Value-added Information Services

The Art of Being Synchronous with Your Corporation

by Grant Birks

Corporate information services, many commentaries say, must be valueadded if the corporate information center is to thrive in today's environment of downsizing and outsourcing. Good advice, certainly, but what, exactly, does valueadded mean in a competitive corporation? Adding value to what? And for whom? This article considers the definition that the Ottawa Information Resource Center (IRC) for BellNorthern Research Ltd. (BNR) puts on this term and how the center is currently delivering valueadded services. BNR, which is owned 70 percent by Northern Telecom and 30 percent by Bell Canada, is a global leader in the design and development of advanced telecommunication systems and products.

Value-added Information Services

The BNR Information Resource Center has moved outside of its walls to develop a corporate view of valueadded information services. From this exterior perspective, information services must be seen by the corporation as supporting its competitiveness in the marketplace before such services are recognized as truly valueadded. This general statement can quickly be made concrete by defining who the corporation is and what makes it competitive.

In BNR's case, the corporation is essentially its governance  its CEO and president, together with the senior vice presidents of the product development and support divisions. It is this body which guides the corporation and the development of its telecommunication systems and products, the success of which determines the corporation's ability to be strongly competitive. It is also this group which decides the fate of support groups such as the Information Resource Center. If the IRC is not perceived to be supporting the corporation's competitiveness at this level, then it can be very difficult for the vice president responsible for the IRC to defend its place in the organization. With this political reality firmly in mind, the following five attributes of valueadded services have been defined:

Valueadded services must

demonstrate information center intervention and expertise. That is, those receiving the service must recognize the value of the information provided and the expertise of the provider. It must be apparent that it is the IRC, and only the IRC, which has the capability of providing this assistance  not some outside provider or consultant, not the computing department, not the MBAs in the marketing group;

confirm an understanding of the corporate product development cycle. To partner effectively with product development groups, the IRC must understand the business and the development cycle which leads from product inception to production;

directly support the delivery of product to customers. Competitiveness is determined by the quality of a product and its acceptance by customers  IRC information services must support not only the technical aspects of product development, but also the market and competitive factors which lead to success;

be visible to senior product development management which, as noted above, is a critical survival factor for information centers. The good news is that services which meet points one through three are highly likely to be visible (and even used!) at the senior management level;

valueadded services must be supported by the information center's senior management. It helps to have support from its management, as the BNR IRC has enjoyed from the outset. But, for those less fortunate units, the good news is that services which meet the four points addressed above can generate their own support and can even become feathers in senior management's cap.

BNR Value-added Information Services

The context for valueadded service provision in BNR is the corporate development cycle which has five major phases separated by four project review sessions termed gates. The first phase is Initiation wherein a new business opportunity is identified and researched to build a business case. This business case is presented at a "Gate 0" review with senior managers from BNR and Northern Telecom, BNR's parent company. Should it be apparent to all that the proposed product represents a valid business opportunity, the gate is passed and resources are allocated to complete the second phase  Definition. During this phase, the core product team creates a detailed product development plan which spells out the total resources and time required to develop the product. The completed plan is presented at a "Gate 1" review meeting and, if accepted, may result in a major corporate commitment to develop the product. This would begin the Development phase, which sees the actual building of the new product and its readying for verification trials with selected leadusers. Before such trials can take place, a "Gate 2" project review is held to confirm with senior management that the product is ready for leaduser testing. Passage of this Verification phase at a "Gate 3" review then leads to the final phase  General Deployment.

In 1993, the BNR Information Resource Center launched its Strategic Program Support Service, a focused valueadded service program which targets major product development projects early in their development cycle. The experience gained through the successful support of six major BNR projects leads to the following operating guidelines and results:

1. At the outset, preferably during the Initiation phase, the IRC dedicates both professional and clerical resources to the project under a fully funded service agreement with the project's senior management.

2. The information specialist assigned to the project joins the development team and works with the senior manager and and those reporting to him or her to define an information profile for the project. This profile builds a complete information context for the emerging product design, covering technical, competitive and market information from internal and external sources. Typically, the information specialist scans incoming electronic and print information, filters it according to the project requirements and issues a weekly report to the entire development team. Critical technical or marketplace events are announced to the team immediately and there may be a need for focused information research in specific areas such as competitor analysis.

3. The Gate 0 and 1 reviews noted above represent critical corporate decision points. It is at these points that significant resources are committed to projects the success of which will have a great impact on the corporation. The complete information context developed under an IRC strategic program support service strongly contributes to a fully informed decisionmaking process.

4. The partnership developed between the IRC and its client project team allows the product information profile to change dynamically as the product moves through its development phases. During the Initiation phase, a primary need will likely be for the market and competitor information required to build a business case. During the Definition and Development phases, marketplace information will continue to be important, but the need for technical and international standards information will increase as developers work to actually build a global product. The Verification phase will likely need to ensure that field trials of competing products are closely tracked. And, with Gate 3, the need for such intensely focused BNR information services should wind down and allow for the reassignment of IRC resources to the next major product thrust.

5. Multinational organizations such as BellNorthern Research and Northern Telecom are now designing products for the global marketplace. Information services can no longer be geographically or corporately bounded if the extended team responsible for product success is to be adequately supported. This means that a Strategic Program Support Service set up by the BNR Information Center serves not only the BNR R&D team responsible for new product development, but also the Northern Telecom project team and all NT individuals with major product marketing and sales responsibilities. Electronic access and delivery channels ensure global information support for emerging global products.

Value-added Services - Getting Started

The shift to valueadded information services has been an extremely positive move for the BNR Information Resource Center in Ottawa, but this does not mean that it has been an easy shift or that there have been no difficulties. The first challenge was to find a pilot project which would act as a proof of concept for this genre of service. Fortunately, at the time of our search, a new project was just getting underway and its senior manager was a person who was well aware of the value of the IRC and its information services. This unfunded trial provided a true opportunity for both parties  the IRC learned what it was like to be part of a product development team and the team experienced the benefits of a dedicated information service that was proactively responsive to its needs.

A formal user survey of the yearone trial showed a strong customer pull for the service plus a 31 return on investment, based only on time saved in information gathering by the group. While the survey returns were of interest to the project's senior manager, his ready agreement to fund ongoing service provision was based almost entirely on his strong perception of the value that the service provided to him and his group.

The move from a trial service to the fulltime provision of valueadded services represented a true paradigm shift in IRC operation. Increased headcount is not an option in today's tight corporate environment; staff and funds must be reallocated from existing general services to valueadded services. This requires decisions regarding which services the IRC will supply and which will be reduced or discontinued  not always an easy exercise or one that is comfortable, or even possible, for all existing staff. Delays in making such decisions, however, increase the risk of IRC downsizing which, if it happens, allows for even less service flexibility.

Conclusion

Now is the time for corporate information centers to make the move toward valueadded services and away from general commodity-type services. It is the right decision because of the increased impact valueadded services can have on the corporation's competitiveness. And it is the right decision because it provides a true growth path into the future for corporate information centers.


Grant Birks is a program associate with Project Plowshares at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Previously, he was manager of Information Access Technology at BellNorthern Research Ltd. in Ottawa, a position created for the evaluation and enablement of the current and future technologies required to deliver information effectively to users' desktops.