Sensis CIO searches for relevance

Sensis's new CIO has a big-picture vision for the telephone book company and a warning about the perils of outsourcing.

Sensis, Telstra's $1.2 billion telephone book subsidiary, will reveal a new strategic market plan next month and embark on a major consolidation and overhaul of its systems architecture to enable aggregated Web-based search-and-locate offerings across voice, wireless and digital television.

The overhaul will probably see Telstra's infamous directory assistance interactive voice response system migrated over to Sensis as it rolls out the next generation of Web-enabled voice services.

Avoiding any formal confirmation, Sensis CIO Len Carver said that migrating the directory assistance service to the what he views as a search-based business model was not illogical.

"I can't comment on [if it will move]. I've just arrived and I don't know the wider politic in Telstra, and if Telstra decide to outsource that service to us, that's a decision for Telstra, not Sensis,” he said.

“Suffice to say we are very keen to offer services that would augment voice services through a directory assistance model. “We think we can bring a value-add to Telstra, or Vodafone or any of the other players in this space, and that is part of the reason we are autonomous."

Earlier this year, Telstra CTO Hugh Bradlow revealed that the Telstra Research Laboratories (TRL) was heavily engaged in research to produce a natural-language speech engine.

Carver confirmed that Sensis intended harnessing the technology to drive interactive voice through a variety of Web-enabled offerings. "We would be drawing on [the] research [from TRL],” he said.

“Across the globe there are very, very strong trends towards voice-activated automatic systems. In the last 12 to 18 months the algorithms in this space have improved immensely to cope with background noise, different accents and intonations."

Sensis is also entering the mapping business, the TV business and the wireless space, even if Telstra has appeared reticent about the revenue value of hotspots to date.

Other major initiatives include Sensis developing its own search taxonomies and lexicons to accommodate new codifications such as SMS-speak.

"Other areas we are looking at are Mexican and semantic-based search,” said Carver.

“When you have different languages you then have different vernacular. We are finding in the Web space and the SMS wireless space there is a language emerging unique to Web and SMS.

“You have to build a lexicon around that so that your searches really start to be effective around those channels.

"Equally you need to build that to different languages anyway. At the end of the day we are really investing in librarian-style ontologies.

“This is at the very heart of knowledge management. If you are trying to get a relevant search result, the heart of it is getting your search strategy right and then navigating to the right result.

“The more powerful you make the taxonomies, the more likely the result."

If the thought of pushing directory assistance into Sensis sounds intriguing, consider the thought of Yellow Pages TV. Carver says one thrust of Sensis' new architecture strategy would be search functionality through digital TV, the unspoken link being Telstra's 50 per cent in Foxtel.

"For iTV I have to deliver an infrastructure that is capable of handling Web-TV, digital-TV, satellite-TV and digital free-to-air [TV],” said Carver.

“My aim is to be able to provide the same search experience across those channels. We see Internet TV as an emerging channel and it's still in its early days.

“From my perspective, if you can drive an XML standard across your systems, the channel almost becomes independent.”

As for where it's all headed, Carver says revenues are still at the core of the business.

"I'm basically presiding over a billion-dollar clicks-and-bricks business where the clicks side of the business is growing by 36 per cent at last count. In a billion dollar company that's big, big dollars."

Sensis at a glance:
IT Shop: 120 permanents
200 vendor and provider staff
3700 seats/screens
$1.2 billion annual revenue
Infrastructure: Sun/Sun One
OS: Unix
Database: Oracle
Unstructured data: Documentum
Middleware: Tibco
Enterprise apps: Siebel for CRM, Amdocs for print book software, Webraska to deliver maps, Clementine for customer management and segmentation, SBSS for statistical modelling, CorVu for OLAP.
API channel architecture moving to an XML applet based
WML for wireless, VML for voice.

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