Taking control of Web chaos

After years of building Web sites with little regard for standardization, users and industry experts agree it’s time for companies to clean up their Web acts.

Just ask Emerson Electric Co., which after letting its 60 divisions develop their own Web sites with their own tools now has standardized on two Web development platforms. Or Barclays Global Investors, which scrapped its five regional sites for one central site.

Driving the case for consolidation is the desire to make more efficient use of IT resources. If companies limit the number of software programs they deploy, they can decrease IT support costs. Adopting a corporate-wide system for Web content can lessen companies’ dependence on time-consuming, manual Web publishing tools as well as reduce marketing inconsistencies across divisions.

From a customer standpoint, Web consolidation translates into convenience. Customers increasingly expect a company to offer access to all of its wares from a single site and with centralized transaction control – no one wants to conduct separate transactions to buy PCs, printers and peripherals from a single vendor, for example.

Without a corporate-wide Web strategy, companies wind up with scattered bits of customer information stored in the various data repositories associated with each software platform and no easy way to exchange information internally or with channel partners. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) applications are designed to consolidate customer data, but that information needs to be available, not just to internal employees but also to channel partners and customers through Web sites.

To accomplish Web consolidation, companies today are choosing technology such as portals, content management and enterprise application integration (EAI) software, says Gene Phifer, vice-president and research director at Gartner. “Companies are asking, ‘how do I leverage what I have better? How do I take these ERP and CRM systems that I spent all this money on, and tie them together?,'” he says. “That’s why you see portals. That’s why you see EAI technology.”

Companies first let their divisions explore a bunch of Web options, because no one knew what approach would be the most successful, says Christopher Gardner, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in charge of the firm’s IT strategy practice. Now they’re moving on to the next stage, which is to rein in the chaos.

The Emerson Way

At Emerson Electric, the focus is on centralization.

Two years ago the US$15.5-billion company chose two Web development platforms on which to standardize: Click Commerce for its most complex Web sites and IBM WebSphere for all other sites. Today, 40 of its 53 Web sites operate on one of those two platforms. Thirteen sites still use other software but will shift to Click Commerce or WebSphere as they outgrow their current environments, says Charlie Peters, senior executive vice-president at Emerson.

As part of its Web overhaul, Emerson also opted to outsource hosting of its Web sites. By first restricting the number of Web software platforms, Emerson could negotiate large-scale hosting contracts based on bundles of sites, rather than site-by-site terms. This approach also allows the company to consolidate its Web security efforts, Peters says.

“We can build our firewall strategy around these 40 hosted sites and be very effective,” Peters says. But for the other 13 sites that are running on nonstandard software, the company has to procure hosting and develop security strategies for each one. He estimates the company saves roughly US$5 million per year by centralizing the hosting of its sites, rather than hosting each site independently.

In conjunction with its infrastructure consolidation, Emerson is working to streamline its image, so customers see some consistency across divisions. One way it’s doing this is through portals.

Currently, there are three significant portal projects underway at Emerson. One of them will pool content from 10 of Emerson’s process-management divisions, which often sell to the same customers. The application work required to integrate the different divisions is considerable, Peters says.

Going forward, the work being done for the process-management portal will yield a corporate standard for EAI software.

A Common Web Ground

At Barclays Global Investors (BGI), the focus is on unity.

BGI operates in five geographic regions, and the investment services it offers differ in each region. Two years ago BGI took a look at its corporate Internet strategy and realized it didn’t have a cohesive one.

Each region had its own Web site, dedicated IT resources for creating HTML pages – plus various tools for generating the Web pages – and different methods for disseminating information to clients. Navigation features were dissimilar, and functions varied from site to site.

“With the old Web sites, we didn’t look like a global organization, we just looked like a federation of loosely coupled local groups,” says Mike Kelley, manager of Internet technology at BGI.

With the launch in April of the new Barclaysglobal.com, the company has a single site that serves all five regions. Personalization tools filter content based on users’ locations as well as their relationship with Barclays.

“We were able to build that one infrastructure, and using personalization and other tools that we had available, create a single Web presence that satisfies multiple locations,” Kelley says.

BGI also rebuilt its corporate intranet and its retail investment site, iShares.com. All three sites were built on ATG’s Dynamo Web platform and share content management tools from Documentum.

When it rolled out its new sites, BGI at the same time revamped its IT structure. A centralized IT group sets all its e-commerce software standards and maintains the Web infrastructure. Responsibility for Web content has been offloaded to regional sites, because the Documentum tools let non-IT personnel publish and maintain content.

At an intermediary level, a group of people called “e-strategists” collect information about Internet projects that are in the works, Kelley says. These strategists meet weekly with corporate IT to discuss new initiatives, compare similarities across regions, and identify gaps where the infrastructure may not be complete enough to deliver what they want to deliver.

By reducing the number of software platforms and standardizing Web content processes, BGI is eliminating duplicate efforts and stretching its IT dollars further, although they won’t say by how much.

“If we had been going along the way we were going with the old sites, we would have had to grow our IT resources significantly” to keep up with Web development demand, Kelley says. “In fact, we have not had to do that.”