Computerworld awards sail on through power crisis

The power crisis wasn't enough to stop the inaugural Computerworld Execllence Awards last week. The Carlton Hotel lit up for a gala dinner attended by the cream of New Zealand's information technology management community. The ceremony capped off a lot of hard work by more than 100 people - nominees, judges, organisers and others.

It took a lot of hard work by more than 100 people — nominees, judges, organisers and others. Winners of the inaugural Computerworld Excellence Awards were named last week at a gala dinner in Auckland attended by the cream of New Zealand’s information technology management community.The Auckland power crisis came too late for plans to be changed, but fortunately Auckland’s Carlton Hotel, where the event was held, was able to light up for the event.

Judges in most categories say they were impressed by the quality of the entrants. Criteria of excellence were naturally different for the various awards, but imaginativeness, originality and good management were universally singled out as characteristics of the winners.

Shell Oil NZ’s Customer Service Centre system applied information technology to improving response at its telephone customer interface, and won the award for Overall Excellence in the use of IT.

The call centre instituted a single customer contact number: 0800 4 SHELL. It uses caller line identification to trigger screen-pops with relevant customer information for ready response.

But Shell’s system goes further than this increasingly widely applied technology. It tracks and manages the time spent by company agents in responding to customer calls, and monitors progress on the promises they make to customers.

“We were impressed by the significant and tangible benefits accruing to Shell in both improved service and lower costs,” says “Overall Excellence” judge Alistair Owens of TransAlta - “both from the technology this project introduced, and the manner in which the existing investment in legacy systems has been leveraged to achieve significant advances.

“The general level of innovation and leading technologies involved in the project was impressive and its implementation very effective,” he adds. Although a formal post implementation review has not yet been conducted, says IT development manager Nancy Price, the system appears to have met its objective of handling 80% of all calls on first contact. It has increased customer satisfaction ratings by 30% “and has been studied by business representatives from both our customers and Shell operating companies in other countries.” After resolving a particularly difficult choice between two closely placed finalists, the award for Most Successful Implementation of IT went to Auckland City Council for its automated mapping, facilities management and geographic information system (AM/FM/GIS). Information on the location and ownership of properties in the city, and the placement of “facilities” - street furniture, pipes, cables and the like - was previously disseminated among several council offices. The aim of the project was to bring everything together in one database. In the process, errors and inconsistencies in the data were cleaned up.

“Customer service improvement was the key business driver for the project,” say its sponsors from within the council.

The project was completed well within schedule and under budget, and the expectation of improved service appears to have been met, judging from user testimonials supplied with the entry and later interviews conducted with users by the judges.

Each judge separately ranked the large number of contenders. When they came to compare notes, the Auckland City entry gained two first places, one joint first and one third, with close rival ASB Bank’s Fastnet project collecting one first, one joint first and two second placings. The race could hardly have been more closely run! User testimonials for both systems were influential in making the final choice.

“Both [winner and runner-up] are highly commendable implementations, but in my opinion the Auckland City project is slightly better in many implementation respects. In addition the local government environment would have provided a greater challenge [than the banking environment],” says judge Alan Lock of Itanz.

“As a consultant I liked the approach taken by Auckland City Council,” fellow judge Alick Wilson says. “They approached the project in a planned, structured, methodical and professional manner. They applied the same approach to their entry and it showed. Even the references were obviously carefully selected.” Judge Gil Simpson, CEO of Cardinal, set the tone for the Technology Innovator of the Year award. “My definition of innovation is ‘success through difference,’” he said at the outset of the competition. The winning project had to be successful as a direct result of doing something a different way as compared to the way it had been done in the past, or by comparison with other contenders in the market.

Winner was Television New Zealand’s Local Link project. This qualified by “taking tools that had been developed for one purpose and using them in different ways” to fulfil a need, Simpson says. Success was evident its fast take-up by TV channel providers.

The aim of the project was to provide an inexpensive way of producing and editing television programmes by managing the process as far as possible purely digitally. While special-purpose digital systems for TV production are available commercially, TVNZ distinguished itself by achieving the task on standard PC hardware at vastly decreased cost.

“The rule of thumb for conventional production was $50,000 an hour,” said Reg Russ, general manager new television applications at TVNZ . We saw the possibility of reducing that to maybe $500 an hour but we’re currently running at $2000" - still a considerable reduction.

The market for Local Link, as the name implies, is primarily among local television channels servicing the needs of comparatively small communities.

The material is shot on to digital video cameras, and play-out is from generic desktop PCs with Windows-based programme scheduling. The only use of tape is to transfer material from the cameras to the editing system.

