posted 1 Aug 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 10
Enterprise Information: Case study
The Open University is midway through a major enterprise content-management software implementation, but already there are many lessons that can be learnt.
By Jed Cawthorne
‘Nothing to see here, move along please.’
This might seem a strange sentence to start any article, but in all honesty you will read nothing radical or greatly innovative in this article. The Open University (OU), the UK’s biggest distance-learning centre of higher education, is midway through a roll out of enterprise content-management (ECM) software, but already there are many lessons that we can pass on.
Throughout, the OU’s ECM teams have tried to follow best practice as espoused by various organisations, absorbing methodologies from the ECM industry association AIIM to the Office of Government Commerce (OGC); from Prince2 to the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL); and even from the august pages of learned journals such as this one. However, sometimes putting it all into practice to ensure a smooth implementation is easier said than done.
Rising to the challenge
I am not going to cover the details of our ECM programme in great depth – that will be covered in a later article, once we have successfully deployed our system. Instead, I plan to look at some of the generic ECM implementation challenges in the light of the work the OU ECM teams have undertaken since Autumn 2005 – and the lessons we have learnt as we have tackled them.
1. Vendor – customer communications
Communication is vital in any major software implementation, according to conventional wisdom. But any early delays in our programme might not be blamed on a lack of communication per se, but possibly on a lack of ‘active listening’ and, perhaps, comprehension.
Basically, this centred upon differing definitions of the terms ‘customisation’ and ‘configuration’. So make sure your vendor knows exactly what you mean by these terms (or any other terms you use) – especially if your aim is to go more for configuration (using the graphical configuration tools supplied with the package, for example) rather than customisation, which can involve hacking custom code and is therefore typically more time consuming and expensive.
2. Background work
Onto my favourite hobby horse. ECM is not all about shiny, new, exciting software. If you do not do the background work and preparation, then it will not improve anything.
Furthermore, this background work will consume a considerable amount of effort and resources to complete properly. You may have the resources to do this yourself or, depending on your business context, you may be able to buy-in this expertise. In our case we have a library that is home to some excellent information-management professionals who were able to tackle the following areas:
2.1 Business classification schema
A major challenge is the move from simple Windows file sharing, random folder chaos (what exactly is the folder called?) to a rather more structured business-classification schema.
In our case, we wanted to move to a functional rather than a business unit-based schema to guard against unit re-organisation, among other contingencies, and to encourage information sharing. In the UK higher education sector we were fortunate to have a base records retention and business-classification schema that had been centrally developed for the whole sector, so we had a good starting point. However, turning this into a ‘corporate folder structure’ realised within the ECM system is not easy.
Upfront it requires a lot of interviews with many different groups of stakeholders and it will be a ‘living’ entity for a long time, evolving as the implementation progresses. So, you absolutely should sort out your ‘filing system’ first if you want to see benefits: start early and be prepared for an ongoing effort;
2.2 Records management
This is intimately linked to the above, unless you have no requirements whatsoever for records management (RM), which is unlikely in these days of Freedom of Information acts, Basel II in financial services and other items of corporate-governance legislation.
Again, there is a lot of preparation required in terms of auditing your record sets, finding out how users actually file their information and how this relates to your organisation’s particular regulatory environment – and then bringing it all together by developing a records-management strategy and records-retention policies.
Records management is very contextual to your own organisation, but if you are going to do it, the same advice is appropriate: start early and do not underestimate the amount of stakeholder participation it will require.
We have one or more records-management liaison officers in each business unit to work with our records manager. In addition, we have taken a very automated approach to records management within the system. Retention schedules are placed on standard folders within the corporate folder structure and are triggered by the lifecycle state of the content item (for example, status = ‘published’, then render to Adobe PDF and retain for five years).
The aim is for staff not to have to deliberately ‘declare’ content as a record, but I realise this approach might not work for everyone. There is also quite a considerable amount of work to do in converting retention schedules designed originally for paper into triggers that the ECM system can readily identify;
2.3 Metadata schemas
Okay, put your hands up if you have a ‘metadata development manager’? We do! Even with such a specialist (plus an assistant) developing metadata schemas based on eGMS , with added attributes covering learning materials, making metadata accessible has not been easy.
