The research and development organization within General Mills wanted to refresh its Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) application, which is used to document and share research findings. The company upgraded the application from an early version of Microsoft SharePoint Server to Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 to take advantage of improvements in project organization, metadata extraction, ease of use, and search functionality. Although the improved ELN application is still in trial use, General Mills anticipates that it will encourage greater use of this valuable knowledge repository and therefore promote better research. The IT staff replaced the majority of the custom code in the application with out-of-the-box features in SharePoint Server, which makes ELN more stable and reduces maintenance costs by half. The IT staff now has more time to enhance ELN and create new research solutions.
General Mills markets some of the world’s best-loved brands, including Betty Crocker, Häagen-Dazs, Pillsbury, Green Giant, Old El Paso, and Cheerios. The company’s brand portfolio includes more than 100 leading U.S. brands and numerous category leaders around the world. On average, U.S. shoppers place at least one General Mills product into their shopping cart each time they visit the grocery store. The Minneapolis, Minnesota–based firm has 30,000 employees who are located around the world.
||By using SharePoint Server 2010, we’ve been able to make ELN a more user-friendly application that researchers are more likely to use. Increased usage … ultimately results in better research.
Research and Development Systems Leader, Global Knowledge Services Group, General Mills
In 2003, General Mills created an application called the Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) used by the research and development (R&D) community to record and manage research content. This content included formulas, manufacturing trials, manufacturing tests, analytical results, and all the other data needed to document or re-create project work. The goal of ELN was twofold: to capture and share knowledge among General Mills researchers to ensure that the company was not repeating work and to help protect the company’s intellectual property.
The IT department used Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2001 as the document storage repository for the original ELN and the Microsoft .NET Framework to create a custom user interface. The IT staff also used a custom document-routing component, custom document templates that were integrated with Microsoft Office applications, and other specialized features. To create documents in ELN, researchers selected the appropriate custom template from applications, such as Microsoft Office Word or Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheet software. Those templates would prompt users for metadata tags, and then place the documents in the ELN repository.
“Because the application and especially the user interface were about seven years old, it wasn’t as easy to use as researchers wanted,” says Joe Sauer, an Information Systems Department Manager at General Mills. “We wanted to make it easier to create new documents, import documents, search for documents, and generally get around in the system. We wanted to improve the usage and user experience in ELN.”
As General Mills opened more research offices in different parts of the world, the company also wanted to make ELN more accessible on an international level. The application was text heavy, and non-English speakers wanted more icons that were easily recognizable for functions, such as “create new document” and “upload document.” The R&D staff also wanted to easily and effectively search for documents that were stored in the ELN system.
The IT staff wanted to reduce the amount of custom code in ELN that required constant maintenance. Features, such as metadata assignment and document templates, were all customized and difficult to change. Also, it required a significant development effort to add new taxonomies, metadata, and workflows. “We had pretty sophisticated document management capabilities in ELN, but 80 percent of those features were implemented using custom code, which created a barrier to improving the application and also posed a support challenge,” Sauer says. Solution
Because ELN was such a critical application, General Mills decided to rearchitect the solution so that it would be easier to upgrade, use, and improve. In early 2009, General Mills learned about Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 from its local Microsoft representative and thought that the feature set matched the needs of the ELN application.
Multiple Small Proofs of Concept
General Mills invited a Microsoft team to come in for a two-day session where members of the General Mills IT staff and representatives from the R&D team explained ELN and worked with Microsoft to determine if SharePoint Server 2010 would be a good fit for the application. Pleased with what it heard, General Mills spent several months creating 15 to 20 small proofs of concept. General Mills took specific functions in ELN, such as starting a project, organizing project documents, and closing out a project, and created them in SharePoint Server.
||The connection between SharePoint Server 2010 and Visual Studio 2010 is much improved, especially the integrated development experience, which enables more rapid development, improved debugging, and quicker and more manageable deployment.
Development Staff Consultant, General Mills
“We wanted to determine how much customization would be required for each function versus what we could accomplish using out-of-the-box features in SharePoint Server,” says Ben Bach, Development Staff Consultant in the General Mills IT organization. Reduction of Custom Code
By October 2009, General Mills had determined that SharePoint Server 2010 would be an ideal foundation for ELN and began to migrate the entire application. The development staff used both the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 development system and Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2010 to customize processes and workflow. “The connection between SharePoint Server 2010 and Visual Studio 2010 is much improved, especially the integrated development experience, which enables more rapid development, improved debugging, and quicker and more manageable deployment,” Bach says.
Adds Jason Latzka, also a Development Staff Consultant in the General Mills IT organization, “The new workflows in SharePoint Designer 2010 are much more manageable, and the links between SharePoint Designer and SharePoint Server are easier to use.”
The biggest development boon for the IT staff was that it did not have to create or customize as much new code. “By using the SharePoint workflows, we were able to eliminate the interaction with our custom document-routing application,” Latzka says. “This not only simplifies use, but we can use the workflow function in SharePoint Server for more things than simply routing documents. We can use it for task assignment, various notifications, and many other functions, eliminating the need to write specialized code for these additional capabilities.”
