- 02 February, 1999 12:28
When facts and figures are your critical business function, it's remarkable how much incentive there is to lead the world in knowledge managementInformation is the business of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Where other organisations transform raw products into manufactured goods, or knowledge and skills into service delivery offerings, ABS takes data and transforms it into information. But while IT has always held a place of honour in the organisation, and while there has been strong corporate governance of IT since the mid-1970s, there was a time when ABS suffered the same problems plaguing most statistical agencies. Storage, retrieval and cataloguing of vast reams of information; effective dissemination of that information to those who needed it; retention of corporate knowledge. So, in 1992 the ABS made a significant corporate commitment to Lotus Notes -- then an emerging technology -- with an eye to maximising business benefits for its rapidly expanding distributed computing infrastructure. It put the bureau square on the bleeding edge of technology, and there it has remained. However, the rewards for such visionary risk-taking have been bountiful.
Today, according to CIO Brian Pink, the organisation is successfully leveraging Notes, as the principal user interface into all systems in the computing environment, as the basis for knowledge management, and as a platform for re-engineering administrative and managerial processes. And in a relatively recent development, ABS is also using Lotus Domino to integrate the Notes intranet with the external world, enabling development of new applications for collection and delivery of statistical data. "We had a vision that the desktop would be integrated as part of the core technology environment," Pink says.
"Wherever there have been opportunities to move paper processes to electronic ones, we've done it. Wherever there have been opportunities to more effectively capture and share knowledge through the Notes environment, we've done that too.
And increasingly, we're using Notes to step outside to integrate with the Internet and other network environments. Our people are today much better informed. Probably a lot of people who were pretty scared of technology now see it as an enabler rather than a threat, and I think that's quite a step forward."Along the way the decision has paved the way for a total re-engineering of some staff functions, for vastly more efficient internal communications, and for improved dissemination of information to clients. Underpinning the system are a very strong and robust network and a world's best-practice information warehouse that has become the envy of most other statistical agencies around the world.
To find out just how innovative ABS has been in its use of Lotus Notes, one needs go no further than David Bennison, who is ABS assistant statistician, Technology Application (TA) Branch. With no corporate budget allocation, TA charges its internal clients by the hour, running the business on a full cost-recovery basis similar to that used by the leading professional services organisations. TA is the beneficiary of one of the more innovative uses of Notes, a use that while not quite pertaining to knowledge management still adds real value-add to ABS' human resources. Before Notes, TA's 220 staff in offices across Australia used to do charge-outs the old-fashioned manual way. Staff who had been recruited on the basis of their IT skills would eventually get promoted into a managerial role, where they would spend all too much of their time managing charge-outs and other administrative chores. Now, working through a Notes-based register of projects, each member of staff fills in a Notes form once a week identifying the projects they have worked on and the numbers of hours spent on each project. The result is effectively a single huge spreadsheet for the entire branch, with each staff member adding his or her own piece of the data. Once a month the Notes system aggregates the information from all staff members by client project and sends off a message to Oracle Financials, which automatically direct debits those accounts and deposits the money into TA's account.
"This is a full-blown application which has been running since 1993, and we have done very little work on it since. It works in real time and is available to the clients," Bennison says. "It is all about freeing staff who would otherwise spend a big part of their time on filling in spreadsheets to do what they were hired for. So senior professionals are doing what they are paid for rather than being tied up in administration. Team leaders can now be leaders rather than administrators. And people who have been managers for years rather than the technical people they were hired to be are being re-educated as technicians." Having to be retrained, Bennison admits, can cause trauma for some of those involved. Nonetheless, ABS would rather invest the resources it does to help re-skill those affected staff than lose their technical nous to managerial roles.
An application running since Notes' inception is the repository for corporate information, containing all higher-level management papers, minutes and other important documents. Here you can find corporate plans and policies dating back to October 1994 and every important document pertaining to corporate meetings created since the early '90s -- from draft agendas to document links to all papers, to finalised minutes. Another database contains the gamut of corporate manuals, covering subjects from financial management and personnel management to client services and statistical methodology. Bennison estimates this database alone has allowed disposal of some 3000-shelf metres of manuals. All members of staff know they must act in accordance with the policy put out in the electronic documents, rather than on any paper-based equivalent. "Gradually we have moved away from reliance on paper documents which people tried but failed to keep up to date," Bennison says. "And paper has become where we store things short term, rather than long term.
Over the last few years ABS has built Notes databases for every administrative activity the organisation conducts. Bennison now has a near-empty in-tray. He seldom receives ABS-generated paper. Instead, everything he needs to perform his function comes to him electronically. And his cupboards and filing cabinets are empty. "If I set off to a meeting I usually take a few pages of paperwork.
I scribble on those pages, come back, electronically update what I have to update and throw the paper away. We are well on the way to the paperless office," Bennison says. "Every member of staff has access to almost all of this information the minute it is loaded to the database, and we make as much of our information as possible openly available, subject only to privacy and security issues." Once only senior staff members were entitled to a set of manuals.
Juniors with questions had to ask their boss. These days, everybody who joins the bureau is presented on day one with a high-level Notes database similar to a Web home page that serves as a starting point for access to all applications.
It collects meta data about the numerous databases, and either directs users to the right database or allows them to process forms from their desktop.
Called the ABS Services Guide, it makes it easy for naive staff to get to any application. "What we're heading towards is that when a new person starts work, we'll give them a desktop which has on it this ABS Services Guide database and other databases pertaining to their work," Bennison says. "They can go back to it all the time and start adding databases they want on their desktop." Incorporating workflow and building on strong business processing re-engineering efforts for functions as diverse as IT acquisitions and leave requests, Notes has successfully eliminated numerous steps in the administrative forms chain. For instance something like 95 per cent of leave forms are never even looked at by human resources staff any more. Even Internet access -- strictly limited according to need -- is controlled through a Notes database. ABS has a firewall the Defence Signals Directorate rates as being best in the country. When ABS identifies a site of use to staff it builds a replica of the site on the ABS side of the firewall and refreshes it as necessary. Even so, apart from general newspaper sites that everyone can access, only those who can prove a need for access to the site are allowed to use it. "On top of that we do have a very few, and very tightly controlled, PCs in the organisation that are kept in physically secure 'cages'. You can go in there and use one of those [to access the Internet], but it is not connected to our network," Bennison says. "You cannot have a PC that is connected outside and inside at even remotely at the same time." All staff granted any level of Internet access must sign a Lotus Notes-based form acknowledging that their actions may be logged or reviewed.
Notes also works as an intranet, allowing information to pass from employees in the regions through to central administration and back again, and for geographically dispersed team members to work together. Now the organisation is using Notes to reach outside the organisation, both to the Internet and its own private wide area networks. Notes provides the ABS with an alternate linkage to make data available on the Internet in a seamless operation, with Notes automatically managing, updating and publishing information to the Web site. In all ABS now uses more than 1000 Notes applications, ranging from simple discussion-type applications through to full-blown workflow systems.
There is even a Notes database called non-Notes applications, providing access to a range of applications from outside the Notes lexicon, including a Business Who's Who and other CD-ROMs residing on jukeboxes. It makes it possible for staff to perform every business function from within the Notes desktop. Notes Workgroup discussion databases -- which work somewhat like Internet newslists -- have been making it easier for work groups to function across ABS regional boundaries for years. Now ABS is building permanent filing repositories in Notes in which to archive crucial discussion threads for legal, knowledge management and historical purposes. Filing of selected documents is automatic and searching is based on a list of keywords that will eventually become an ABS-specific thesaurus.
"For knowledge management we frequently want to keep information stuff which is personal to the organisation or to smallish workgroups. For example, we run surveys every three years and it's nice to be able to go to the folder where someone ran the same survey three years ago and get reminded of the steps involved," Bennison says. So everybody can access this corporate knowledge, ABS is using Lotus Domino.Doc to store Notes documents and associated attachments.
The filing databases are rigorously looked after. ABS is confident it is impossible to accidentally erase documents stored in the filing databases.
Documents in filing databases can't be edited, but users can extract them and create a new version, thanks to the versioning control feature in Domino. "We have a hierarchy of databases made of filing cabinets based on year and division. [Each is] able to use the very good native Domino search facilities and is full text indexed," Bennison says. "You can open any filing cabinet and within that filing cabinet we have collected things in binders based on project code and month.
"So we have one logical repository made up of a large number of databases, but it is very easy to search over a portion or the whole of it," Bennison says.
One of the big problems for statistical agencies is the correct cataloguing of information. Before the advent of its electronic catalogues, a hunt for health statistics within ABS might have involved trips to the health statistics area (morbidity, cause of death and so on), building approvals area (nursing clinics planned, opened and approved), motor vehicles section (ambulance sales) and many others. "That meant we relied on experienced consultants who had been around the place a long time, and even then, you could never be too sure you had all of the statistics available," Bennison says. "We have a lot of people here aged between 48 and 52, and it is imperative that we preserve our corporate knowledge." In the early '90s the ABS set off to build a repository for its publishable data. The result is a huge world's best-practice, Oracle-based information warehouse. Based on a proprietary engine, a local software package and a standard relational model, the ABS data warehouse is one of Australia's largest in terms of hit rates, if not volume.
The data warehouse is servicing well over 10,000 external enquiries a month.
And it stands head and shoulders over most other Australian warehouses in its ability to match data with associated explanations. This is vital to the ABS mission because the organisation has a charter to fully explain its findings to the public. The detailed explanation of each data item is associated with the data item itself. Key to achieving that has been adoption of an Extended Star Schema, which is basically a relational model, and use of the ABS proprietary engine to aggregate data to create new levels of information. The proprietary engine, meanwhile, was purpose-designed to operate off that meta data. It automatically aggregates and creates new levels of information. Although that engine provided great benefit, it also had a few downsides including relatively slow speed. To overcome that limitation, ABS is operating the Oracle database in tandem with an Australian product called SuperCross from Melbourne company SpaceTime Research.
SuperCross is a high-performance analysis and planning tool designed for working with very large, unit record databases via a powerful cross-tabulation engine. It can process more than 10 million records a minute in complex cross-tabulation on a standard Pentium PC and 50 million records a minute on a mid-range NT Server. Common applications include census and survey data aggregation and analysis, transaction analysis, client base marketing and electronic data warehousing and dissemination. "When we go to data warehousing conferences we sometimes find them a bit pass because they tend to be looking at much simpler data and information structures than we are grappling with," Bennison says. "We have a lot of emphasis on getting the classifications right.
You can click on a Notes-based form and trace the data back to its source. The database has all of the meta data in and around the warehouse or accessible from the warehouse, so the whole thing provides information rather than data." -- S Bushell