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Software developers take their own medicine

By Judith Lamont, KMWorld senior writer

Software developers have something of an advantage over other users when they implement their products for in-house purposes. They are likely to have a deeper understanding of a product’s intent and potential, which can help them achieve maximum results. In addition, as users, developers share common ground with their customers, experiencing the benefits and sometimes the foibles of the software. Those insights can feed into beneficial product revisions. This article discusses two companies that are using their own products to improve performance and cut costs.

Business Engine manages its portfolio

A rarity in today’s software market, Business Engine has been operating for 14 years, since the introduction in 1988 of its Micro-Frame Program Manager (MPM) to manage complex aerospace and defense programs. Virtually all the leading U.S. aerospace companies, including Boeing, Hughes, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Northrop Grumman, implemented the system to track and manage their project portfolios on mainframe computers. Seven years later, the company broadened its horizons to encompass additional vertical markets, especially financial services and pharmaceuticals, with the introduction of the Business Engine suite, a client-server product. Like its MPM predecessor, the Business Engine suite focused on project planning, resource management and time tracking to help customers balance resources against demands.

The most recent evolution of Business Engine’s software marked the point at which the company began to use its project planning software internally. In the late 1990s, founder and CEO John O’Neil initiated a move toward a browser-based product that would significantly enhance the software’s functionality by allowing teams in geographically dispersed locations to work together effectively. In addition, a shortage of skilled labor was pushing companies toward more outsourcing, and they needed a way to work closely with third-party vendors, suppliers and other partners. The company began planning a new product to replace the client-server Business Engine suite.

Development of The Business Engine Network (BEN) began in 1999, but with an unusual twist. As each function became operational, the company began using it to complete subsequent phases. “In essence,” says COO George Van Ness, “The BEN was used to develop itself.” For example, as soon as the initial Extensible Markup Language (XML) architecture was designed for The BEN, the development teams established an online document repository that supported collaboration. The teams included about 100 people at three different sites, and they could all access a consistent set of work plans.

Other functions such as time and expense tracking, budgeting and reporting were implemented, which allowed management to spot financial issues early and target resources where they were most needed. The inclusion of integrated financial and budget information is a significant differentiator for The BEN in comparison to other portfolio management products. The bottom line: The BEN was developed in six months, as compared with a previous two-year development cycle for new products.

Business Engine employees served as the beta testers, feeding back usability data that influenced product development. No formal training was provided, in order to find out how intuitive the product was (although Business Engine does provide comprehensive training for clients through its consulting team). In addition, industry advisory boards provided input regarding their specific needs for reporting and collaboration features.

Fully implemented at Business Engine by early 2000, The BEN served the company well during the economic downturn of 2001. For example, the company reduced travel more than 40% by collaborating over the Internet. The company augmented The BEN’s capabilities with such enabling technologies as Webex (for interactive presentations), Smart Board (an electronic white board) and Microsoft Messenger for instant messaging. With offices on the East and West Coasts in the United States and an India-based software development partner, Business Engine is able to “follow the sun” and work practically around the clock.

The BEN allows Business Engine to manage its project portfolio to make investment decisions. The company can assess the costs and potential payoffs of product efforts to see how they measure up against such benchmarks as customer value and corporate profit goals. One product enhancement, translation capability, was deferred to a future date after such an analysis. Instead, Business Engine opted to focus on developing features that met the needs of a broader range of clients. In particular, the next release of The BEN will include Microsoft Project 2002 as embedded software. Previously, customers had been able to access earlier versions of Microsoft Project via a bi-directional interface. Version 5.0 will provide out of the box the capability to link detailed project planning information with The BEN’s strategic portfolio management.

Project risks are documented in The BEN either through the initiative of a team member, who enters the information in a portion of the system that tracks risks, or by The BEN itself, which automatically raises red flags when projects are over budget or behind schedule. Integration of multiple projects is an important feature because it allows the cumulative impact of project changes to be assessed. If schedules shift so that multiple products will be shipped at the same time rather than being staggered, the impact on quality assurance or the training staff can be highlighted. Moreover, accountability can be made clear. If a developer points out a potential risk and corporate resources are not made available to respond, problem ownership then moves to a higher level of management.

