Beyond e-mail: Alberta Cancer Board engineers an overhaul

It was a huge decision when the Alberta Cancer Board (ACB) decided to implement Microsoft Corp.’s Office System 2003 as a way to improve communication and collaboration across its multiple locations in Edmonton.

Not only was there a need to update the desktop computers being utilized by several hundred employees at the ACB, which coordinates cancer research, prevention and treatment, but deploying the entire Office suite among nine Regional Health Authorities, two cancer treatment facilities, four associate cancer centres and 11 community cancer centres would also signify a major overhaul to the way the ACB’s doctors and researchers communicated with each other.

It would also mean the Cancer Board and the public sector would be leading the IT industry in adopting Microsoft’s emerging technologies.

In the past, employees communicated and exchanged information via e-mail, which made it difficult to collate information and follow-up on documentation with more than one individual, said Holger Hanke, director of information systems with the ACB.

“If you e-mailed 12 different people, you would get 12 different responses,” he explained, making it tedious, and difficult to track everyday processes.

Knowing that these communication issues were an increasing source of concern, Compugen Inc., an IT consulting company that has worked with the ACB on other IT projects, approached the Cancer Board to see if it wanted to be an early adopter of Office System 2003. Compugen has close ties to Microsoft and was asked by the software giant to find candidates to adopt the Office system.

“The benefits of Office is that it’s a system that everyone is used to using and it has core functionality requirement in a core collaboration solution,” said Edmonton-based Marty Grosh, director of enterprise services at Compugen.

Grosh explained that the use of Windows SharePoint Team Services — a product that allows users to create Web sites to share and collaborate information over the Internet or the company’s network — would be a good fit at the Cancer Board.

Adopting the latest version of Microsoft Office was a move that Hanke said caught the ACB a little off-guard, and forced them to make a difficult decision about being an industry leader with emerging technologies.

“It doesn’t typically occur in the public sector,” Hanke said. “Usually the public sector is a lot more conservative in its approach and it was a fairly big risk for us to really move forward on technology so quickly that was just new.”

In a matter of weeks, what Hanke called a quick turnover time, the deployment of the Office system was in the works.

The fact that the Alberta Cancer Board was already using Microsoft products before deciding to deploy Office 2003, made it an ideal candidate for the Office suite, said senior software analyst Warren Shiau at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

“SharePoint helped to enable the collaboration but Office 2003 was part of enabling the different researchers to work together,” he said.

Many medical research environments and hospitals are still paper-based, but when they use computers, Microsoft is usually in place, Shiau explained. So, if a company can experience little disruption to daily processes and have additional functionality, such as SharePoint, “it can really make a difference in how work is done,” he said.

While the base functionality of Office remained the same, the addition of SharePoint required some extra training for the Cancer Board’s employees.

Right now about 25 per cent of the employees have been trained on SharePoint, and Hanke estimated that the entire contingent of researchers and doctors would be trained by the end of March.

Now, the ability to have centrally located documents and the ability to share those documents with the entire organization with multiple sites, have made operations run more smoothly, Hanke said.

Versioning control, the ability to control the versions of documents that exist to avoid having multiple versions of documents, is something that has been useful to the ACB, Compugen’s Grosh said.

“It’s a Web-based client and there isn’t a lot of training on how to use versioning because it’s very intuitive — that is one of the added benefits that the Cancer Board was able to use,” he said.

It also allowed for minimal impact on the operations of the ACB. Grosh said the entire turnover took about six weeks.

Once all the desktop computers are in place, the Alberta Cancer Board might bend in the direction of real-time communications and messenging. Hanke said the ACB plans on learning and using the Office 2003 suite for awhile before making any new changes.

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