Sauer, Bach, and Latzka have worked on the migration since October 2009 and plan to be finished in June 2010. From March to May 2010, a trial group of 30 researchers used the new ELN; researchers have given the application rave reviews.Improved Project Organization
For General Mills, one of the biggest advantages of SharePoint Server 2010 is the ability to create document sets in ELN. A document set is a container that researchers use to group related content and assign common behaviors to that content. For example, all documents in a document set share the same metadata, and the entire set can be versioned as a whole and downloaded as a compressed .zip file. Researchers can also initiate a workflow on the entire document set instead of initiating individual workflows for each document. “Document sets fit well with the project-based structure of ELN and enabled us to more easily assign security rights,” Latzka says. “They also eliminate a lot of redundant work for researchers, who no longer have to assign and manage metadata across multiple documents.”
General Mills also likes the managed metadata fields in SharePoint Server. “By using managed metadata, researchers can more easily organize and keyword-tag their documents so that the research is more useful to them and others later,” Latzka says. “They can choose from a fixed list of document categories so that there is standardization across projects, but also add custom tags for further refinement.”Ease-of-Use Features
General Mills found that the new Ribbon in SharePoint Server 2010 ties the software more closely to the familiar user interface of the Microsoft Office applications that researchers use every day, simplifying ELN and encouraging people to use it.
Researchers are also excited to use Microsoft Office Web Apps, which will enable people who don’t have access to Microsoft Office to access ELN over most browsers. “If you’re doing a search and just want to preview a document, you can do so online without having to download the document,” says Sauer. “This enables researchers working from home, a conference, or any location to record research and access the work of others.”
||We now have a development platform with which we can more quickly and cost-effectively take ELN in new directions to meet the needs of our researchers.
Information Systems Department Manager, General Mills
General Mills researchers also take advantage of the links between SharePoint Server and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, which provides presence indicators inside all Microsoft Office applications—and now, ELN. If a researcher sees from the green presence indicator that a colleague is available, he or she can press a “click to communicate” button and instantly initiate an instant messaging conversation or a phone call.
To add better search functionality to ELN and other content sources in the organization, General Mills is in the process of running a proof of concept to evaluate Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint for use in its R&D organization.Benefits
General Mills took its highly successful ELN application and quickly rearchitected it by using SharePoint Server 2010 to add new functionality and eliminate most of the custom code that complicated maintenance. By migrating ELN to SharePoint Server 2010, General Mills has simplified and modernized this critical application, which ultimately speeds research and protects the company’s intellectual property. The company estimates that it will reduce maintenance costs by 50 percent, improve availability, and give the IT staff more time—and a flexible foundation—to continue enhancing ELN into the future.
Improved Document Organization and Search
General Mills used SharePoint Server 2010 to add new metadata, workflows, and usability features to ELN; the company also replicated the existing features in ELN by using mostly out-of-the-box features in SharePoint Server, without creating nearly as much custom code.
“By using SharePoint Server 2010, we’ve been able to make ELN a more user-friendly application that researchers are more likely to use,” says Michelle Check, Research and Development Systems Leader in the Global Knowledge Services Group at General Mills. “Increased usage enhances our goal of more thorough knowledge capture and sharing, reduces redundant efforts, and ultimately results in better research. Instead of waiting until the end of a project and bulk-inputting research, we hope to see more real-time research capture, which makes the information available to other employees sooner and better protects our intellectual property.”
Also, the improved search capabilities in SharePoint Server will reinforce the best practice of searching ELN before starting new research. With the search refiners and ability to see document authors more easily, searches in ELN will yield better results and help General Mills scientists discover internal experts in particular areas.Increased Stability
Previously, ELN was comprised of approximately 80 percent custom code and 20 percent out-of-the-box SharePoint features. Today, the application is comprised of 80 percent SharePoint features and only 20 percent custom code. Less custom code provides greater stability for ELN. “Instead of having an application that consists of four distinct pieces—client-side scripts, custom .NET code, a custom routing application, and a SharePoint back end—ELN is now riding on one foundation—SharePoint Server 2010,” Bach says. General Mills anticipates that this singular underlying foundation will reduce or eliminate the errors and downtime that researchers used to encounter and further encourage people to use ELN.
Easier to Maintain and Enhance
By dramatically reducing the amount of custom code in ELN, General Mills anticipates equally dramatic reductions in support and maintenance costs. “We’re hoping to cut our ELN support and maintenance costs in half with SharePoint Server 2010,” Sauer says. “Even the custom code that we have is fully integrated into SharePoint Server. Client-side scripting, external workflow, and so forth are all centralized inside SharePoint. It’s no longer a bunch of pieces cobbled together.”
The time that the IT staff has saved on ELN maintenance can be spent on higher-value activities, such as enhancing the application or creating new research solutions. “Not only do we have more time to enhance ELN, but SharePoint Server 2010 gives us a richer tool set from which to create innovations,” Sauer says. “We now have a development platform with which we can more quickly and cost-effectively take ELN in new directions to meet the needs of our researchers.”
Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010
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