“Open House” communications works wonders at Canadian Tire

To most Canadians the upside-down red triangle and Monopoly-style money that comes in five-cent denominations is associated with one store – Canadian Tire.

Canadian Tire has rolled out their collaboration portal to all 473 stores.

But inside the big box retailer’s Toronto-based head office, each of the 473 stores across the country is viewed as a separate entrepreneurial enterprise. The organization frowns at a top-down approach to managing its franchises, and gives individual dealers leeway to run their store as they choose.

While that policy has many advantages, it can create a challenge to working as a united front, says Demetri Sophianopoulous, project manager of retail systems.

In fact “communications at Canadian Tire used to be quite ad-hoc,” he recalls. It was conducted via several disparate channels “and so we had a lot of trouble with the style [and] the currency of the communication.”

Information updates often couldn’t be got out to stores in a timely manner, he said.

Head office would send updates to stores through multiple of channels, and there wasn’t a single, consistent and reliable method for transmitting information.

To remedy the situation, the retailer implemented a portal system based on Microsoft Sharepoint 2003. Dubbed “Open House” the portal is used – to a lesser or greater extent – at all 473 Canadian Tire locations.

Canadian Tire is one among many Canadian firms seeking to foster collaboration across departments and employees, says a Microsoft Corp. executive.

Businesses of all sizes have shown an interest in Sharepoint software to promote such collaboration, according to Derek Burney, general manager of Sharepoint Platforms and Tools at Microsoft.

The former president of Ottawa-based Corel Corp. says he has seen several factors push businesses towards more efficient communications since he joined Microsoft.

“Information comes at us from left, right and centre,” Burney says. “It’s up to software to centralize how you get that information.”

Sharepoint has sold 100 million licenses since 2001, and its revenue overshot $1 billion last year. What’s more, there are 3,300 partners building on top of Microsoft’s software, he said.

Canadian Tire opted to have Mississauga, Ont.-based Envision IT help roll out their portal. The Microsoft Gold partner builds collaboration applications on top of Sharepoint.

“Collaboration from home office to retail locations is critical to our operations,” Sophianopoulous says. When one store comes up with “great ideas”, he says, these can be shared immediately and accurately with stores across the country.

Aside from sharing merchandising tactics, the portal also gives store dealers a quick communications channel with the head office. A feedback team at headquarters answers questions coming in through the portal.

The tool isn’t just for store managers planning retail strategy, the project manager adds. Front line workers can use to find specific information about inventory.

“Imagine a piece of information related to a bike on sale.”  If someone on the floor needs that nugget of information, they can find it rapidly and easily, even during the customer interaction, Sophianopoulous says.

The challenge facing Envision IT was designing an enterprise search system for clients that not only located documents, but people too, says Peter Carson, president of the Mississauga, Ont. based systems’ builder.

“Canadian Tire is a unique organization,” he says. “It’s very social, it’s all about connections and relations within the organization. So how do you foster that with software?”

A social networking site approach was the answer. A page was created for each person in the Canadian Tire organization containing all their contact information. Previously this information was spread out all over the place.

The project started in the headquarters and is branching out to include 50,000 employees from the franchises.

“A lot of the nicer user interface you’re seeing in the Facebook world, where it feels more like a desktop application, we’re building into Sharepoint,” Carson says.

A portal system saves employees the trouble of sifting through their e-mail to find the most recent version of a document shared among colleagues, Microsoft’s Burney says.

“If you’re like me, you’ll end up with 10 different versions of the document on your hard drive and you’re not sure what the most recent one is.”   

Microsoft also uses Sharepoint in house to foster collaboration among staff, the company says that’s allowed workers access to documents that are always up to date.

With the roll-out of the portal system, Canadian Tire also revamped their practices for distributing communications. To have a more uniform message and ensure top quality, an editorial group in the headquarters acts as a funnel for all information published through the portal system.

The editorial team also act as “optimizers”, ensuring that tagging and key words have been properly entered and the content is findable on the Sharepoint system, Sophianopoulous says.

“When they first started, they found the use of key words was all over the map,” he says. But when the group informed employees about the reasoning behind using key words and adding tags, there were quick improvements.

Adding metadata to documents is critical if an organization expects to use the Sharepoint system to successfully find information, Microsoft’s Burney says. Since the dawn of the Web 2.0 age, people have been getting used to the concept of adding tags to their shared data.

“If no one puts any metadata in the first place, then no one can find it in the search,” he says. But “the value is self-evident and as soon as they try it, there will be a snowball effect in adoption.”

Canadian Tire hasn’t made use of their portal mandatory, and the company’s independent operation model for franchises has led to a gradual adoption of the tool, Sophianopoulous says.

But the benefits gained through increased efficiency are already evident, he says, and they far outweigh the costs of implementation.

Canadian Tire hasn’t provided a dollar estimate of the benefits
But paper reduction and cuts to distribution costs are a couple perks that have made the project worthwhile, Sophianopoulous adds.

The retailer hopes to reduce its paper-based communication by 90 per cent by using the portal.

With an upgrade to Sharepoint 2007, starting this year, Canadian Tire will renew its focus on making the portal its main line of communications with each store.

The company says it will push even more facets of its corporate communications through this channel and expects an even greater uptake in 2009.

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