Reinvent your intranet: Page 3

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ROI shines in many directions

Sun Healthcare, a $2.1 billion chain of nursing and long-term care facilities headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., is also embracing the principles of next-generation intranets. Its year-old intranet, called Sunweb, is being used for education, employee orientation, and communications, and will soon expand to e-commerce uses. "A next-generation intranet requires an artificial intelligence that allows users to interact with the page," says Ron Nolan, Sun's manager of global Web services. "They are dynamic entities that, based on what I put in, I'm going to get a different results set back."

How Sunny shines

Sun Healthcare's online avatar "Sunny," which guides employees through intranet pages, was first sketched in Albuquerque, N.M. Sunny's animations were then drawn in California. The 3-D skin was added in Dallas. "While that was being done we wrote all of Sunny's scripts and then took them to a recording studio to be professionally recorded by a voice actor," says Ron Nolan, Sun's manager of global Web services, in Albuquerque.

Once that was completed, Nolan took the sound files and converted them to a .wav and Real Video format. Time stamps were assigned to the script and the script was handed to Sun's programmers. Nolan's team then programmed all of Sunny's movements with Java script to match the sound animations. Several programming algorithms were used to give Sunny a sense of reality.

"Sunny is like a toy that holds the users' interest and makes the intranet a lot less intimidating," Nolan says. "You have 69,000 employees at different levels of PC literacy. There are some people who have never been on an Internet browser. Sonny prompts them through the section, like an online tutor." Sonny, Nolan believes, has stemmed off potentially thousands of users support calls. --J.M.

Where Sunweb has truly shined is in its use of video and audio. This started in August 1998 when Nolan bought a 360-degree camera and photographed every inch of the 3.5-block campus at the behest of the human resources training center, and posted the photos online. The ability to offer online virtual tours eliminated up to 1,000 man hours per year the human resources department was spending on personalized tours to new hires--anywhere from five to 20 people a week go through new employee indoctrination.

Nolan found another important use for streaming video in online education and training courses for employees. Nurses and physicians, for instance, have to take continuing education to maintain their certification and general skill levels. But all 69,000 employees require some degree of training, he says. So Nolan deployed an online avatar--a three-dimensional cartoon figure in the form of a little character called "Sunny"--that guides employees through intranet pages (see sidebar below, "How Sunny shines"). When employees go into a section, the avatar explains the types of courses that are available.

Part of the continuing education curriculum also involves video that the nurses can now watch online. The streaming video system uses Real Video G2 technology and DHTML (dynamic HTML), a general term for Web pages that are customized for each user. Before developing the intranet, Sun Healthcare had to produce videos and mail them to hundreds of locations worldwide--a large expense, not to mention the time and cost of gathering employees in one spot to watch the tapes. With Sunweb, nurses can complete their entire CE credit online. "We don't have to bring five people together at one time to watch a video; they can choose a time that's convenient for them," Nolan says. "There is a large dollar value to that in the amount of time saved by allowing employees to control their own schedule."

Nolan is continually peppered with questions about the return-on-investment for using streaming video and other cutting-edge applications on Sun Healthcare's intranet. He says vendor contracts prevent him from giving details on the amount the cutting-edge technology cost, though he notes he couldn't afford not to spend the money on the intranet. "Healthcare is the second most heavily regulated industry after the nuclear power industry," he says. "In a heavily regulated industry, it is difficult to make profits, so to be more competitive you have to maximize the dollars you spend" in such areas as video training.

Some of Sunweb's direct ROI results are impressive. Putting the corporate newsletter--which goes to 69,000 employees across 49 states and six countries--on the intranet in January slashed $400,000 in printing and mailing costs.

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