We can’t live with e-mail; we can’t live without it.
Indispensable to most businesses today, e-mail can be a millstone around the necks of office workers and the corporate IT professionals who serve them. Bloated in-boxes conceal rather than expose critical e-mail messages, and vast archives of spam and useless messages clog servers and network pipes.
Skilled professionals waste precious hours scanning in-boxes and browsing Web sites for vital information. Saying "enough is enough," many IT pros are turning to RSS technology for relief from e-mail malaise.
"E-mail was never designed to be a news source," said Charles Kevin Hill, IT entrepreneur at consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, in Cincinnati. Hill’s job is to see that the company’s knowledge workers get news they can use in their work, free of the e-mail clutter that could so easily plague them.
Foremost among the company’s knowledge workers are 200 sourcing specialists who make P&G’s highly outsourced business model run. "Our sourcing specialists experience the extreme of all knowledge-worker problems. We provide the sourcing specialists RSS-based tools to manage their own news feeds, which they pick from the outside," said Hill, who is using NewsGator Technologies’ NewsGator Enterprise Server software.
"RSS" stands for several terms, the most widely accepted of which is Really Simple Syndication. There are a large number of RSS readers—browser utilities, for the most part, free—that retrieve and present RSS feeds to PC users.
RSS made its first appearance seven years ago in Netscape Communications’ Netscape Communicator browser and has since attracted a big following among tech-savvy consumers. The technology is poised for a surge in enterprise adoption in 2007 as Microsoft implements more robust support for RSS in its Outlook e-mail client and SharePoint Server and IBM’s Lotus division bolsters RSS support in Notes Domino 8, due in mid-2007.
RSS joins blogs, wikis and podcasts as one of the technologies embraced by members of Generation Y—those born in the 1980s and 1990s—who have begun to enter the workplace in force. RSS can serve up blog, wiki and podcast content.
"Even though it’s a consumer-driven technology, it may have more benefit for a company than for an individual user. It helps streamline existing forms of communication, so a company will see benefit right away," said Oliver Young, an analyst at Forrester Research. "It can mean more efficient use of e-mail. It’s geared toward timeliness and what needs more, or less, attention. RSS can really drive benefit that way."
NewsGator is the largest of three tiny startups trying to make a name for themselves in the emerging market of enterprise RSS. The others are Attensa and KnowNow. All three boast integration with Microsoft’s Exchange e-mail platform, a key to penetrating the enterprise market.
Finding the right way to bring the benefits of RSS to corporate users is a challenge that IT pros, including P&G’s Hill, are facing. "The technology is not a barrier, but the willingness of people to use it might be. The people most inundated with news have the least time to catch up on new technology," said Hill.
His response: Identify those users with a bent toward new technology, send them feeds from NewsGator Enterprise Server software and let adoption run its course. "Almost all of this has been done by word of mouth. We’re tapping innovation leaders and waiting to see who comes to us," said Hill.
Although generally not early adopters of new technology, law firms are facing a new competitive landscape, one in which firms market their services as never before, and on a global scale. Dykema Gossett, a national law firm in Detroit, is using NewsGator Enterprise Server to make its marketing managers more efficient.
"When big corporations are looking for legal services, they put out an RFP [request for proposal], and law firms come in and make a pitch," said Bill Gratsch, Web technologies manager at Dykema. Information about the pitch and customer follow-up is stored in a database that serves up RSS feeds to Dykema’s marketing managers.
"Our marketing people really liked it," said Gratsch, who is intent on expanding the use of RSS at the firm to right the wrongs of e-mail.
"Universal e-mail got abused. Eight hundred users, from paralegals to lawyers to marketing people, were using universal e-mail. People got upset because everything was getting dumped into their in-box," said Gratsch, who is fond of NewsGator’s integration with Microsoft Outlook as well as its ability to be centrally managed—key selling points for enterprise RSS implementations.
Executive search company Spencer Stuart is using NewsGator Enterprise Server to keep its search professionals current in the consumer goods, technology, media and financial services industries, among others. Each of these fields must be monitored for executive movements, consolidations and mergers.
"We’re trying to bring the strength of RSS to our users. Before, you had to make an active attempt to visit sites to check and see if things have changed. A user without RSS might have a list of bookmarks. But with RSS, you don’t have to actively pursue that information; it’s delivered to you if it changes. Instead of having to do continuous checking, you can have RSS feeds," said Trapper Markelz, senior manager at Spencer Stuart, in Chicago.
"It’s about knowing the [industry] space and the possible candidates. When you’re working in the financial services industry and two banks merge, you need to be educated about that, and you need to know the top 50 CMOs [chief marketing officers] and CFOs [chief financial officers] in the financial services industry," said Markelz, who has implemented NewsGator Enterprise Server software to monitor various industry sources and republish that information for Spencer Stuart’s specialists.
Spencer Stuart took part in beta testing for NewsGator to assist the company in tying its software to Microsoft’s Active Directory. Agreeing with Gratsch, Markelz said he believes NewsGator’s administration tools are critical in an enterprise environment. "The administration tools are great. They integrate with Active Directory. You can add people by groups. You can also see who is getting the most feeds," said Markelz.
Although 2007 is shaping up to be a big year for the spread of RSS in the enterprise, there are several gotchas that could snag IT pros and the companies they serve. For example, without taking precautions, some RSS implementations could cause a spike in network traffic, creating bandwidth bottlenecks.
"It’s a great technology, but a lot of people underestimate the amount of bandwidth it needs," said Bruce Elgort, co-founder of OpenNTF.org, an open-source community for IBM’s Lotus Notes and Domino developers, in Vancover, Wash. That could be a problem for companies that serve up content to the public.
"IT departments should be very careful, especially if they are reaching a huge market and it could add millions of hits to their Web server," Elgort added. He said companies that count page hits need to be aware that the number of page hits their content generates will decrease while the number of RSS feeds served up will increase.
P&G’s Hill found implementing RSS consistently across different e-mail systems to be problematic. "The challenges of RSS in a mixed environment are fairly large," said Hill, whose environment includes both Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. He said he is working on ways to implement secure single sign-on for his users. One problem: Microsoft SharePoint Server and Outlook don’t support authentication in RSS for client systems.
These obstacles aside, the momentum behind RSS growth appears strong. Forrester’s Young said that RSS enablement is becoming popular for mainstream applications. For example, Spanning Partners’ Spanning Salesforce 3.0 is a tool that lets Salesforce.com send out information about new leads and contacts to salespeople via an RSS reader.
Such capabilities are particularly attractive as companies add support for users on the road. For example, NewsGator Go For Windows Mobile formats RSS feeds to be read by mobile devices.
Further, Young said he anticipates the use of applications that will talk to each other via RSS feeds. "We’re going to see enterprise applications that are RSS-enabled that will communicate with each other through XML," he said.
For example, a supply chain management application could send alerts about product availability to a sales force management application, Young said.
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