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The Knowledge Light
Itron turns on CRM and ERM software; information floods the enterprise; flicker, flicker, flicker
Posted Aug 16, 2002
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A few years ago, Itron, a decades-old technology solutions provider which serves old line electric, gas and water industries, scripted a bright, new tagline, Knowledge to Shape Your Future -- and employees privately snickered. What's a mission statement really mean anyway? Itron executives though, felt knowledge could be parlayed into sales, and so the firm decided to implement cutting-edge customer relationship management (CRM) and employee relationship management (ERM) software. The light of knowledge would shine in both directions, outward to customers and inward to employees, and everyone would be the wiser and the richer. Simply put, smart people want to do business with smarter people. On the other hand, committing to new-fangled technology isn't "all wedding bells and fruitcake," recalls Steve Paul, marketing manager in charge of corporate eCRM at Itron, based in Spokane, Wash. Thus begins the story of the pursuit of knowledge. In 1999, Itron wanted its sales force to share information with each other, while keeping executives intimately aware of happenings in the sales pipeline. The company began looking for sales-force-automation software (SFA) and quickly became enamored with Siebel Systems' products. The price tag, however, was more than Itron could afford. In a bit of good timing, Siebel and enterprise software vendor J.D. Edwards struck an alliance. As an existing customer of J.D. Edwards' enterprise-resource planning software, Itron finagled an equity discount on Siebel products by purchasing them through J.D. Edwards. (The alliance was later unwound, and J.D. Edwards now pursues its own CRM strategy-ed) Like many early CRM adopters, Itron failed to make the technology pay off. "We hit that bump in the road," admits Paul. "We viewed CRM as a technology, not a process. And it became a hindrance tool, not a benefit." Undaunted, Itron pushed onward and formed an information technology advisory board to oversee its knowledge-based efforts. During the summer of 2000, the board recommended that Itron work directly with Siebel and expand CRM initiatives to include marketing-campaign management and call-center support that would work in conjunction with existing sales-force software. In other words, Itron was beginning to think of knowledge as borderless and pervasive.
With the main areas -- sales, marketing and customer service -- addressed, Itron's board turned the spotlight inward. Roughly a quarter of the company's 1,300 employees are blue-collared workers at its Minnesota facility. Forty percent are developers of meter-reading automation, capacity management and other industry-specific technology. And the remaining employees are in operations, sales, marketing and other functions. The challenge was spreading knowledge about customers and competitors, industry trends, intrinsic know-how (also known as domain knowledge) and corporate strategy to such a wide ranging community. An employee-facing portal made perfect sense. Itron was on the verge of buying human-resources management software from PeopleSoft, and at first it seemed a natural fit to use the software vendor's Web-based human-capital management (HCM) to keep employees connected. But Paul disagreed. Sharing knowledge among employees meant "more than updating benefits and finding payroll information," he says. "This was all about customers and knowledge -- all of which was wrapped around our CRM piece." Again, Itron turned to Siebel for answers; and at the same time, Siebel was pitching its newly developed ERM offering heavily. "It was like the alignment of the moons," recalls Paul. Siebel ERM handles many tasks, such as disseminating corporate communications and managing expense reports, performance reviews and training documents over the Web and through Microsoft Outlook. By going with Siebel, ERM became a relatively cheap add-on that utilized the same hardware and software infrastructure. Integration was a snap, says Paul. And employees that used Siebel CRM wouldn't have to deal with another interface. In fact, after Itron bought Siebel ERM late last year, the board mandated that Siebel products would be the company's standard, front-facing application. Itron plans to launch Siebel ERM later this year; an editor-in-chief will be hired to manage content. "We're making sure that it has plenty of glue to keep people in it every day," says Paul. In the second phase of rollout, the employee portal will have hooks into PeopleSoft's HRMS system. Returns on all this knowledge-spreading investment is being researched "as we speak," says Paul, adding, "We're anticipating it to be huge." Then again, Paul claims Itron is the market leader in a $2 billion market, thanks largely to its pursuit of becoming industry-knowledge leaders. Aside from business, ERM provides another benefit. "It's absolutely what our employees need to grow," Paul says.
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