Talk of extranet projects can easily get bogged down in details of bandwidth specification and a minefield of networking jargon. A successful project can also require a rethink of business processes, an overhaul of IT departments and the retraining of huge numbers of end-users.
Sony Broadcast and Professional Europe (BPE) found this out while designing its extranet system. The move precipitated far-reaching changes across the company, giving an example of how e-business can drive changes to internal systems and business processes.
The decision to embark on the extranet project was taken about two years ago, when the company was trying to determine how to define itself online. "The big question was how do we avoid a 'me too' strategy? If we were going to do something different, we had to develop something which was more than just Internet brochure-ware," said Derry Newman, director of the customer group at Sony BPE.
The company's core business is supplying audio-visual hardware and applications to three customer segments, the largest of which is the European broadcasting industry, with which it maintains a direct relationship. Its 300 customers include players such as the BBC, Granada and French pay-TV operator Canal+. Other customers - either business and industrial buyers (ranging from the medical market to the security camera industry) or the display and projection market - are serviced through a network of dealers.
Sony wanted to provide highly personalised information that would simplify the way it dealt with its customers. Thousands of interactions and hundreds of telephone calls are made between Sony and its customers every day, particularly the large broadcasters. The challenge was to make the information easily available and reduce the need for users to call Sony's customer service centre.
The decision to build an extranet was taken late in 1999. Preparation for the move entailed a radical shake-up. First Sony BPE had to centralise its European IT infrastructure, which at the end of 1999 consisted of 17 different broadcast professional Web sites, all operating on different servers, with separate databases and IT support.
At around the same time, the company began a major training programme, running workshops to train all of its staff, from those in project management to those in technical support, how to both write and publish content to the Web site - referred to as the "democratisation" of the publishing process. Central to this was the creation of tools and processes to handle content work flow.
If the extranet project was to succeed Sony had to get into the creative mindset of its broadcast customers. "They work in knowledge industries - they don't talk technology, they talk about content. They buy our products and do creative things with them, so this initiative was to make us think like them," Newman explained.
With the infrastructure in place and staff training programmes running, Sony started its first major project - the development of an extranet for the BBC, which was rolled out to the corporation in December 2000. "We chose to do this for the BBC predominantly because it had a very impressive Web site which is one of the most frequently visited sites in Europe. If we could satisfy them, it would give us some credibility," said Newman.
One of the major aspects of this development was making complex technical support information available online.
An analysis of helpdesk calls revealed a vast number of queries about missing part numbers for, say, a broken camera lens, or a lost screw. The helpdesk would log the call then try to find an engineer, who would look for a manual and try to identify the part. Not only was this process, known as the "customer journey", expensive, it was also slow.
The problem was solved by downloading more than 400 technical support manuals from Japan and indexing all the parts. "This means that as long as the caller knows the name of the camera model, he can find the missing part," said Newman.
Commenting on the availability of online technical support, Dave Clark, a technical engineer with the BBC, said it had significantly reduced the time it takes to answer a technical query.
"I often have to field technical enquires, requests for cost quotes, parts and so on - these tend to come from right across the BBC network in the UK. Because of the extranet, I don't have to rely on someone being on the end of the phone at Sony - I can point authorised users to the extranet and let them find out their own information," he said.
But success was not only judged by customer feedback. "There are more technical searches and we are getting 100-plus e-mails - which is dialogue created that was not there before. We are also getting more transactions at evenings and weekends, which they could not do before because the helpdesk was not open," Newman said.
Following the BBC roll out, Sony began focusing on developing extranets for its European dealer network. This was an entirely different proposition because, rather than being focused on knowledge, the issue was trading relationships, which required Sony to build an auto-processing interface.
To date, Sony has developed nearly 1,000 dealer extranets, providing dealers with access to quotes, stock availability and account balances and linking up the extranet to Sony's recently-installed SAP enterprise resource planning systems.
With the current redesign Sony is planning to turn its attention back to dealing with its large broadcast customers and aims to drive up the number of corporate extranets to about 200 within the next six months.