A human services intranet for communities

Access to information and services remains a powerful driver in the public sector for the adoption of basic enabling technologies like Web content management. But IT shops in government and health agencies are increasingly turning to the more commanding functionality that ties the software to business process applications in the back end.

Better content management means public-facing Web portals are benefiting from wider knowledge sharing across the organization and enhanced workflow productivity behind the scenes. Users of Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server and Windows SharePoint Services, for example, say the platform’s collaborative tools are helping to sort data into information that’s relevant and useful to the end user.

It’s like a human services intranet for communities to share information resources and collaborate in both a public and private environment, says Jody Cameron, who has tied together 1,200 not-for-profit organizations across the City of Greater Sudbury.

“Human services organizations provide tremendous value to the community. But they never seem to have the capacity to be able to utilize technology because it’s usually been cost-prohibitive for them,” says Cameron, project manager for the City’s mysudbury.ca initiative.

The City of Greater Sudbury uses Microsoft’s Content Management Server for its corporate Web site, but Cameron has implemented the SharePoint Portal and Services to extend that information management functionality to every not-for-profit organization in the City’s database.

“They each get their own SharePoint site to build a community portal, and that means citizens can become more aware of what these not-for-profit organizations are doing,” says Cameron.

The benefits reach further than improved access to information as each organization is able to integrate its SharePoint site with other applications in the back-end. Communities can offer online services such as soccer registration and volunteer services.

The Elizabeth Centre, a long-term care facility, is able to manage the supply and demand of volunteers, for example. People can search opportunities and apply online through the SharePoint community site.

For the Niagara Health System, a collection of seven hospital sites across the regional municipality of Niagara, Windows SharePoint Services is giving physicians a place to collaborate online and helping to better manage internal documents.

Dale Maw, Niagara Health’s regional director of information technology, describes Windows SharePoint Services as an integrated portfolio of collaboration and communication services designed to connect people, information, processes and systems.

The software is packaged as part of Windows Server 2003 R2, or available as a free download with Windows Server 2003, and Maw says he was initially hooked by the collaborative tools built into an intuitive Web presentation.

“Our physician community – between 30 and 40 members of the Medical Advisory Committee – wanted a place to collaborate outside of our organization, a place they could hit from the Internet, to upload and share documents,” says Maw.

“So basically we decentralized our control from ICT out into the community, for who has access to what. Now we just say, put it up on your SharePoint site and collaborate as, and whenever, you want.”

The other problem was internal. Maw says he supports about 4,500 users, who were having difficulty finding and tracking documents. “We were using the e-mail server as a collaboration server,” he says. “Information just gets lost in the milieu of what you’re doing on a daily basis.”

Taking structured and unstructured information and putting it into a Web-friendly environment was where SharePoint really started to evolve, says Joel Martin, vice-president of enterprise software for Toronto-based research company IDC Canada Ltd.

“Through the portal you’re able to build information into structured workflows and team collaboration, tie together business processes, and gain access to interactive information such as business intelligence,” says Martin.

Users are able to pull data from SQL databases and enterprise applications to create a role-based, contextual view of relevant information, he says, adding that SharePoint’s real strength is that it’s native to other Office applications.

Microsoft plans to fold the full functionality of Content Management Server into its upcoming release of SharePoint Server 2007.

“This will enable enterprise-scale search features and content management across the entire organization,” says Carsten Knoch, who was involved in both Sudbury and Niagara’s SharePoint deployments, as vice-president of project delivery for Toronto-based services provider Navantis Inc.

Microsoft is also working to expand its content management functionality to include interfaces and templates for records management, says Elizabeth Caley, SharePoint product manager for Microsoft Canada Co. 064340

– Els

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