Grocer betters business with content mgnt.

FRAMINGHAM (10/07/2003) - Regional grocery store chain Giant Eagle Inc. hopes to increase its business from within through the use of a collaboration and content management system from Open Text Corp.

With 214 full-service grocery stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, the Pittsburgh-based company began three years ago to look for ways to help employees at various locations share their marketing, product-display and management expertise with one another. The company's internal IT staff built a prototype content management system three years ago to experiment with ways to help employees and managers share information, and this past May replaced the homegrown prototype with Open Text's Livelink Web-based content management application. Giant Eagle is testing a related real-time conferencing application called Livelink MeetingZone.

The motivation for the project, said Jack Flanagan, vice president of business systems for Giant Eagle, was that the company realized it needed better ways of communicating best practices, product marketing methods, seasonal product availability and other information to its workers to help ensure consistent operations from store to store.

"We're a $5 billion-a-year company aspiring to be a $9 billion-a-year company in less than four years," Flanagan said. "A high level of uniform execution is desired."

In the past, the retailer relied on paper memos to communicate information from store to store and worker to worker, he said. But that process often led to delays or misinformation when the latest memos weren't received on time. By moving to an electronic system that allows users to search through databases of information to find answers to questions about things like product displays, marketing or employee policies, Giant Eagle employees can benefit from the shared experiences of their fellow workers, he said.

"It's not just the instantaneous distribution, but that the people who need [the information] can get it," Flanagan said. "If it's in our system, it's an artifact" to be shared.

Keeping it easy to use has also been a priority for the company since many of the store employees have little or no computer experience. "This has been their introduction to personal computing," Flanagan said.

The system has been set up with role-based information available for each employee as they log in, so a manager would have different information on his log-in page than, say, a deli clerk or produce worker would. "We don't make you work hard for [the information], we bring it to you," said Bob Guy, Giant Eagle's director of knowledge strategies.

Since bringing in Waterloo,Ontario-based Open Text in May, Giant Eagle has installed the software across about 70 percent of the company, with about one year to go to finish the deployment.

Rich Levine, Giant Eagle's senior project manager for information systems, said the company eventually chose to buy a content management system rather than use its own prototype application because it wanted to keep its IT staff freed up for everyday tasks.

"Our model is we buy vs. build something, like most companies," Levine said. Giant Eagle evaluated products from about 20 content management vendors before cutting the field down to about 10 vendors. Eventually it came down to Open Text or sticking with the in-house application, he said. Open Text's workflow tools and indexing abilities for searching surpassed those of competitors, said Levine, adding that the vendor's application also offers strong security features. Also important to the grocery store chain are built-in threaded discussion capabilities in the collaborative user forums where employees can share their experiences and expertise.

Giant Eagle is running the Open Text applications on Microsoft's Windows Server 2003, along with an IBM AIX server running Oracle Corp. database applications.

The price tag for the entire project so far, including consulting fees, IT time, software and hardware over the last three years is about US$2.3 million, according to Giant Eagle.

Anik Ganguly, vice president of products at Open Text, said Giant Eagle has been on the leading edge as it has integrated content management and collaboration software into its grocery business.

"This company is really thoughtful and innovative in the way they've deployed Livelink," Ganguly said.

Analysts agreed, saying that vendors have been making inroads in getting their products into businesses that haven't considered them in the past.

"I think the market is maturing," said Rob Lancaster, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. "Usage is moving out of the traditional markets like finance and health care."

A key, he said, has been the integration of collaboration capabilities along with the traditional content management features. "It brings content management a step closer to knowledge management because it allows people to share information and share thoughts," he said.

For the grocery stores, it's similar to a hospital's use of content management software, where doctors and nurses can log in and get information on drugs and treatments "and really get smart on the job and use technology to do so," Lancaster said.

Robert Markham, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed that the melding of collaboration tools with content management capabilities is what will set the technology apart and give it a wider stage in the future. "You actually expedite the absorption of information within an organization if you have collaborated," instead of just sending e-mails, Markham said.

It's a "road map to the future, so you can train people through a collaborative environment and they can help each other," he said. "It shortens the amount of time to react. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

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