Stopping unscheduled downtime is one of the core objectives of organisations that own and operate process manufacturing facilities, utilities and other major assets and infrastructure. Every organisation knows the commercial value of its throughput, which makes downtime easier to quantify than ever before.
Companies must carry out their core business activities whilst remaining mindful of regulatory compliance, health and safety and other issues that need to be managed in the background, so effectively linking the documents to businesses processes to facilitate information movement and availability lies at the heart of a successful business.
When something goes wrong, (mechanical failure or act of god aside!) the resultant downtime can often be traced to either a safety issue, emergency maintenance or non-compliance, but these stoppages are the result of disconnects between content and the businesses processes that use it. Ultimately, stoppages are linked to information incidents in which documents are inaccurate, out-of-date or just not available.
Information incidents can manifest themselves in a number of ways but one of the areas impacting on an ever-increasing number of industries is that of regulatory compliance. Something as seemingly insignificant as the failure to change a valve within a specified lead time could lead to non-compliance and a plant being shut-down while further checks are undertaken.
The monitoring of activities in relation to compliance is a critical role in avoiding unscheduled plant downtime, but it is also a process that is complex and involves many groups within an organisation. Businesses must ensure that the right documents and content are available to work from and that the processes that give this content context are in place to manage them effectively.
The monitoring controls involved in maintaining regulatory compliance are incredibly stringent and this has increased the demand for real-time access to shared information on demand. If there is the slightest doubt over the validity of the manufacturing process this can be enough to put production on hold or shut down the plant altogether, compromising years of work and potentially losing the company tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Business issues alone present organisations with significant hurdles when it comes to increasing the efficiency of information flows. However, these are often compounded by underlying technology problems, creating information incidents in which the required content is not available when it is needed.
Information incidents are a result of a disconnect between content and business processes that the content supports. For many organisations, the root of the problem lies in the failure to adequately share, manage and control information throughout departments and across the business.
At the heart of all business processes is the ability to share information, which means that the role of the IT department in improving the effective flow of information.
As businesses expand, it is not uncommon for them to develop an IT infrastructure in which they run multiple systems to fulfil similar tasks. On a departmental level, the need for specific platforms and applications still exist (ie SAP in a finance department). However, where the unstructured content that governs the daily activities of the organisation is not available across the entire enterprise, on demand, the business is compromising on the efficiency of its operations.
This is now being recognised throughout the business world and has prompted many organisations to look at how they can overcome the problem of compromised information flows. As a result, there is an increased trend toward the adoption of enterprise content management (ECM) platform standardisation to better match departmental requirements within the context of the whole enterprise.
McLaren's anecdotal evidence highlights that as many as 65percent of IT departments are currently involved in some sort of ECM platform standardisation. Clearly the trend towards standardisation is one that cannot be ignored, as it now even impacts on the one time unassailably complex unstructured content associated with the engineering department. Seeing the benefits of managing unstructured content is particularly important in regulated environments where compliance must be readily demonstrable on demand and audit trails need to exist whether the required information is internal or external to the organisation.
Adopting ECM standardisation enables businesses to move towards the holy grail of seamless business processes across the enterprise.
The ability to share information, implement and operate business processes across departments, branches and even extend this to incorporate the work and activities of third party suppliers or customers, can provide a vital competitive advantage through tightening up business activities
Growing role of software
Linking the functionality of the standardised platform into business processes can be achieved in a couple of ways. The traditional approach has been to determine requirements and use integrators or consultants to customise the platform.
However, the disadvantage of this approach is that it is both costly and time consuming. There can be lengthy delays between identifying the need and actually customising the platform to enable the business to benefit from the new functionality and frequently the needs will have changed during the process. If they are not careful, businesses can easily find themselves drawn into a perpetual cycle of customisation for which they will be unlikely to ever really benefit from fully.
The alternative is to adopt an approach based around the use of configurable out-of-the-box content applications. The advantage that they hold over customisation is that the applications will come with high levels of industry best practice as standard that significantly reduce the volume of adjustments required. This approach mirrors the developments in the database market some ten to 15 years ago when applications began to appear on Oracle and other platforms ie Peoplesoft, SAP etc.
Recently both Documentum's aDesigned for Documentum' and FileNet's aP8 Ready' program have been launched to support and encourage the growth of content applications, indicating a major shift in the approach of the ECM industry.
These content applications are supported by content management platforms and manage the processes through which content is used, managed and stored in the context of an end user role. Updates in line with changing business requirements can be made within a fraction of the time it would take to achieve through customisation.
However, one of the key benefits to utilising applications is that they enable businesses to automate the business processes across the enterprise. This is particularly beneficial in a regulated environment, where many of the requirements can be met through remedial work.
For the business, it is essential that certain tasks are performed and linking the content to business processes enables automated alerts to flag up jobs to those who need to undertake them. It also performs the dual purpose of creating an audit trail to highlight where, in the event that something should go wrong, a problem occurred, who was responsible for failing to meet their responsibilities and how it manifested itself.
By utilising a single ECM platform across the enterprise there are several ways in which the management of the infrastructure can be improved:
* Firstly, it reduces the chances of unscheduled downtime. By automating the rules and processes to ensure that certain tasks are carried out at certain times with the appropriate content, there is a greater chance that potential issues will be identified before they become a problem.
* Secondly, the ability to manage content within the context of business rules and processes with out-of-the-box content applications allows the user to benefit from the industry best practice encapsulated in the applications, improved support, new developments and easy migration to new versions of both the applications and ECM platform without the need to re-customise.
* Thirdly, in the event that an incident should occur, the links into other systems alongside audit trails mean that it can be resolved with greater efficiency, thus reducing the level of downtime experienced.
* Fourthly, the cost of deploying, supporting and training on a single ECM platform is significantly lower than that of alternative methods.
Tim Taylor, chief business development officer with McLaren Software, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. www.mclarensoftware.com"