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.

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

January 17, 2004

5 Min Read

For some organizations, just breaking down the silos of information that result from disconnected Web sites is a big task. Soon after Satish Ajmani became the first CIO of Santa Clara County--the heart of California's Silicon Valley--five years ago, he recognized two trends that raised the bar for information delivery: the public's growing expectations for online information and young people joining the employee ranks expecting to have information at their fingertips. But the county was ill-equipped to meet either demand. Its public Web site was hard to navigate, and it had no intranet.

Ajmani first tackled the content jumble on the public site. At the time, it was little more than a window into some 51 departmental sites, each with its own look and feel, with agencies posting content at will (or, in many cases, hardly ever). There were no logical connections among the sites, so citizens had to know where to look for specific services and programs or have the persistence and patience to hunt for them. The information they did find was often inconsistent or irrelevant.

Santa Clara County, Calif., will soon go live with the first phase of a $3.9 million project designed to improve content delivery to employees, CIO Ajmani says.Photo by Angie Wyant

In November 2002, after eight months of development and $3 million, the county launched a revamped public site, bringing the disconnected departmental sites together into a single Web portal built on Vignette Corp. software. Ajmani set policies governing what content could be published, developed a template for ensuring a common look and feel, established more extensive metadata to create logical connections between information, and essentially created a more unified view of the county's offerings. Today, visitors to the main page can get to content three ways: by keyword search, by departmental browsing, or by clicking on one of a list of topics.

With the public site complete, Ajmani took on the more ambitious intranet portal initiative. Currently, employees rely on the public site for basic information and on paper forms for internal processes. But by the end of March, the county will go live with the first phase of a $3.9 million project, which Ajmani says will help employees get to the information they need faster by providing them with personalized views based on their departments and job roles.

Starting with a set of human-resources tools, including an assortment of electronic forms linked to tasks such as updating employee records, Ajmani and his staff will eventually evolve the portal, also based on Vignette software, into a standard interface through which employees will access all the information and tools they use and collaborate with co-workers. No time line has been set, but the county first must take inventory of all the unstructured information employees access in order to design the most logical structure for getting to it.

"We have to understand what information we have and organize it," says Ajmani, who estimates that saving each employee an hour a month spent looking for information would save millions of dollars.

Multinational companies face the additional challenge of managing their mushrooming content in multiple languages. For medical-device maker BioMerieux Inc., that challenge was further complicated by regulation. In November, BioMerieux formed an enterprise-content-management steering committee with its attention on a fast-approaching priority: a European Community requirement that, beginning this year, product labeling and documentation must be in the native languages of the countries in which the products are distributed.

BioMerieux's challenge wasn't corralling the content employees created; it was finding a better way to push out standardized content to its international operations so that they didn't create their own. BioMerieux previously published its labels and product documentation in English and French. To prevent subsidiaries that used other languages from incorrectly translating labels, which could result in fines for distributing inaccurate product information, BioMerieux wanted a centralized content-management system that would pro- vide easy access to translations for all the languages its subsidiaries need. "You can't have the Brazilian subsidiary translating that information," says Ted Walsh, MIS project manager. "It needs to be controlled, or you can get yourself in big trouble."

The centralized content repository, which essentially is an information archive that acts as network storage for any applications used to work with the content, could be used to improve information management in other parts of the business, too. The company has its sights set on using tools to capture scientific research during the R&D stages of device development and place it in the repository for future reference, Walsh says. BioMerieux already has about $320,000 invested in Open Text's Livelink app, which it inherited through acquisition in 2000 and uses for managing label information, making it a candidate to become the company's standard for its broader content-control strategy. Walsh expects it all to cost close to $1 million.

That's a lot to spend to deliver on what has become a cliché in business technology: Getting the right information to the right person at the right time. But when it comes to the exploding quantity of unstructured data employees create each day, many companies have realized that if the best they can hope for is to collect the right information and make it easy to search, at least they're that much closer to meeting their goals.

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