energycioinsights

iPort: Enhancing Communication and Keeping Information Current and Easily Available

By Ed Bodie, Information Technology Manager, Santee Cooper

Ed Bodie, Information Technology Manager, Santee Cooper

Santee Cooper is an 82-year-old electric and water utility with approximately 1,730 employees and facilities across the entire state of South Carolina. As typical with most energy companies today, Santee Cooper has a 24- hour workforce including engineers, financial analysts, skilled craft and all the support and service departments required to support high levels of availability and reliability.

"Not only were we able to save on the cost of a new product but Santee Cooper will continue to save thousands of dollars annually in licensing and maintenance fees"

In 2005, Santee Cooper purchased a Portal software product to use as our corporate intranet. The implementation took almost two years and did not include the departmental pages which were phased in at a later date. The goal was to make information current and easily available to our employees. iPort became the name for our intranet.

The purchased product served its purpose well but time and requirements became very different moving forward. Upgrades of the product had become difficult and time consuming as well as a number of security concerns became apparent. Even the software vendor had decided to phase out the portal product but with no migration path to their new solution.

Santee Cooper IT staff realized that replacing the product would be a costly and time-consuming proposition. A cost benefit analysis drove the decision to an in-house development effort instead of purchasing a product.

With the decision made to build the new intranet ourselves, critical success requirements were identified. Most importantly, we built a corporate project team with members from across the company. The team included IT, graphic artists from our Corporate Communications department, and content contributors from the various departments of the company. We quickly got the show on the road.

If you Feed them Pizza, they will Come

We knew one thing for sure as we started this project: what employees once loved had grown stale and cumbersome. The current intranet also required too much dependence on IT to publish or add content.

This became a perfect project for agile development.

The team set out and met with employees representing every department and every major worksite at Santee Cooper. We brought pizza. They brought constructive ideas as we brainstormed about what they needed, what they wanted to provide as information to the rest of the company, and what they would include on their wish lists.

When we had a working prototype in place, the team went back out on the road, vetting the prototype with focus groups and collaboratively putting some meat on the bones. There were several iterations and the end users were extremely active in their involvement.

The project manager’s skills in communication, facilitation and coordination were critical to keeping the project on schedule. The team was empowered to make decisions. The iPort team members sequestered themselves in a computer training lab three days a week, with iPort users regularly testing and providing feedback. This environment reduced distractions for both the team and the users, and provided a focused work environment supporting rapid development.

And work became fun for all involved.

The redesigned user interface was one of the greatest successes of the project. Multiple users commented on the ease with which they were able to build their departmental pages and the myriad of features available to them compared to the previous portal. Some feature examples include the ability to subscribe to notifications and a corporate calendar that helps promote training and corporate-wide events. The new design provides an important focal point of internal communication. Many features offered in the new iPort can be contributed to ideas brought forth by user collaboration.

An additional gain was in the minimal amount of training required for the end-users. It became very clear that the effort and input from our users design­ing the new interface was worth its weight in gold. This user involvement not only produced a “home run” on the initial release but also allowed time to code additional enhancements which would other­wise have been left out. The result is an interface where our users can easily update their pages, within a structure that will retain its form, func­tion, and reliability.

Since this entire project was built in-house using existing technology, products, and archi­tecture there were no additional costs to be paid. Enhancements and maintenance packs can be rolled out when convenient to IT and to our users. Santee Cooper saved on the purchase cost of a new product and will continue to save thousands of dollars annually in licensing and maintenance fees. The IT team learned new tools that will continue to benefit us for other development efforts. The new iPort was completed in nine months and has the foundation to evolve and grow with the changing needs of the company.

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