Developer

Healthcare network eliminates Web bottleneck with Collage solution

When there are many organizations operating under one umbrella, Web site design can be very tricky. This article details how one organization used the Merant Collage content management system to overcome the convoluted Web site.


It’s hard to imagine that an organization employing over 13,000 people could be nearly invisible to the greater Atlanta community it served. But that was the case for Emory Healthcare, the patient arm of Emory University’s School of Medicine. It was a matter of hiding in plain site. Prior to 2001, the healthcare organization—consisting of Emory Clinic, Emory University Hospital, Emory Crawford Long Hospital, Emory Children’s Center, Wesley Woods Geriatric Hospital and Heart Center, Healthcare Information Services, and several other entities—piggybacked on the university’s Web site. Trying to navigate through that massive site to find information about clinics, physicians, affiliated hospitals, or employment opportunities within Emory Healthcare wasn’t a job for the fainthearted.

"We found that the general public had no idea what Emory Healthcare encompassed," said Cecelia Thomas, Web implementation manager for Emory Healthcare. "They didn’t know how many different specialties we have, how to find a physician or a healthcare center. There was really no central location for maps and telephone numbers. All that basic kind of information was hidden away. The [Emory University Web] site was a very convoluted way for patients to get information."

First attempt at a Web site leaves visitors frustrated
Emory Healthcare's need for its own independent Web site was growing more urgent. In 2001, armed with a three-year budget of $900,000, the organization took its first steps into the world of Web site development and deployment. Having rejected Web content management tools Interwoven and Vignette as too expensive and requiring too much technical savvy for the average content contributor (generally department administrative assistants), Emory Healthcare settled for NetObjects Collage, a less robust but eminently more affordable tool.

In April 2001, with help from outside consultants, Emory Healthcare launched its first Web site. Early user feedback was less than stellar. Patients and other visitors were still having problems finding the information they needed. Serendipitously, within months, NetObjects sold Collage to Hillsboro, Oregon-based Merant, a company with decades of experience in software configuration management. The new company totally reconfigured the product, building robust features into the version that would help to vastly improve Emory Healthcare’s currently subpar Web site.

"Basically," reported Thomas, "we started over." With help from a Merant consultant, Thomas’ one-person operation began to rebuild the site from the ground up. She worked with a designer to create a whole new look and feel for the site, one with far better navigation features than its predecessor. Then she had to face the arduous task of moving the content from the old NetObjects site to the new Merant Collage one.

"I had to copy and paste my content piece by piece," said Thomas. When asked why she didn’t simply take advantage of Merant Collage’s Web site import feature, she explained that because the site was being completely revamped—new graphics, new navigation—the import feature wasn’t applicable. "When the Merant import feature is used, it brings in everything. There’s no way to just import content copy and keep your pages and files in the same order that they were when your design is totally different," she explained.

When Thomas got down to the nitty-gritty of inserting the old content into the newly designed site, she had to deal with tens of thousands of shadow assets. All those references to images or links or other elements on the page were lost because the files couldn’t come in the same format as the one in which they were laid out on the server. "That first week I was working on it, trying to clean up those shadow assets and reestablish those lines, I thought, oh God, this could take me years to do all of this," she lamented.

To keep hysterics at bay, Thomas contracted for a Merant consultant to advise her on how to navigate through the more than 2,000-page morass. He started by showing her how to build master templates, one for the overall site and secondary ones for each department so they could have their own visual identity within the overall schema. He explained how to set up content folders and make the connection between the editing layout and the deployment layout. From there, it was just a matter of pulling the old content and plugging it into the new site.

Empowering departments to manage their own content
Today over 60 departments or specialty centers have a presence on www.emoryhealthcare.org. But since a one-person operation couldn’t possibly manage the content for all those entities, Thomas has leveraged Merant Collage’s Web content management features to push out the responsibility for the content to the departments themselves. She set up contributor folders for each department and designated restricted access to those folders through the IT department’s LDAP server, a Novell E directory. "I have complete control over my users and what accessibility they have within Collage," explained Thomas. "They only see what I allow them to see and can change only what I allow them to change."

According to Thomas, after a couple of hours of training, users are off and running. They log on to the Web site, select their department, and they’re automatically connected to their department’s contribution folder. The edit window is simple to use with only three fields to fill out: the title of the page, the menu name linked to this page, and the body content. "The editing tool is like Word," stated Thomas. "The icons are the same. You’ve got a 'B' for bold and an 'I' for italicize. It’s all done graphically."

To maintain design integrity, Thomas controls the layout template for the department pages, but not the actual content. She dictates the size of the type, but users can choose to bold, italicize, or underline the type. She also allows them a choice of three colors. Users can add links, images, bulleted lists, tables, and anchors to their content. To simplify navigation, she does restrict the number of pages within a menu item to 10, feeling that anything more would be too overwhelming for visitors to handle. "It’s very easy to go in and make changes within a department layout or globally," said Thomas. For instance, with a few mouse clicks, she can change the whole look and feel of a page or the entire site by simply changing the typeface.