Business Engine reports it achieved cost savings of 20% last year by focusing on high-priority objectives and trimming expenses. “The benefits we achieved during the downturn will remain after the economy recovers,” Van Ness says. “It is actually fortunate that this catalyst forced us to examine our operational costs and corporate goals.” Despite a challenging economic climate, Business Engine was profitable in the 4th quarter of 2001 and feels prepared for a recovery when it comes.

E-learning/KM combo

Renaissance Learning is using software from its Generation 21 knowledge management division to deliver training and performance support to its own staff as well as to offer courses and enterprise learning solutions to its K-12 school customers. The leading provider of school improvement systems, Renaissance Learning sells software products that are used in half of U.S. schools. Its corporate mission is to “accelerate learning for all.” Renaissance Learning also offers professional development seminars for teachers and specialized consulting services. Since its founding in 1986, the company has trained nearly 400,000 teachers, and its products are used in 60,000 K-12 schools serving 20 million students.

With about a thousand employees in 10 offices, some of which are overseas, Renaissance Learning has significant in-house training needs over a wide geographic area. “We introduced six new major software products at the beginning of 2002 alone, nearly doubling our product family,” says Mike Baum, CEO of Renaissance Learning, That growth places significant demands on sales and technical support staff. In addition, 150 presenters who conduct teacher training in schools throughout the country need information on current products and services. Renaissance also wanted to add an online component to its training. The company’s acquisition in 1999 of Generation 21 (gen21.com) was therefore geared toward achieving multiple goals. One of the aspects of Generation 21 that appealed to Renaissance Learning was its philosophy and approach to training. The Total Knowledge Management (TKM) system is based on a database of Universal Knowledge Objects (UKO) that can be used for multiple purposes. Each learning object is associated with an “owner” responsible for its content. “Once the knowledge object is created, it’s the same object anywhere in the organization,” notes Baum. When the content changes, the new object is propagated throughout any courses in which it appears, or whenever it is referenced in performance support. Because Generation 21 uses UKOs in its TKM system, the information provided is always up to date and consistent across different applications.

The in-house information management strategy combined a top-down approach with a user-oriented, grass roots approach. Management identified training that would be required to support product introductions, and at the same time, a detailed user needs initiative identified key areas that would help employees in their daily work. A primary concern of employees was having a library of information that was up to date and accurate. “This has really taken off,” says Sonja Swanson, corporate training and TKM manager, who was responsible for implementing the in-house program. “It provides individual users with information that has direct value to them.”

Each UKO includes an embedded assessment in addition to instructional content and an instructional objective. The assessment provides measurement and accountability of learning, but also enables the system to instantly tailor courses to the prior knowledge of employees for greater efficiency. The embedded instructional objectives allow the system to serve up UKOs individually on demand to address a specific question. The unified TKM system means that the same piece of knowledge will be accessed whether it is in a course or is part of a customer support action.

The TKM system can also be used with other enterprise software to support strategic objectives. “We were working to improve add-on sales,” says Swanson, “and we integrated TKM with Onyx (onyx.com), our customer relationship management software.” When a customer calls in, service representatives can access an upsell box, bring up customer records, search a database that produces a list of products the customer has bought, and then suggests an additional option. Through a link to the TKM system, a document containing the offer is displayed to the representative. If the customer wants more information, the representative can access support material from the library and fax it to the customer electronically.

Effective control and distribution of information lets the TKM system be responsive to a company’s diverse needs. Five courses that are used for employee orientation, for example, provide company history and other information that is required reading for all employees but also useful to other business associates or product resellers. By sharing the courses, Renaissance Learning is able to present consistent information throughout its value chain. Equally important, access to courses can be limited so that if a course is designed to address issues specific to a regional office, only those at that office can log on.

The TKM system includes administrative functions found in learning management systems (LMS) and also offers collaborative components such as integrated e-mail, chat rooms and message forums. In addition to delivering training and performance support, Generation 21’s TKM also offers Knowledge Assembler, a browser-based tool that allows collaborative, real-time development of training by individuals in different locations. Using Generation 21’s TKM system, Renaissance has developed about 120 courses for in-house use, and about 40 for clients, with more on the way.

“We’re even more enthusiastic about TKM now than when we bought the company three years ago,” says Baum. “We know from personal experience the benefits of getting the right information to every user just when they need it.”

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

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