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Managing critical knowledge in higher education

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UW-Milwaukee) is the second largest research campus in the state with about 30,000 students and 3,200 faculty and staff. With disciplines ranging from engineering to business, nursing and information studies, UW-Milwaukee faculty and students were storing a large array of documents and other electronic files. Servers for the files were scattered throughout the institution, however, and UW-Milwaukee increasingly saw a need for a more systematic method of managing its content.

"We recognized that our decentralized system had drawbacks both in terms of security and efficient use of resources," says Chris Spadanuda, IT manager at UW-Milwaukee. "We wanted to provide staff, students and researchers with a place to store their files and a viable means of collaborating."

After soliciting proposals from document management software vendors through an RFP process, UW-Milwaukee selected the Enterprise Document Management Suite (EDMS) from Xythos, which is now owned by Blackboard. The choice was made after a careful evaluation of criteria, including compliance with standards, the fit with current and planned uses, and scalability.

The document management system, referred to as "PantherFile," is now used by professors for a variety of purposes, including providing course material for students, faculty research and collaboration on grants. The College of Nursing, for example, wanted a collaboration environment for all of its researchers, so the IT department set up a group workspace.

"I served as the bridge between the College of Nursing and the IT staff," continues Spadanuda, "to make sure their requirements were met."

The researchers in the College of Nursing store grant applications on which they are working, as well as materials related to grants research such as transcripts of interviews, audio and video files, and PDF documents. Most grants have provisions that dictate how information is stored and retained, which essentially mandates the deployment of a content management system.

The centralized, Web-based PantherFile system allows access and collaboration by users whose work location might change throughout the day.

"Many of the researchers have multiple roles," Spadanuda explains. "As a result, they might work at several places, including UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Children’s Hospital. With PantherFile, they can access their files through the Web-based interface no matter where they are." Having a secure, Web-accessible document management system was a high priority because so many users are mobile.

UW-Milwaukee’s system is a departure from the evolution of document management use at many universities. Often, the systems are first deployed to streamline administrative activities such as admissions, human resources or enterprise resource planning. Records management and compliance are other top reasons for shifting to a formal system. Regulations such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and state policies regarding privacy have catalyzed better management of administrative information.

UW-Milwaukee is working on a records management system that will use Xythos and is currently in the process of defining its workflows and policies for retention. An added benefit of using Xythos’ EDMS is that it will soon be integrated with Zimbra, the e-mail application used by UW-Milwaukee.

"Users will be able to drag an e-mail from their inbox into PantherFile," says Spadanuda, "and it will be saved as a document." During the process, metadata will be added so that users can search for the message just as they would any other document. That capability will also allow e-mails to be stored as records once the retention policies are in place.

The use of content management systems for storing course content is becoming increasingly important, according to Jim Till, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Xythos. "For one thing, more than half of U.S. universities now offer online courses—up from less than 15 percent in 2000," he says. "All of these courses need to be stored in content management systems."

The content might be generated in Microsoft Office or Adobe, but it eventually needs to get stored, tagged and prepared for delivery in the teaching environment.

"Universities are not yet at the point where they use a common content management system for all their content," says Till, "but it’s where they would like to go." Content for classroom courses, along with documents used in administrative activities, will add to the volume and increase the need for robust, centralized systems.

Over time, universities are likely to move steadily toward an enterprise strategy for content management. Between administrative use and management of teaching and research materials resources, the trend is positive.

"We see increasing focus on collaboration and information sharing," Gartner’s Harris says. Although Harris does not see many universities engaged in an overall institutionwide strategy yet, there is a growing awareness of the need and potential benefits.

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