Canadian firm builds business on collaboration portal

In an effort to connect its geographically dispersed workforce, an Alberta-based construction supply firm is relying on an online portal to boost collaboration and communication across the board.

North American Construction Group (NACG), which provides heavy mining and construction piling pipeline services to companies throughout Canada, recently deployed an enterprise content management (ECM) portal based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 as a centralized resource to help employees gather, share and reuse information.

“Results were almost immediate. Workers were also able to cut their time searching for documents by as much as 75 per cent,” according to Pam Winters, director of information technology for NACG.

NACG employs about 1,700 people working in seven different divisions located throughout Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta.

The family-owned business prides itself on having a family oriented culture where employees always “felt connected” despite their distance. Most of the internal communication took place via e-mail and phone call.

Previously, the company used an internal network drive called I-Drive to store company documents. There was, however no standardized process to manage data making it difficult for employee to find, use and share business information.

Because it was often challenging to locate documents, employees created their own versions of letterheads, presentations and report formats. This strategy only made it more difficult for NACG to maintain a consistent corporate look, Winters said.

“It was hard to keep track of the most recent document version because so many hands were involved and data was stored in multiple locations,” the IT chief said.

With e-mail as the main form of communication for everything from document approval to company announcements, employees located in remote offices often experienced system slowdowns and e-mail bottlenecks. “Very often, employees needed to pass e-mails with large attachments. These tended to clog the system.”

The company considered Lotus Notes to help streamline NACG’s communication but found it costly, un-intuitive and unable to integrate with existing desktop applications, Winters said.

Iomer Internet Solutions Inc. an Edmonton-based systems integrator helped NACG identify a system that will operate with existing applications and require minimal technical support to run.

“SharePoint 2007 and Office Forms Server 2007 were the perfect easy-to-use system for NACG’s staff,” said Sam Jenkins, director of business development for Iomer.

Office Forms enabled NACG to create standards-based electronic forms that can be accessed by anyone in the company with a Web browser.

He said the collaboration features of SharePoint enabled employees to reach co-workers regardless of their location by phone, e-mail or instant messaging.

The company portal now contains all the company data so employees don’t need to send e-mails with large attachments. Employees can access and fill out forms from their browsers, find documents quicker and have access to company-wide information in seconds.

“What used to take days to search now takes minutes,” said Winters.

A lot companies are turning to corporate portals to solve their document management challenges, according to Michelle Warren, senior analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

Much of the appeal of portals is lies in its low acquisition cost and ease of adoption. “It’s cheap and easy,” said Warren.

“By now a large number of employees have adopted to the use of e-mail and the Internet so there is very little training involved.”

Organizations eyeing to use a corporate portal to streamline communication and data management must keep in mind security, storage and support according to Warren.

She said access to the online resource centre must be adequately guarded by technology and policy-based measures to protect vital corporate information.

Before carrying out a purchase, companies must determine that the system will be able to handle their storage needs. The system must also include a reliable data backup feature.

While adoption needs might be minimal, companies will always be better off with providers that deliver appropriate technical support for operation and future system development.


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