by Jason Compton

British Telecom Manages Online Inquiries

Jun 15, 20018 mins
Enterprise Applications

In the old days, British Telecom’s corporate library was not a place for the faint of heart. Imagine a large room stuffed with unfiled paper and reports, where everything was checked in and out by hand?and where 10 librarians frantically tried to keep up with the research needs of several hundred British Telecom sales, marketing and strategy professionals.

Analysts who didn’t want to wait for research to arrive via mail faced the daunting prospect of a trek to London to do the work themselves. Andrew Levy, a competitive programs manager for British Telecom (BT), says he used to sandwich visits in whenever he could, but it wasn’t a convenient trip for him. “We’re talking about making a 200-mile journey,” he says.

These days, however, BT employees can’t afford to wait days for competitive intelligence. The company must quickly respond to stiff competition from a new crop of smaller, nimbler telecom upstarts?not an easy task for a business with deep monopoly roots. British telephone regulator OFTEL reports that as of June 2000, BT serviced a little more than 8.5 million of the United Kingdom’s 10 million business lines. That’s still a formidable share, but a far cry from the complete dominance BT enjoyed as recently as 1992, when the company controlled virtually all of the country’s copper.

So while the old BT may not have needed the service it calls “intellact,” the BT of today certainly does. Intellact essentially takes many of the resources of the old research library, adds a few more sources, organizes them and puts the whole thing online, where it’s available to nearly 90,000 of BT’s 137,000 worldwide employees. “It’s used by BT people in just about every job function and at every level, including sales, service, marketing, the CIO and help desks,” says Peter Woolf, intellact manager. For these employees, the Web-based system is their window to the world, offering data, news and research on practically every topic on the BT corporate radar. Intellact incorporates sources ranging from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to obscure regional telecom journals, as well as proprietary research from analyst companies like Forrester Research and Gartner. Between 2,000 and 3,000 daily stories are divided into 100 different topic channels, including roughly 40 competitor profile sites, 20 vertical market portals, and dozens of technology and regionally focused centers.

The System

Intellact evolved out of the corporate librarians’ need to get competitive information to the field as fast as possible. The group ran a paper-based news clipping service for competitive research but could support only a few hundred BT users. Searching for a way to get the word out to more people, the Information Resource Center (IRC) staff switched to a weekly e-mail newsletter in 1991. While it reached a broader audience, the e-mail service lacked interactivity. When the research moved online, the librarians?now intellact staff?finally realized their ambition of giving knowledge workers immediate and unfettered access to an entire library.

Today, the system logs 7,000 user sessions per day, with an average duration of seven to eight minutes?although some market analysts may literally live and breathe the service from punch-in to quitting time. Intellact hasn’t completely abandoned its roots either: 4,000 subscribers still get a weekly newsletter, and many intellact users also receive a daily e-mail briefing that summarizes the top 10 news stories in their defined areas of interest.

The core intellact news feed comes from Factiva’s Reuters Business Briefing Select. Although it’s not the only wire service available, BT prefers the vast library offered by Factiva. BT gets more than 250 sources from the Factiva news feed out of a possible 7,000 publications offered. (Factiva’s content is sourced from a large number of newspapers, magazines and news wires, which include Dow Jones and Reuters.) “We can cover requirements from Australia to North America and get anything from very specific U.K.-focused telecom research to something as broad as the global pharmaceutical industry,” says Woolf. “It’s not perfect, it hasn’t got every single source you’d want, but in terms of its scope and flexibility, it’s very effective.”

BT also licenses feeds from analyst companies such as Forrester and Gartner and incorporates proprietary research.

In conjunction with research arm BT Labs, the intellact staff designed and built the portal interface, integrated the outside sources with the primary news feed and incorporated a Verity search engine to drive both automatic sorting and manual queries.

Organizing Content

Every major topic?such as major competitors, industry customer groups and some technology areas, such as wireless?has its own page. Those pages are automatically populated by the news feed and BT’s content management system, but the intellact staff members organize the pages and give the really juicy stories top billing.

Woolf notes that the IRC team’s responsibilities shifted dramatically with the growth of intellact. Instead of sifting paper, they now must make educated judgments about what information is most important. “The team is now focused on categorization of content,” he says. While the search engine does most of the sorting automatically, using search scripts that the intellact staff have defined and refined over time, the homepages for the news and research sections are still edited by hand. “[Editors are] responsible for liaising with customers inside the business, figuring out what their requirements are, dealing with external [research] vendors and then putting a portal page together which automatically posts the latest relevant research from each supplier,” says Woolf. Each of the five site editors makes sure that vital reports are given prominent and long-term placement on relevant news channels, rather than rotated off automatically when newer stories arrive.

If users can’t find what they’re looking for on the edited topic pages, intellact provides a straightforward search page that can search on keywords, time frame and sources?either by individual source, category (such as news or outside research) or the entire intellact database. The search engine then ranks and summarizes the results. BT currently licenses content for six months, which Woolf says is a good balance between saving money and having access to important information.

Neither BT nor Factiva would disclose the total or ongoing costs associated with intellact, and any ROI analysis falls into the anecdotal category. Woolf says he has heard a number of stories over the years in which intellact is credited with providing the necessary details to expedite or close a particular deal or capture the attention of a certain customer. For example, he cites a company survey in which one account director reported his sales team generated 1 million pounds (about US$1.5 million) in new business by using intellact briefings. The most compelling hard ROI thus far comes from a 1999 survey of intellact users, conducted as part of an ongoing internal marketing campaign to boost the system’s popularity. The 800 respondents indicated that intellact was saving them a total of 12 full-time employees.

The Future

Last October, intellact was moved out of BT’s U.K. Retail division and into the enterprisewide Business Services unit. According to BT Business Services CIO Tudor Rees, the switch in jurisdiction reflects an appreciation for intellact’s role in the company’s international portal. In part, it also made it easier to market intellact as a component of BT’s knowledge management offerings, from which BT’s line-of-business CIOs choose when planning their own slate of resources.

Until the switch, intellact users were essentially enjoying a free ride on the research and technology funds the U.K. Retail division spent on the system. The move to Business Services ended that scheme, and intellact now charges the BT groups it serves. So far the charges are being slowly phased in, but the ultimate goal is to get the users to completely fund intellact’s operations.

The call for cash has led to a counter call for more content selectivity. When intellact was operated gratis, nobody complained when Woolf’s staff added another news feed. Now, however, division managers are starting to get sensitive about closing the gaps between what they pay for and what they use. Accommodating those selections seamlessly is still an open problem for intellact.

With a workable revenue model in place and a popular information destination behind it, why keep the money flowing strictly within the family? BT is giving some thought to sharing the fruits of its information-gathering labors with an inner circle of suppliers and customers?for a fee, of course. “Over time, we believe the service may have potential outside of BT,” says Rees.

Rolling out intellact far beyond BT’s staff will likely have to wait for an overhaul of the system, planned for later this year. Among the projects is a replacement of the Web layout and personalization engine developed by BT Labs. The team also plans to expand the range of Internet-based sources, offer distinct page designs to different BT divisions and outsource the responsibility for managing and maintaining the server hardware. A multilanguage interface and live translation of content are also possibilities.

While the upgrades will be welcome, users like Levy really love intellact for its instant access to information; in the end, that’s enough to make the system worth its weight in copper (twisted pair wire, of course). “I like to work where I can almost give same-day service to queries,” says Levy. With intellact “the information is there, and it’s enough to enable us to make the right decisions.”