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Software // Enterprise Applications
02:12 PM
Tony Kontzer
Tony Kontzer

Content Overload

Companies are choking on information employees create. And a spate of vendor mergers has yet to deliver tools to deal with the problem.

For Aventis Pharmaceutical, there's nothing more valuable to its future than the cumulative knowledge, experience, and perspective inside its scientists' and researchers' heads. But information they used to keep scattered in E-mail in-boxes, on PC hard drives, and on ad hoc internal Web sites, any of which might offer a clue in the pursuit of the next blockbuster drug, is a close second.

Peg Mitchell, senior director of drug innovation and approval information systems for Aventis, has spent the past few years trying to get that menagerie of unstructured information under control. She led the effort to use a document-management system--a sort of library of documents and their histories--to manage information such as clinical trial protocols and reports needed to comply with Food and Drug Administration rules. She expanded that to unregulated information, so informal documents--project notes and even ideas for research--are kept in the system. Then she gave scientists online-collaboration tools, letting them swap ideas and conclusions where they could be stored for easy access months or even years later, something that's difficult in an E-mail string or on an ad hoc Web site. "If it's stored in E-mail or on someone's laptop, then it's forgotten," she says.

Now Mitchell wants even more control by connecting all these new-and-improved silos of unstructured information. She'd like those online-collaboration sites to move content automatically to the company's document-management system when projects are finished. And she'd like a storage-management system smart enough to rotate older, scarcely used content from the document-management system to the storage area network. That would help in research and in complying with FDA record-retention regulations and Sarbanes-Oxley Act financial rules.

Peg Mitchell, senior director of drug innovation and approval information systems for Aventis

Content stored in E-mail is forgotten, Aventis' Mitchell says.

Photo by Ken Schles
Mitchell's vision is the same one behind a spate of acquisitions, by the likes of EMC, IBM, and Open Text, aimed at building companywide information-management software systems. So far, those deals haven't delivered integrated products companies like Aventis need to track and save critical information employees create and to provide shared access to it.

The problem comes from "unstructured" information, a catchall term for content that's not managed and stored by a business system such as a data warehouse or an enterprise-resource-planning system. It's the soft but critical content about business decisions, projects, ideas, research efforts, or proce- dures that can be stored in myriad places.

The inability to find critical content means it's sometimes duplicated instead of reused. That can drain productivity, delay product rollouts, and hurt customer rela- tionships. Worse yet is the idea that while companies have invested heavily in hardware and software for creating content, they're benefiting from only a portion of it because they have no idea where much of the content is.

Regulations also play a big part in this growing concern over content control. Specific industries such as financial services and pharmaceuticals face new rules related to product information. And there are broader regulations that affect every company--foremost the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which establishes parameters for how public companies must retain E-mail, voice-mail, and other communications records.

It's not just high-tech or financial companies working on answers. Beverage maker Cott Corp. concluded that poor control of unstructured information during product development delayed efforts to get new soda and juice products onto shelves. "This was a major business problem that needed to be solved," CIO Douglas Neary says.

Cott's problem stemmed from using E-mail to route product-approval forms with details such as a beverage's flavor formula and bottle-label artwork to various managers to sign off on before a product was shipped.

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