Two multi-skilled journalists can provide seven-day coverage of an area by producing and scheduling all the video and graphical material for each channel.

“The TVNZ entry clearly used a range of technologies well, and added huge value to the business, and wherever those two factors exist - intelligent use of IT and business advantage - then that’s what it’s about in my book,” says judge Gary Fissenden of ASB Bank.

Telecom’s First Media, with a planned emphasis on this kind of local coverage, contracted content for at first two, then three channels on its service in different areas of Wellington. Auckland International Airport has also purchased product prepared through Local Link and has concluded a three-year contract with TVNZ.

Colin Thorpe of the New Zealand Employment Service won the IT Manager of the Year Award. As group general manager information services, he oversaw a major reorganisation of the department’s information systems, consequent on reforms to the department’s structure and way of working. These, in turn, had arisen out of the recommendations of the Government Employment Task Force.

“The job needed someone who could make things happen, and who could retain the overall vision while putting in place the projects and systems [implementing] that vision,” says sponsor Kimball Riley of Digital Equipment.

Thorpe had “shown the leadership characteristics which could draw together and focus a disparate team of collaborators to the overall success of the enterprise,” Riley says.

The judges agreed with Riley’s evaluation. “Colin Thorpe is working in quite a complex environment,” says Anthony Howard of Blue Star. “Government projects seem to attract negative comments ad infinitum. Success is deserving of comment too “Employment Services was a very technically complex environment,” Howard adds, “but it also had a significant people and change management element.

[The change] was a matter of organisation, and getting the people on-side, and that was managed particularly well.” The projects Thorpe put in place “continue to drive incremental improvement for the businesses they serve,” says sponsor Riley, citing two previous awards to the NZES systems group for customer satisfaction.

One example of innovation was the introduction of PCs to allow NZES customers to prepare their own CVs. These have proved so popular that a booking system has had to be introduced.

“A key and critical theme is delivering with and through other people, and this is supported by [Thorpe’s] focus on communications,” says judge Karyn Devonshire of Telecom, on behalf of the panel “The government environment has undergone significant pressure and change over the time relevant to Mr Thorpe’s nomination,” she says, “and we recognise the additional complexity this brings to the information systems process.” Internet Commerce winner Axon Computertime spent two years developing its electronic commerce system to provide access to data and applications for its clients over the Internet.

The aim was not only to improve the efficiency of service, but more directly as a competitive weapon - “to raise barriers of entry around clients, making it harder for competitors to break down Axon’s relationship with them,” says national service manager Grant Olliff.

The system gives direct access to functions such as order entry, price inquiry, service-call tracking and product availability.

This category in the awards attracted a wide variety of entrants, including some with an extensive public profile. As a site intended only for its clients, Axon was difficult to evaluate against those contenders, said some judges.

Despite, perhaps, a reduced need for popular impact, Axon delivered “a professional site reflecting good project planning,” says judge Neville Brown of The Warehouse. “It meets the project goals as outlined. The design is attractive and visually appealing - the layout is great - and there is lots of information.” From the company’s point of view, the service began demonstrating its positive effect quickly. Only six weeks after the site went live, it had already produced a reduction in telephone inquiry traffic, which would result in savings of $100,000 in a full year, said Olliff.

As planned, it had successfully differentiated Axon from its rivals in the highly competitive IT market, Olliff said. This differentiation “has already been a direct contributor to securing the largest service contract in the company’s history.” The site also acted as a “showcase of the potential of the technology” which was Axon’s stock in trade.

The company now has a trophy to add to that showcase.

Most utility companies have a large maintenance and repair staff out in the field, who need to keep in touch with home base for job allocation, job-tracking and information exchange.

Christchurch electricity company Southpower decided to implement a “voiceless dispatch system” to replace cellphone and radio communication between its call centre and job tracking function and the people in the field.

The VDS system established its own unique benchmark in the Computerworld Excellence Awards. It was put forward for four categories and succeeded in reaching the shortlist in three of them - the others being “Innovator of the Year” and “Overall Excellence in the Use of IT”. “The project involved both technology and business challenges in achieving a successful outcome,” says Networking and Communications judge Lawrence Zwimpfer.

“The application demonstrated a commitment by Southpower to re-engineer their operating processes by taking full advantage of a range of available technologies, including trunked radio and Global Positioning Systems. The involvement of a number of different suppliers presented another challenge requiring good project management.

“Although the project has only been running live since the end of September and has experienced some teething problems, it has been successful and is delivering real business benefits compared with the previous manual paper based system.” Southpower chose Wireless Data Services to implement the VDS project.

