When portal software is overkill

San Francisco agency does just fine with a Web content management package

Inside the project: Web content management

CHALLENGE: Although the City and County of San Francisco Human Services Agency ran an intranet that caseworkers could use to share documents across different departments, the software was limited in the types of documents it could support.

Moreover, the agency wanted to incorporate internal applications within each department's site. At the time, workers had to open and log into each application separately.

SOLUTION: The agency deployed a Web content management system from RedDot Solutions Corp. to serve as a central repository for documents that were shared agencywide. Additional modules allowed features such as workflow, portal integration with Web applications, collaboration and single sign-on.

MISSION BENEFIT: The agency now has a central content repository. One department can post a document that can be viewed on other departments' portal pages. Documents are rendered in the HTML format, which does not require software beyond the browser. Incorporating applications within each department's portal page gives workers one location to get to the programs they need.

LESSONS LEARNED: Vakil Kuner, IT director and CIO for the agency, found that a full-fledged portal application was overkill for his relatively small organization. More affordable Web content management software could provide the portal capabilities he was looking for through add-on modules. It also helped minimize integration projects, which could burden a modest-sized IT staff, although mapping software to business processes still takes time. What's more, the right tools can improve the way an agency operates. In San Francisco's case, documents within the organization are more widely deployed and updated because user-friendly software encourages employees to collaborate more.

Working Together: The intranet team for San Francisco's Human Services Agency, led by Vakil Kuner (front left), found an easy way to roll out Web applications and more.

Although they're experts at helping people in need, most of the social workers of San Francisco are not experts in computer management.

So when the City and County of San Francisco Human Services Agency wanted to upgrade its intranet, Vakil Kuner, IT director and CIO for the agency, knew the new features would have to be as hassle-free as possible. A collection of content management software from RedDot Solutions Corp. of New York provided the optimal mix of low cost and end-user ease of use.

'Integration is a huge problem. It is not easy. So it is good to have a tool that can handle that,' Kuner said. 'With very few exceptions, everything that anyone needs to use to do their daily work is just a click away.'

Originally, the agency connected its 18 departments (spread across seven buildings) with a homegrown intranet. Its 2,000 employees help people in need get food and housing and provide myriad active client services, such as food stamps, medical care and housing assistance.

Lots of links

For years, each department had its own home page, which contained links to documents of interest. Employees used to upload documents from their systems to shared drives using an internally developed tool. Each page also hosted discussion groups and room-scheduling calendars. The CIO's office developed these tools using Macromedia Cold Fusion (Macromedia has since been bought by Adobe Systems Inc.). A Microsoft SQL Server database stored all the material.

While this system worked well for several years, the agency was starting to feel its limitations. 'It was easy to use but you couldn't do much with it,' Kuner said. Only files in the Microsoft Office formats, such as Word, could be shared. When a user would click on a document link, it would launch within the browser using the appropriate Office program. Kuner wanted to render documents in pure HTML, which would be quicker.

But more important, Kuner's office wanted to incorporate Web applications into each department's home page. At the time, the office was building a new set of internal applications to handle chores such as job requisitions and equipment tracking systems. Employees had at least a half-dozen icons on their screens, each opening a remote application and requiring a separate password. Kuner wanted employees to access the new programs directly from within their Web browsers.

To handle all these additional duties, the office first looked at portal software, such as Plumtree (now offered by BEA Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif.) and Websphere Portal from IBM Corp.

'They were incredibly expensive. The big portals are in a very different market space,' Kuner noted. Instead, the organization looked at what Web content management software providers could offer. 'We realized that if we only did Web applications, we could use RedDot LiveServer to do the portal work.'

RedDot, a subsidiary of Hummingbird Ltd. of Toronto, offers content management in modular chunks, said Darren Guarnaccia, the company's director of technology. Once customers deploy the basic RedDot Web CMS product, they can add the LiveServer collection of modules to build a portal, one that would come with Web application support, search functionality and user personalization.

Setting up the new system took about three months. Installation was a snap; the team set up some servers running Windows 2000 and the RedDot employees installed the software. Configuration took a bit more time.

Now that the departmental portals are up and running, the agency needs only one person to maintain operations, and users seem satisfied with the results. Kuner said employees especially appreciate the single-sign-on capability.

In addition to having new Web applications on each department's home page, the agency offers caseworkers additional features through modules available in the RedDot Extended Content Management System, such as a workflow module.

Regular route

Forms make their way around the agency via a predetermined electronic route. For instance, a social worker files a request for emergency funds for a client from a desktop computer, which then gets routed to the fiscal services department, located in a different building. Fiscal services then approves the request and sends the order to print a check to one of the field offices, at a separate location.

The departmental portals also include the ability to share documents. In many situations, caseworkers from different departments have to work together on behalf of one client. The RedDot software allows a document to be posted in two locations at once, helping the process along.

For Kuner, the relatively low cost of the RedDot portal software was a significant selling point. Overall, the agency spent about $80,000 for the basic content management functionality and an additional $75,000 for LiveServer.

More important, utilizing a content management system helped the agency make better use of its existing data and network systems. The RedDot software made the experience of moving to an ECM as painless as possible'for both administrators and users.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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