Acting as a final check and balance before pushing content out to public
With Merant Collage, Thomas has eliminated the Webmaster bottleneck common to corporate Web sites that rely on the Webmaster to handle anything to do with the company’s Internet presence. Emory Healthcare users edit their own pages, get approval from their own designated department authorities—administrator or physician—that the content is accurate, then send an e-mail to Thomas to push the new content out to a test site that sits behind the organization’s firewall. At the click of a button, it goes out to this live test server so the user can see if the revisions look okay and work with the rest of the associated Web pages as expected. If they do, users send a follow-up e-mail to Thomas giving their okay to push the pages out to the public site. At this juncture, Thomas reviews the change pages with a critical design eye and makes any necessary tweaks before pushing it out to the public site.

"It takes less than 10 minutes of my time per department," declared Thomas. "I just preview the change pages, approve them, and push them out to the public site. I don’t have to push the whole department site out again—the master pages, menus, and everything—just the individual changed or new pages." Thomas said the streamlined process allows contributors to be as much as 70 to 80 percent more productive than they were under the old NetObjects content management framework.

Giving Emory Healthcare’s intranet a Merant Collage boost
With its public intranet site now well established, the healthcare services organization is looking to leverage Merant Collage to achieve much-needed control over its intranet content. "The IT department doesn’t have the resources to manage the content for our community of users, some 7,000 employees," explained Michael Duffell, application integrator in Emory Healthcare’s IT department. "So we need a good mechanism for pushing the control and actual management of the content off to the owners of the content back out in the departments and throughout the enterprise." Merant Collage enables the organization to do that, without losing control over the infrastructure and design of the intranet. Some of the highlights are:
  • Cohesive intranet—"Merant Collage lets us maintain and control the design of the intranet site and structure contribution access so it’s not a free-for-all," explained Duffell. In the intranet’s previous incarnation, contributors used file sharing right on the Web server. They ended up designing their HTML however they chose. Duffell described the results as "little silos of Web sites loosely tied together." Merant Collage helps Emory Healthcare achieve a more cohesive intranet in which the overall look and feel of the design, the flow, and navigation are all centrally managed.
  • The advantage of thin vs. thick client—Duffell especially likes Merant Collage's Web-based user interface. "It requires a lot of engineering resources to manage thick clients at the desktop," he said. "The Web-based contribution mechanism allows us to have a central infrastructure that we can easily maintain and update. And it allows the users to contribute from any desktop that’s browser-enabled and can access the intranet." As Duffell explained, this enables contributors to focus on content—its accuracy and value to the enterprise—instead of worrying about Web technologies or HTML code.
  • Cumbersome conversion from Tomcat to WebSphere—One shortcoming of Merant Collage that Duffell pointed out was its awkwardness in converting to other application servers. Though the software ships with Tomcat, an open-source J2EEE application server, Emory Healthcare’s infrastructure of choice is IBM WebSphere. "The turnkey, wizard-driven installation is easy to use with Tomcat. But you have to actually run through that installation process first and then repackage the application, using scripts that Merant provides, so that it can be redeployed in WebSphere." He’d rather be able to deploy Collage directly onto WebSphere.
  • Easy integration with an external LDAP—Duffell was pleasantly surprised at how well Merant Collage worked with Emory Healthcare’s enterprise LDAP server. "That was a great bonus," he said, "because we could externalize the authentication process. People can use their normal network IDs and passwords. So we don’t run into problems with IT having to maintain yet another source of IDs and passwords which always seem to get out of synch."

Advice to companies selecting a WCM vendor
While Emory Healthcare had the good fortune to luck into Merant Collage, Cecelia Thomas has some cautionary advice for companies shopping for a Web content management vendor:
  • Know the intended architecture of your site. Before you can enter into a dialogue with a potential vendor, you have to have a sense of where you want visitors to go once they come to your home page. Think about how you want visitors to navigate through your Web site.
  • Be leery of vendors who won’t give you a demo. If they can’t give you a basic demo on how the site is going to flow, it generally means you’ll need a lot of consulting to construct the site. That’s a lot of additional up-front expense you might not be prepared to incur. I would insist on a demo.
  • Like your vendor rep. If you don’t like the rep, ask for a new one because you’re going to be working a lot with him or her. Our Merant rep was invaluable in getting me assistance when I needed it, finding out who could answer the questions that I had, things like that.
  • Know some HTML. Having a basic knowledge of Web site development helps immensely. If you’re spearheading the project and don’t have the background, sign up for a continuing education course somewhere. Believe me, it’s a necessity.
  • Know your institution and your users. Understand who will be using the WCM software, how technically savvy or unsavvy they are. In Emory Healthcare’s case, our users are primarily administrative assistants within departments. They know Word, Excel, and other basic Microsoft programs. But no one is Web savvy or has the time to learn. So we had to make sure the tool we chose would be easy to use. So make sure you understand your content contributors’ requirements before you make any decisions.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox