Better IT governance, streamlined workflow, improved collaboration and quicker application development are some of the benefits a Moncton-based federal government agency experienced after deploying a new content management system.
Since the rollout was completed last November, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) has also reduced time-to-market of its services by half, and experienced cost savings in the range of 40-50 per cent.
ACOA is a federal government organization tasked with delivering economic development services directly to organizations, helping with business architecture, research, networking and international outreach.
Based on Microsoft SharePoint Server 2007 and Microsoft InfoPath 2007, the new system now allows ACOA employees in 40 offices across Atlantic Canada to work and share information within ‘managed workspaces’ in a secure, centralized portal.
The collaborative environment also enhances IT governance by helping the Agency better manage its electronic documents, says Ron Surette, director general of business intelligence and chief information officer, ACOA.
As users function in controlled workspaces, documents created will automatically be stored in the documents repository. The more valuable documents are stored in a secure area where they won’t get deleted, he says.
Before the rollout, document management processes relied on users remembering to send their documents – via e-mail for instance – to the repository.
Now, accountability is addressed with the document version and author-tracking functionality, and digital signatures can be applied to indicate work has been completed or approved.
“Anything that anybody does is directly accountable to the person who did it,” says Surette.
Microsoft SharePoint Server and InfoPath 2007 (an application used to develop XML-based data entry forms), replaced an IT environment based predominantly on Microsoft .Net –the software development environment from Microsoft that was introduced in 2000.
While ACOA had been using SharePoint Server 2003 and produced “very good results”, programmers lacked the agility to easily go back and make changes to the code when working in .Net, says Surette.
“Now that we’re using a more collaborative process, we can get clients involved during the design phase.”
He says with the new technology, ACOA has developed business tools such as customer relationship modules that provide clients with greater flexibility to input more information.
The Agency also built an auditor’s module that tracks an audit’s lifecycle, from creation to recommendations to resulting activities.
Reduced costs from the new system stem from its “ready to use” capabilities that eliminate the need for highly-skilled programmers to do the coding.
Integration of Microsoft InfoPath 2007 also proved useful in creating a variety of ACOA-branded standardized forms that respond to the unique needs of individual groups.
The Agency enlisted the help of system integrators, Mississauga-based NexInnovations Inc. and St. John’s-based Infotech Canada Inc. to rollout the new applications.
According to Surette, ACOA chose these vendors for their common vision of SharePoint as a business tool when “many companies were looking at it as an IT tool.”
He admits the Agency initially had difficulty identifying a Microsoft vendor who actually understood the concept and value of SharePoint.
Implementation was started last March using Microsoft’s Rapid Deployment Program that allows third parties to implement pre-release applications into a controlled environment at the client site where the technologies are tested, configured and customized by pilot users prior to full rollout.
It’s a great way to get access to technologies prior to market release, says Todd Irie, director of market segments at NexInnovations.
“With that comes project management, a framework for developing a scope of work, early architectural designs, and customized prescriptive guidance.”
While the program benefits clients, Microsoft gets a return as well, says Erin Elofson, collaboration solutions product manager at Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada Co.
“The advantage is seeing how our customers work with technology early on so we can understand their experience.”
Besides having access to tools and resources, implementing pre-release apps can mean being the first out of the gate for a customer, says Elofson.
“These companies get to be an example in their industry of a different way of doing things.”
And this observation is completely applicable to ACOA, says Surette. “Many of our clients are high-tech firms, so we have a culture of innovation.”
Government agencies such as ACOA are part of a growing trend that sees public sector organizations operating more like businesses, says Alison Brooks, senior government analyst with Toronto-based analyst firm IDC Canada.
“There’s definitely a move towards working smarter and more productively.”
Looking to standardized application development is one way the public sector seeks to avoid rebuilding the wheel every time, she says. “This feeds into the whole notion of trying to share between and within jurisdictions.”