In our case the use of metadata is not just to improve the ‘findability’ of content in an enterprise-search context (as important as that maybe), but to provide for interoperability of ‘learning objects’. So, if you have similar requirements for lots of metadata, do not underestimate the time it will take to hammer out the specifics, even if you base your requirements on ‘industry metadata standards’. We know users don’t like adding metadata, but having 45 fields of metadata and automating completion of 43 of them by the system is not a simple task!
3. Engaging with the business units
We took the decision to create some specific posts to lead the interaction with the ‘customers’ in our business units. These include two ‘information-management advisors’ who lead discussions on folder structures, metadata, creation of custom document-types and so on, with support from their colleagues in the Information and Knowledge Management Group.
The third post is a ‘business analyst’ to assist in mapping business processes and advising the business unit on what could be automated by using the ECM system’s workflow and other tools. The business units themselves are asked to provide personnel to work as part of the implementation at various levels. A senior manager is requested to provide a percentage of their time as a ‘business change manager’, while other business managers and the local IT support staff can receive more in-depth training than other end users to take up the role of ‘information stewards’ with permissions to create folders, workflows and so on.
As the Prime Minister might say, ‘education, education, education…’ – and training. To make the most of your ECM system and gain the greatest information-management benefits you really need to pay attention to both system training and information-management education.
First, we have invested a lot of money on our vendor’s training organisation – to the tune of more than £65,000 on ‘technical’ training for systems administrators and developers alone. We also took a ‘training the trainer’ approach, which has enabled our in-house IT learning and development team to develop their own curriculum. This offers a wide range of training courses to meet different user requirements, availability and learning styles; it includes half day or whole-day classroom training, bespoke online elearning and reference material.
They have worked closely with the library information and knowledge-management group, who have developed information-management sessions to cover basic principles and good practice, and to introduce new concepts such as metadata, security and version control.
We have also recruited three ECM training and support staff who will provide both the pre-implementation classroom training, as well as ‘floor walking’ and general hand-holding support within a business unit during the implementation phase and concomitant migration of content.
Of course, training requirements are highly contextual, but if your ECM programme involves the introduction of new software, new ways of working with new structures and so on, then your staff will require the support of a comprehensive training programme as part of your change-management efforts.
Any other business
So, as you may have noticed, a lot of the work towards implementing an ECM system is about information management and, even more generically, about change management.
We have not got the space to touch upon collaborative working, e-mail management and the re-development of the OU intranet, among other aspects of the organisation’s ECM programme that are all being progressed at the moment.
From a management perspective, I would like to provide a couple of personal pointers. If you are doing ECM, then think on a truly ‘enterprise’ scale: think big, think holistically in order to see the bigger picture. But remember that you do not have to implement in a ‘big bang’ style. You can still roll out to departments or business units of a size that you can manage, in a phased manner. Trust your team, delegate and leave them to get on with it, because attempting to micro-manage a programme of the breadth of ECM is nigh on impossible.
I will close by stating what I have found the hardest thing of all: waiting for the vendor to fix bugs and problems in the software. I am ex-military and ex-civil service, and trained to make decisions and act upon them – and thus verging on being a control freak.
Therefore, not being in control of when the vendor will fix things frankly drives me mad! You can imagine the havoc not actually having a solid implementation roadmap does to the communications plan. The joys of buying off the shelf software…
Jed Cawthorne is ECM programme manager at the Open University. The programme includes re-development of the University intranet and enterprise search, as well as implementation of the ECM system. Jed has been at the University since 2000 when he took the post of IT and systems manager for the science faculty. Highlight of this initial post was being seconded to the Beagle 2 Mars Lander project as science-data archiving manager. After Beagle, Jed acted as project manager for a document-management review before moving to ECM procurement. He can be contacted at email@example.com.