It was September 2001, and Jeff Immelt had just become General Electric's new chairman. His predecessor, Jack Welch, had come up through the engineering ranks, but Immelt was a marketing guy, and one of his first actions was to survey the company's sales force. He was dismayed to find that members of the sales team were spending far more time on deskbound administrative chores than in face-to-face meetings with customers and prospects.
"He put a personal challenge before all the business units," recalls Venki Rao, an IT leader in global sales and marketing at GE Power Systems, a division focused on energy systems and products. "He said we needed to turn that around, to spend four days a week in front of the customer and one day for all the admin stuff."
GE Power hasn't yet reached that goal, but it is making progress, thanks to a new sales portal that went live in April last year. The portal, a complex amalgam of products that pulls information from multiple data sources, was developed in just six months, thanks in part to its high-level sponsorship and the use of an IT project methodology based on GE's Six Sigma quality program.
GE Power's salespeople spent much of their time at their desks because they had to go to many sources -- some manual and some electronic, some internal and some external -- for the information needed to sell multimillion-dollar turbines, turbine parts and services to energy companies worldwide. Now, Rao says, they have a "one-stop shop" for just about everything they need.
Various existing GE databases, previously unconnected, are the primary data feeds into the portal, providing everything from sales tracking and customer data to parts pricing and information on planned outages. GE Power also added external data such as news feeds.
"I have the sales portal as my home page, and I use it as the gateway to all the applications that I have," says Bill Snook, a sales manager at GE Energy Services in Canada and one of 2,500 users of the portal. "Before, you were randomly searching for things. I'd go to a site, and if it didn't have the answer, I'd go to another site." Snook says he used to go from one application to another, and each required a separate sign-on and password. The portal has "made multitasking much more efficient" and has increased face time with customers, he says.
The heart of the system is the Java-based Epicentric Foundation Server from Vignette. This portal software gives users a single unified view into a wide variety of information sources and applications. It dynamically assembles personalized "portlets," such as a customized view of industry news, a look at the user's own customers or his sales performance year-to-date, and presents them in a unified way to the user's Web browser.
GE Power uses BEA WebLogic Server for the front-end Web server functions. A product for single sign-on, SiteMinder from Netegrity gets users into the sales portal and to multiple applications behind the portal using just one password. At the bottom of the three-tier architecture sit various Oracle and Siebel Systems databases running on mammoth Sun Microsystems Solaris servers at the company's Cincinnati data center.
The sales portal sits on top of an Oracle data mart created specifically for it. The system pulls data needed in real time, such as updates to the customer master file, into the mart using special "adapters" created with the Integration Platform from webMethods.
The adapters connect to a variety of applications and database types. GE Power loads data updates that are needed less often, such as turbine installations, once a week using an extract, transform and load process.
Passing the Toll Gates
GE Power kicked off the project in September 2001, had a pilot portal running by January 2002 and had the production system up three months later. Project managers say much of that rapid deployment stemmed from the use of the company's life-cycle Project Management Methodology (PMM).
PMM, which draws on the principles of GE's Six Sigma quality practices and principles, divides the development process into six phases, each of which ends at a "toll gate" that must be passed before the next phase begins.
One of the more rigorous steps in the PMM is the evaluation and selection of vendors.
The portal software was evaluated against two dozen technology criteria, says Jim Young, president of Infotech Consulting in Atlanta and a former GE Power consultant who served as one of the project managers during the development process.
The most important criteria were cost, the ability to run the portal on multiple application servers and operating systems, and ease of integration with Verity's search engine, with other GE applications, with tools like webMethods', and with standards such as XML, HTTP and SOAP.
Epicentric nosed out portal products from IBM, Computer Associates International, Plumtree Software, iPlanet (now part of Sun), BEA and Oracle, Young says. It was chosen largely for its ease of integration; ability to span multiple, heterogeneous databases; and ability to be customized by end users, he says.
"A huge criterion for GE was they wanted the power in the hands of users: salespeople and management staff," Young says. "And as you go across the enterprise, you want to go across lots of different products, lots of different databases and not have to go back to IT."
Young says GE Power experienced some difficulties because it was under pressure to bring up the portal at the same time that other important pieces of software, including the Netegrity single-sign-on software and the Verity search engine, were being introduced at the company.
For example, because single sign-on wasn't in place for all the applications that the sales portal needed to touch, the portal had to check user permissions by going directly to some applications using the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), rather than to a single table in SiteMinder.
"Because Epicentric could go to either Netegrity (SiteMinder) or LDAP, it presented a small security issue internally, but there was no other way to do it," Young says. Nevertheless, he says, the issue was resolved by the time the portal system went into production, and all permissions are now verified via the authorization table in SiteMinder.
The hardest part of the project was getting past the first two Six Sigma toll gates: project definition and cost-benefit measurement, Rao says. Defining requirements was tough because the sales portal's primary users are salespeople scattered around the world. Also, the system was intended to address the needs of disparate sales groups throughout GE Power.
"Because Power Systems has nine different businesses, you have to go and sell it to each and every business leader," Rao says.
The project team used a kind of rapid prototyping -- a "launch-and-learn process," as Tom Cerovski, sales digitization leader, calls it -- to focus and win the minds of the sales force.
"For example, we say we are going to focus on cash and receivables, and so we put cash and receivables metrics on the portal and start getting feedback immediately," he explains. "If we spent a month putting something rough together, about three months later we'll have it fine-tuned based on the feedback."
Developers also put portal prototypes on PCs in the common areas at the company's annual sales conference. Salespeople could take a quick look and then type in their reactions and suggestions, Rao says.
The open architecture and flexibility of the sales portal software make it especially easy to enhance and extend it, and GE Power plans to do so, Rao says. Over time, his group plans to add new tables and new fields to existing tables the portal accesses.
For example, travel and living expenses could be automatically loaded into the data mart, and the portal could show those expenses for individual salespeople or roll them up for group or regional management review. Future customizations could even include extranet extensions to customers and sales channel partners, Young adds.
Number of users: 2,500
Total cost (estimated): $1.2 million
Resulting productivity increase: 25 percent
Annual ROI: 50 percent
Tom Cerovski, sales digitization leader at GE Power Systems, says the sales portal and other automation efforts have increased the productivity of the sales force by some 25 percent. "Salespeople are spending less time searching for information," he says.
The portal has also resulted in some unexpected benefits. "As we built the data mart underneath the portal, it became clear that we could leverage that data for management as well," says Samir Saini, IT sales program manager. "So we built modules geared for performance management." Sales managers can now look at data such as sales leads, orders and receivables; and they can generate reports.
At GE, a project must have at least a 2-to-1 payback. Venki Rao, an IT leader in global sales and marketing, says GE Power spent $150,000 for software licenses, but he declines to quantify other costs. Jim Young, a former GE consultant who worked on the project, says, "The global sales portal came in at a very stingy $1.2 million."
As for the financial benefits, Cerovski says that with a 50 percent annual return on investment, the project "will achieve the target 2-for-1 investment payback."