationally in 2012, sales conversion rates increased to more than 25% (up from 18.6%). Additionally, Comcast reduced acquisition cost per customer by 38%. The company says the new system's online buying experience has also driven higher order value and lower churn rates.
There's lots of hype about machine-to-machine communications, but by letting intelligent meters talk to the network and deploying smart thermostats in customers' homes, OGE Energy delivers real benefits, including spotting outages before the phones light up, helping homeowners manage energy use and implementing fast service provisioning and deprovisioning.
Smart grids aren't new, but OGE's goes beyond passive monitoring, using situational awareness to speed decision-making. The back end is enough to bring a tear to the eye of any best-of-breed advocate: IBM Tivoli Netcool and Monitoring, BMC Remedy ITSM, Amos' HawkEye visual analytics tool, a Teradata database for root-cause analysis, a Tibco Enterprise Service Bus, and more. OGE uses resulting analytics to zero in on the exact source of an outage, for example, so it can send repair personnel right to the scene or update customers on the cost of hiking the temperature by a few degrees. OGE plans to analyze the collected data to optimize future investments.
In a university-wide effort to improve student academic performance, Arizona State University developed a proprietary online application called eAdvisor that provides online academic resources and personalized tools to help students, faculty and advisers monitor performance. eAdvisor was created for three key reasons: to expose students as freshmen to the coursework required for their degree; to identify students who are struggling academically and connect them with advisers; and to help students pick a major based on their interests.
The Web app uses modern predictive analytics tools to assess student performance and alert students and advisers if grades are slipping. If students do not meet a critical requirement, they and their advisers are notified by email and their status is displayed on their My ASU page. eAdvisor also gives deans and administrators easier access to data to track overall student progress. The creation of eAdvisor had a direct impact on the freshman retention rate. Retention rates from 2008-2012 increased by 1.7% year over year. However, retention rates in the year after eAdvisor's launch increased by 6.8%.
When Mitsubishi personnel drive off the lot, they are often equipped with a BYOD option that helps them stay connected with the office using their personal mobile devices. This was made possible in 2013 when new security tools and applications were acquired specifically to allow sales trainers to download dealer product training apps on their own smartphones.
Mitsubishi has been able to isolate business information from personal content in secured containers that also encrypt corporate data stored on personal devices. The company says that providing secure access to corporate data on personal devices has reduced employee use of unsanctioned personal cloud storage services and external media, which helps improve overall information security. The underlying layer to Mitsubishi's BYOD security is a comprehensive security infrastructure that protects its network from possible threats. All corporate information remains protected even if the device is lost or stolen.
Mitsubishi's experience with BYOD so far has helped improve employee performance by giving them quick and secure access to sophisticated mobile sales training tools and other corporate information to get their jobs done using their own phones.
InformationWeek Must Reads Oct. 21, 2014InformationWeek's new Must Reads is a compendium of our best recent coverage of digital strategy. Learn why you should learn to embrace DevOps, how to avoid roadblocks for digital projects, what the five steps to API management are, and more.