When Microsoft SharePoint 2007 began pervading the enterprise more than a year ago, many IT shops looked at how they could use the platform internally to help their employees collaborate on key projects and store documents in central repositories.
But less attention was paid to how the platform could be used to build externally facing sites for customers, and that's exactly what Ira M. Schwartz, CIO of Allied North America, an insurance company that provides Risk Management for construction firms, saw as an opportunity. He wanted to provide more visibility to customers about the status of their interactions with Allied, and by analysing that data, reduce risks and save them money.
Traditionally, Schwartz says, claims and risk management documents were accessed through a hodgepodge of phone calls, email and spreadsheets, making it difficult for the customer to have a unified view of their relationship with Allied North America in real time.
"Spreadsheets were floating around and nobody knew what the latest version of something was," Schwartz says. "We wanted to make everything more transparent for our customers."
The primary reason for moving the data from these systems into a portal was two-fold, Schwartz says. One was to allow a place for his customers to track their transactions and interactions with Allied. Secondly, it would allow Allied employees to work with a web-based, user friendly application that centralized data from disparate (and not the prettiest looking) enterprise systems internally.
"The legacy systems are deep and have a lot of functionality, but they are ugly and hard to maneuver,' he says. "I wanted to put all this into something that people could use."
According to Tom Schmidt, Allied's vice president of emerging technologies, SharePoint 2007 made the most sense because, from a development standpoint, Allied is primarily a Microsoft shop. Many of the company's legacy systems, including its claims management system, were developed on .Net.
Other systems that synced up well with SharePoint included a document management system developed by Epitome Systems, as well as an online certificate request and issuance system.
"Our familiarity with .Net development for both the web and desktop gave us a comfort level in developing webparts within the new version [of SharePoint]," Schmidt says. "Microsoft introduced a number of features with Sharepoint 2007 that are key to our solution, namely support for forms based authentication, web service integration and single sign on."
After some development work, feeding information from these legacy databases and into SharePoint, Schwartz went live with the first version of what Allied calls its "mySocrates portal" in July 2007.
Why the name?
"Socrates said the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance," Schwartz says, referring to the fact that he wanted to bring as much information to customers as possible.
The first feature they released was what Schwartz calls Open Items. It is used when a construction company (who is a customer of Allied's) logs into the portal and wants to tracks its interactions with Allied. For instance, if they needed a safety inspection of their site, that action would be uploaded as an open item. Once that inspection is completed, its completion would be documented in the system and an e-mail sent to relevant recipients.
"We wanted to bring [customers] into this portal and see all aspects of their relationship with us," says Schmidt. "The customers have a tremendous amount of visibility about what their policies are."
Schwartz also believes that the open items feature will improve client retention because they can see Allied looking at their business over the long term rather than the immediate contract or claim they're working on.
Other features have since followed, including a dashboard that culls data from Allied's databases about the injuries that happen at its customers' construction sites.
As an example, one category might say that 20 percent of injuries came from employees lifting heavy objects. The data gets updated in real time to the portal, where it appears as a pie chart for the customer to view. Previously, this information was sent manually via spreadsheets.
In analysing that data, the customer can retool their training policies with greater agility.
"We want to reduce the cost of our customers insurance and give them the ability to make their employees safer," Schmidt says. "This allows us to do this better than we could before."
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