As employees struggle to read an increasing amount of work-related material, some companies have turned to RSS (Really Simple Syndication) technology to improve productivity.
With RSS servers and readers designed for workplaces, IT departments set up internal information feeds that employees can subscribe to, a delivery mechanism that, for some information, can be more precise and effective than e-mail.
"The first problem we see addressed regularly with enterprise RSS systems is e-mail overload. Most knowledge workers these days are just about completely fed up with e-mail," said Oliver Young, a Forrester Research analyst.
An enterprise RSS system is ideal for delivering the type of information employees need to know about, but not necessarily act on right away, Young said.
RSS keeps need-to-know information out of the e-mail channel, which for most people is "a need-to-do task list sort of thing," Young said.
Often those need-to-know e-mails -- such as a corporate benefits update or a newsletter -- end up getting deleted or ignored, even though employees recognize that they may contain potentially important information.
For example, a company could post human resource messages and documents on the intranet's human resources section and send RSS alerts with the appropriate links, instead of blasting out the information via mass e-mails.
RSS feeds became popular initially as a convenient way for Web publishers to alert their readers about new articles and changed information on their sites.
Inevitably, people started using RSS readers at work, creating potential problems for IT departments in areas like security and user support.
Unlike consumer RSS readers, these vendors' systems can be integrated with existing corporate directories and security frameworks, giving IT departments control over employees' RSS use.
IBM's Lotus and Microsoft have started to add RSS capabilities to their respective collaboration and communication platforms, but their feature sets don't match the functionality of enterprise RSS vendors' systems, Young said.
The Union Bank of California hopes that enterprise RSS can help it tame an internal communications overload.
About 80 bank groups, from areas like public relations, marketing, sales, product management and operations, hit employees with a steady stream of mass e-mails, all-hands voice mails, printed literature and intranet additions.
"We discovered that about half of the messages being delivered via these methods weren't appropriate to the people [receiving them] so we definitely needed to do something," said James Penn, the bank's vice president of interactive marketing and communications.
For example, the bank realized that salespeople, deluged with often irrelevant information, often fall behind learning about the bank's latest offers and promotions, affecting their ability to pitch them at customers.
Union Bank is now in the pilot phase of an implementation of an enterprise RSS system from KnowNow which it expects to eventually roll out to its about 10,000 employees.
The bank is creating very specific RSS feeds and defining the target audience for each one, so that employees will receive fewer but more relevant messages.
While the project will initially focus on improving internal communications, Union Bank may later link up the RSS system with its CRM (customer relationship management) system, as well as allow employees to subscribe to external data feeds, Penn said.
At the U.K. National Health Service (NHS) division in Orkney, Scotland, the IT department has significantly cut down on e-mail overload with a NewsGator enterprise RSS system, said David Rendall, a computer programmer involved in the project.
At NHS Orkney, few of the 600 or so users -- mostly doctors, nurses, physical therapists and business administrators -- are technically savvy. So, Rendall has reached out to departments and held frequent training sessions to promote the RSS system's use.
"The biggest challenge is helping people make the switch and get their heads around the new RSS paradigm," Rendall said.
This user indifference and ignorance, coupled with e-mail familiarity, is a common barrier to RSS adoption in workplaces, according to Forrester's Young.
"While most people have a love-hate relationship with e-mail, it's easy to use and very convenient to [copy] your entire office to make sure you get everyone involved," Young said.
This is why Young recommends starting RSS deployments within specific groups in an organization and with the purpose of improving a specific communication issue.
"Where I see most enterprise RSS solutions starting to fall down is when you're trying to encourage or bring a whole host of workers along all at once," Young said.
In addition to reducing e-mail, enterprise RSS systems often boost organizations' use of intranets, blogs and wikis by alerting employees to changes and additions, Young said.
At NHS Orkney, the NewsGator system lets employees subscribe to feeds from the organization's blogs and wikis, thus increasing their readership and boosting collaboration and communication, Rendall said.
Meanwhile, Union Bank trusts RSS will improve its intranet, currently being redesigned. "There are many applications for which we could use the intranet as a repository, and leverage RSS for distribution and change alerts," Penn said.
Specifically, RSS could help with notifying Union Bank employees about modifications to policies and procedures. This is key for banks, which are highly regulated by the government.
"Often a little nuance of a policy will change, and while not applicable to 90 percent of the employees, it's crucial for the 10 percent who need to know," he said.
Not to be overlooked is the ability of enterprise RSS systems to give managers a clear view into how popular blogs, wikis, external sites and intranet sections are with employees, Young said.
"Because it's all coming into one central location, you can do very advanced analytics on who is reading what," Young said.
For example, if half of the sales team subscribes to one specific journal's feed, it might make sense to suggest the feed to the other half. "It really helps information spread more quickly and best practices to proliferate across the enterprise," he said.
Likewise, it makes it easy to spot skunks. "If your CEO's blog has no one reading it, you know pretty quickly there's a problem there," Young said.