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A progressive approach: U.N. site grows content from experts

KMWorld Best Practice Award 2001 A new system developed for the United Nations Office of the Secretary General has allowed a geographically dispersed group of organizations to take a direct and active role in developing and maintaining a Web site for a U.N. initiative called the Global Compact. The system helps overcome a major obstacle to using Web sites for knowledge sharing: Experts in their own professions may not also be experts in preparing and posting content.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed the Global Compact in 1999 as a way to engage the private sector in improving corporate responsibility in human rights, labor and the environment. He developed a set of nine principles that serve as guidelines for participating corporations. For example, in the environmental arena, Principle 7 is to “support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges.”

That principle promotes the idea that preventing environmental problems is better than solving them after the fact. Corporations throughout the world have announced their support for the Global Compact and have begun implementing the principles.

A key requirement for the Global Compact Web site was the ability to integrate knowledge from content experts from the four U.N. offices that are presently involved in the Global Compact. They are the:

  • Office of the Secretary General, which manages the Global Compact Project and is based in New York City,;

  • International Labour Organization (ILO, ilo.org), in Geneva,;

  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP, unep.org), in Paris,;

  • Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR, unhchr.org), in Geneva.;

Project leader Georg Kell, senior officer in the Executive Office of the Secretary General, began exploring options for those offices to contribute to a knowledge-sharing Web site for the Global Compact. ICF Consulting has a background in sustainable development and also develops complex Web sites, a combination that caught Kell’s eye. He began discussions with the firm to pick a development approach that would meet his organization’s needs. One of the traditional options available was a “turnkey” site that would be developed by ICF and handed over to the Office of the Secretary General. That approach would make effective use of ICF’s expertise in Web development to produce a finished product.

In reality, however, few Web sites are a “finished” product. Most are a work in progress, and should be designed to accommodate change. Webmasters normally are responsible for maintenance; they format and post content sent by contributors. ICF could have filled that role, but suggested an alternative approach that would reduce long-term maintenance costs and would place control of the site within the Global Compact project.

ICF designed and built a system in which content experts prepare the material, and non-technical staff in the Global Compact office upload it directly onto the site. Based on ICF’s WebAssist product, the system uses Lotus Notes and a Domino server from Lotus Development (lotus.com).“WebAssist is far more cost-effective than enterprise-level content management tools for programs such as the U.N. Global Compact,” says Tim Herbst, project director at ICF. “It is also ideal for virtual organizations that don't share a common infrastructure or collaborative tools.”WebAssist requires the content expert to have only a desktop and an Internet connection, and it can be set up remotely. The system is geared toward staff who do not have in-depth knowledge of Web technology.

When an authorized participant wishes to add new content, he or she does so through the Lotus client on the desktop. A word processing document can be used to record the new text, create lists, paragraphs or attach other documents. The system asks a series of questions, such as the page on which the text should appear and the level of access that is appropriate. It then presents a view of what the new text will look like on the Web. A custom workflow routes the material through an approval process before it is posted.

Denise O’Brien, who managed the Web site development for the Office of the Secretary General, points out that the Global Compact is breaking new ground on two fronts. “First, we are trying to work more closely with the private sector. In the past, most of our activities have involved government organizations. Second, we became more directly involved with Web technology as we investigated various ways of information sharing.” O’Brien, who is an expert in economic development, is also responsible for review and approval of new material. She finds the system efficient and easy to use.

The site has a rich diversity of content, including a description of each Global Compact principle and typical ways of implementing it. Seven databases (hosted at three different locations) present detailed information by country and topic. A Java application allows users to search all seven databases or any combination of them simultaneously. A section under “Research and Debates” provides a candid analysis of globalization from a variety of perspectives.

Case studies presented on the Web site bring the Global Compact principles to life. A leading health and personal care company tackled a complete product life cycle review of its major product lines several years ago to fulfill its commitment to environmental, health and safety management. Among the specific actions taken were the elimination of solvent-based ink for printing, replacement of corrugated shipping cases with reusable bins, and creation of an alcohol-free hair spray. Each of those actions improved the company’s impact on the environment. In addition, the cost savings opportunities averaged $340,000 per review. The UNEP office, located in Paris, generated that case study and posted it to the staging area of the Web site. It was then reviewed, approved and automatically posted on the Global Compact Web site

The system has been designed so that new functionality can be incorporated as needs arise and resources become available. The WebAssist technology has a “Discussion Factory,” for example, that allows creation of online dialogues. That capability has not yet been implemented but is a built-in option.

One need that has been identified is Web presentation skills for the content experts. As Web developers know, material needs to be “repackaged” for Web presentation. Guidelines will be developed by ICF to assist experts in presenting their information in a way that uses the Web to its best advantage.

Other organizations have become aware of the potential in this approach to Web site development and have decided to implement similar systems. For example, the Prince of Wales Business Leader Forum, which also promotes corporate responsibility, has also developed a site based on the concept of content provided by experts. The site has the additional capability of sending visitors an e-mail when new information becomes available on topics in which they are interested.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com

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