Although the company was new to New Zealand, its parent companies in Britain and the US have many years’ experience in radio and data networks.

The VDS enables jobs and accompanying information to be distributed to handheld computers in the field. Information from the site, such as meter readings, job status and comments are returned over the same connection.

Increased automation saves time and effort for the field workers and staff at the Southpower offices, and increased accuracy of information on the job means less rework and site revisits and more accurate billing, said sponsor Tim Slack at Southpower subsidiary Enersis.

The project presented new challenges, he added. “For Southpower, it was a completely new way of managing staff and contractors in the field. For WDS challenges included “interfacing to a new model of radio and introducing a mechanism for transferring large packets of data.” There were throughput issues, and some innovative workgroup capabilities had to be developed.

From a disappointingly small field in this category, “This seemed the nominee that best applied the technology to their industry,” says judge Mark George at Tait Electronics. “They took a look at where they were at and some of the obstacles - the inefficiencies in using paper for communication outdoors, for instance -and they intelligently used information technology to their business advantage.” The category of “Human Resource Management” is one that opens itself to broad interpretation, from “the practice of human resources within an IT environment,” through “development or implementation of an HR software package, to simply “applications which make people’s working lives better.” After some thought, the organisers’ decided to frame the award around the first-mentioned category as far as possible, and we attempted to get that message through to potential entrants. It would have been interesting to see how HR practice in an IT department compared with other parts of an organisation. But in the event, entries were slanted to the latter two categories.

On reflection, the judges and organisers both decided that no entry met the criteria we had set out. Therefore no award was made in the HR category this year.

Judges were unanimous that excellence in HR management in an IT environment was an achievement worthy of recognition, and the award is likely to be offered again. HR managers, put your thinking caps on for 1998-9 The award for Technology in Education Excellence is goes to a person or team which has shown significant achievement in expanding IT’s role in education. That person or team may be focused on one particular institution, but has shown innovation and initiative which may act as a catalyst for other institutions.

While many of the nominees attracted support from judges, the clear leader in the final analysis was Terry Bowden for his efforts in establishing the K12Net for schools around New Zealand.

Over the past seven years he spearheaded the campaign and while the advent of the Internet has proved a distraction, Bowden’s school communications initiative continues to provide special features that keep it a viable option.

The main aim of the campaign has been based on the premise that, if schools have to pay anything then fewer than 10% would take up the opportunity. Therefore Bowden embarked on a mission to make electronic computer communications available to New Zealand schools at zero cost.

Bowden was able to convince his employer IBM, to allow him to make use of its internal inter-city telephone links during the late evenings and early mornings. With this small infrastructure as a starting point, he set up arrangements with Bulletin Board Systems throughout the country to delivery electronic discussion conferences based on school curriculum topics every night.

Bowden also overcomes the barrier of software costs by careful selections of several public domain programs, and arrangements to supply at no cost to schools from some software authors.

During the past several years, the electronic computer conferencing system, part of an international system called K12Net, has been adopted at schools all over the country, from Whangarei to Dunedin.

From a provider of IT in education to the students themselves. The Youth Information Technology Achievement award goes to a young person or group which has shown significant achievement in IT related pursuits. The achievement may be commercial or technical in nature, and may have impact on a very specific area of business or technology or a wider, more long term impact.

Once again, many of the nominees presented a strong case for winning, however the Impero Group, led by Auckland Diocesan School for Girls pupils Vanessa Yeo and Laura McDonough, emerged as clear winners for their achievement in producing a commercially successful guide on CD-ROM.

Apart from managing director Vanessa Yeo and financial director Laura McDonough, the senior management team included Rosalie Fisher, deputy managing director; Taila Hochwimmer, marketing director; Alison Berry, production director; Georgina Oliphant, sales director; Megan Tibby, personnel director; and Joanne Lim, company secretary. The core team was supported by nine assistants, all pupils at Auckland Diocesan.

The CD-ROM Impero produced, entitled “Dining Out in Auckland” provides information on 46 restaurants in inner-city Auckland. Each restaurant listing includes five personalised pages incorporating photos and menu selections. Each listing is accompanied by a sound track. While the format was standardised, each restaurateur had the opportunity to present the information in a way that would reflect their individual style.

Technically, the stand out feature of the Impero application on the CD-ROM is that it is self funning. Once inserted into the CD-ROM drive of a PC the application starts by itself and the user is promptly presented with the opening screen. This in itself sets the CD-ROM applications apart, even from disks produced by multinational companies with vast technological expertise and resources.

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