May 11, 2005

UNC Healthcare finds Plone easy to swallow

Author: Tina Gasperson

At the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and affiliated hospitals, intranet and Web site users felt like they were "visiting a foreign land" each time they landed on a different department, says UNC Healthcare IT staff director Jim Walsh. Each department had it own look and feel, which made a hodge-podge for people going from site to site to perform searches and look up information. Today, however, after a revamp that included migration to the Plone open source content management system, site visitors have sense of a unified organization, and UNC staff feel at home with the new technology.

Walsh knew he was going to have to make a change in the corporate intranet and outward-facing Internet. "We needed to have a single unified presence, both internal and external, for all our customers." UNC Healthcare had spent a lot of money developing a clinical data repository and information system where doctors and researchers could look for drug and disease information. It was a good system, but the multiple interfaces were creating problems. "Our physicians and clinicians had become used to one presentation source, but then we started integrating in other information and it became very confusing." Complicating matters was a search function that wasn't able to go cross-departmental, forcing researchers to surf from site to site and perform multiple searches in hopes of finding the information they needed.

Corporate executives issued a new policy directive: All presence on the Web, internally or externally, would be managed through a single software package. Rather than a Web design package such as Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe GoLive that requires intensive training, UNC needed a CMS that could provide a unified look and feel for all sites, but would be easy for users to understand when it came time to upload content.

Walsh says he had no problem finding a plethora of content management systems. Unfortunately, most of them were too expensive. Then they found Plone. "We went to some workshops and began to understand what some of [Plone's] existing customer base was doing," Walsh says. He liked the fact that Plone had so many tool sets and add-ons developed by the open source community surrounding the project. But the biggest selling point was that with Plone, content owners could be responsible for managing their own content, leaving the IT staff free to focus on more important issues than updating Web pages.

Users access Plone largely through the use of templates. "Anytime you want to update, you just cut and paste your content into the template, hit save, and that document becomes available for review," Walsh explains. A built-in workflow process ensures that all content is approved by the appropriate personnel before it goes live, yet still keeps IT staff out of the loop unless there is a technical need.

One of the custom features of UNC Healthcare's system of which Walsh is most proud is the "Find a Doctor" application. "It is a custom-developed application that sits on top of the content management system," he says. With the program, users simply look up the type of specialist they need. The software presents them with a list of names that link to pictures, bios, and contact information. Alternatively, searchers can enter the name of a doctor to go directly to that person's bio page. Each department is responsible for uploading the picture and bio information for each medical professional. "If a new physician comes on board, the department has the ability to access the application so it becomes immediately available on the Web without any other technical involvement."

Walsh says the biggest challenge UNC faced during the migration to Plone was the learning curve for his staff. "It just takes time to train three people to become proficient in it," he says.

Then there was what Walsh calls "scope creep." He says that when staff members began to realize what would potentially be available to them with the new content management system, they started requesting more and more features and updates to their sites that kept pushing back the implementation date. Walsh says he had to draw the line. "They wanted new pictures taken. They wanted to create streaming content. Our objective was to go ahead and get converted first. Our goal was holding fast the original scope of the project -- not unlike any other tech project that you deal with."


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