Cliff Bell came to a somewhat shocking realization last year: The two most important Internet software applications in recent history—e-mail and Web browsers—were failing his company. Overwhelmed by e-mail and lacking the time and energy to surf the company’s intranet for important information, employees simply weren’t getting the information they needed to do their jobs. “People often don’t check [an intranet] landing page,” says Bell, who is CIO of Phoenix Technologies, a maker of electronics components for PC motherboards. “And if you send them an e-mail, it’s not often read.”
But Bell did notice that “blogs get traction.” That led him to explore Really Simple Syndication (RSS), a new model for keeping employees, customers and business partners up to date, one that pushes relevant information to them via subscription rather than relying on their ability to find the information. For example, Phoenix’s legal team uses RSS for legal review, mixing RSS subscriptions with internally generated feeds for specific projects. With RSS, the lawyers no longer have to trawl through e-mail or the intranet to find out what’s going on with a particular project; they can rest assured that if something new happens, they will hear about it. The result is a common, instantaneous channel for legal staff to share information and add their own comments to it. Bell envisions the use of departmental or project-based RSS feeds throughout the company, as well as a common corporate channel for companywide announcements.
Beyond the News
Best known as the delivery technology for many blogs and for content sites such as Yahoo and USA Today, RSS formats messages in XML for delivery over a network or the Internet to a reader—an e-mail program, Web browser or dedicated application—that displays the messages much like e-mail or a webpage. But RSS is based on a subscription approach, where recipients decide which message feeds they want delivered, and RSS includes filtering capabilities (for example, a subscriber may specify that only stories related to mergers and acquisitions in a legal newsletter should be sent) to keep received messages on target. It’s that filtered, subscription approach that enterprises can take advantage of to create a communications channel that recipients consider useful.
CIOs who are pushing the original definition of RSS are doing so in two primary ways: One is inside the enterprise, to create ad hoc groups that can subscribe to and comment on the same core information, whether for engineers working on a new design or HR staff analyzing the latest standards and regulations. The second method is to focus outside the enterprise by using RSS to deliver custom information that partners and customers subscribe to, such as the ongoing status of an order or transmitting current customer leads to distributors.
The Inside Approach
Ross Szalay, IS director for the law firm Dykema, took the internal approach to turbocharge the firm’s ability to monitor current cases. For example, an attorney in charge of a specific client account gets a regular feed of all specific efforts undertaken by other attorneys for the client, so there’s a unified view of the services the client is getting—and needs to be billed for. “That billing attorney wants to see this status, but he does not want to sort through all the details in our case-
management database,” says Bill Gratsch, Dykema’s Web technologies director.
Using RSS rather than e-mail updates works better for both the users and IT, notes Szalay. The RSS feeds automatically go into separate Microsoft Outlook folders, saving users the effort of identifying relevant messages in their general inbox. Because the RSS system sorts and filters the messages, Szalay’s IT staff doesn’t have to configure individual users’ Outlook clients with complex message filters to achieve the same sorting result—nor maintain them.
The Outside Approach
At Jets International, which provides a matching service between private-plane operators with unused seating capacity and executives who need a flight, the emphasis of RSS is external, to keep suppliers and customers up to date on available flights and customer requests, according to Nate McKelvey, who serves as both CEO and CIO of the company. Plane operators have a custom RSS reader that keeps them updated on customer requests that match the available seating. (Jets International maintains a database of available jets and customer flight requests, generating the matched data for each client and sending it out as a custom RSS feed.) The reader works within Google, so the operators can conduct searches for executives with specific travel needs and further customize the RSS feed results. McKelvey is working on a similar option for executive travelers.
“We won’t have to worry about e-mail fatigue, since they choose what to get,” he says. But the bigger benefit, he adds, is the ability to make custom data easily available from multiple sources, since it’s straightforward to generate data in the XML format that RSS uses. “You can now integrate as you see fit,” McKelvey says.
Your Experience May Vary
The downside of RSS for CIOs at this point is its newness. Because it isn’t yet clear how RSS will be used and where, CIOs are finding that they need to do a fair amount of custom configuring of the few tools available to meet their particular organizations’ needs (see “RSS: The Next Generation,” Page 24). In Bell’s case, he had to integrate his enterprise RSS aggregator server from KnowNow with his Microsoft SharePoint portal and Microsoft ActiveDirectory directory service. In McKelvey’s case, he had to write a custom reader for his 350 suppliers of seats on private planes because it would have been too difficult, he judged, for his suppliers to configure a generic RSS reader themselves. The complex configuration has caused him to hold off on delivering RSS feeds to the company’s several thousand customers: “I’ll deploy it to them when there’s no configuration to support,” he says.
Similarly, Szalay’s in-house developers have to write the applets that query the databases and generate the RSS files that are distributed via Dykema’s RSS server from NewsGator. Both say the efforts are not difficult, because RSS uses just a portion of XML’s functions, making the programming simple. Plus, developers are typically familiar with XML, so they can usually dive right in.
From Overload to Management
Like other knowledge-based IT projects, the hard benefits from the targeted information delivery that RSS provides are difficult to quantify. “How do you judge the ROI of accessing information more easily?” asks Phoenix CIO Bell. His RSS efforts fall into the technology exploration category, part of ongoing efforts to identify promising technologies that might provide his business a competitive advantage. “It’s not a significant amount of budget, since I don’t know what I’ll get out of it,” he notes. Dykema’s Szalay agrees the cost is small, in the low tens of thousands of dollars. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s OK,” he says.
“We don’t really know how we can use RSS for work purposes,” says Mike Gotta, principal analyst at the research firm Burton Group. While pioneering CIOs are already exploring some possibilities, they’re all guessing at this stage, he notes.
Bell expects the use of RSS will increase employee satisfaction—something they can measure—by providing an alternative communications channel that won’t overwhelm them, as well as provide hard-to-quantify work efficiencies. With RSS, Bell sees himself helping people to manage information, rather than simply installing and supporting tools. Analyst Gotta concurs: “You have to let people shape their own world. We need multiple paths to information based on people’s work style,” he says. That’s a key part of the RSS promise.