Portal Software: Cleaning Up a Dirty Job

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 2007-02-28

When a light bulb blows in the executive conference room or the postal machine that prints thousands of mailing strips a day is on the fritz, somebody has to take care of it, usually janitorial or office services.

For the most part, the work that 18,000 employees of UNICCO Service Co. provide could be described as low-tech, ranging from office cleaning and landscaping to mailroom staffing, and even bigger projects like operating machinery and plants. But the privately owned business is a success story due, in part, to some savvy technology investments. It has put in place a business portal that serves more than 1,000 employees and clients such as Staples, Cargill and Bank of America, and saves the company hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, according to Jeff Peterson, UNICCO's chief information officer.

The key to the company's portal success, Peterson says, is that the tool gives clients the ability to monitor work orders, work performance and access time and costs of work logged by UNICCO janitorial, administrative and facilities employees—without having to pick up a phone.

In 2006, 38% of North American companies were slated to purchase or upgrade portal software, according to a Forrester Research report published last year. It's common for companies to use portals internally to support employees, says Dwight Davis, vice president of Ovum Summit, a Boston-based research and consulting firm. "And increasingly, portals are being offered externally to customers," he says.

Once Peterson and half of his 36-member tech team set out to establish the corporate portal four years ago, they've never looked back.

"Six years ago, we were very good at delivering services with a little technology in a fragmented format," Peterson says. In those days, UNICCO implemented a work-order management application but clients weren't able to use the tool to submit their own work requests, and there was no Web interface for reporting and collaboration.

But as business competition grew, it was no longer sufficient to send UNICCO workers to client sites to service facilities and equipment. "We needed to create a competitive edge with technology to attract marquee clients," he says. The firm responded by developing the portal to give customers access to up-to-date information about the cleaning and other services they procure.

About 130 customers use the portal called myUNICCO.com to track work quality, invoice processing and compliance with service-level agreements in a single place, Peterson says.

Using myUNICCO.com, managers at a work site can view the total number of open work orders, how long it took to complete each one and whether any were escalated to a higher priority. They can then compare the completion time numbers to what the client and UNICCO agreed to in the business contract.

Managers can also view the results of regular quality inspections and customer satisfaction surveys that are randomly generated following a job, like cleaning a stained carpet.

Peterson says the corporate portal has had an indirect impact on UNICCO's job margins, a metric used in facilities management to express revenue minus the cost of providing a service. For example, janitorial services have slimmer margins than mechanical maintenance. Job margins at UNICCO range from 8% to 11%, higher than the standard industry spread of 5% to 9%.

For example, offering account information through the portal has resulted in a reduction in call-center calls, Peterson says—a 40% decrease from one large client alone—and an increase in automated work-order submissions, allowing for a reallocation of call-center staff to other administrative functions.

The emergence of service-oriented architecture, an information systems architecture that supports business processes with loosely coupled software services, has had an impact on portal development, according to Ovum's Davis. SOA is based on common technical standards, such as eXtensible Markup Language-based Web services, which provide a common data format to translate a business service over the Internet. Rather than having proprietary portal frameworks and portlet/plug-in schemes, Davis says, portals now have some standards-based elements, such as the Web Services for Remote Portlets, a protocol for accessing and displaying content sources, developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards.

Most of the applications for myUNICCO.com were written on a service-oriented architecture, according to Bill Jenkins, UNICCO's senior director of information technology. During the design of an application, Jenkins says his team identifies portions of the code that could be reused in the future. Those reusable functions, such as the ability to sort a data set, are called "services."

The Portal Push

In 2002, when Peterson and Jenkins envisioned the portal tool, they had three priorities. "We needed the solution to be seamless when moving between different applications," Jenkins recalls. It had to allow UNICCO to consolidate data from different back-end systems, such as an enterprise resource planning system, a work-order management program and an e-mail software package. "We also wanted everyone to collaborate and share documents," he says.

"Seamless" meant that site operations managers at, say, Bank of America and Gulfstream, had to be able to sign on to the myUNICCO portal just once each session and gain access to the information they needed, regardless of how many places the information came from. For instance, a company that hired UNICCO to maintain and inspect heating and cooling equipment can log on to the portal once and view the following reports: The average time it takes to complete a work order, such as preventative equipment maintenance; how much UNICCO charged for labor during the last quarter of 2006; and the number of accidents on the factory floor last year.

The client can run each of those reports by setting date and other parameters from drop-down menus and submitting the request by clicking on a link. He can review the requested information from within the portal via Crystal Enterprise, a Web-based reporting tool from Business Objects, a San Jose software company. The client can also choose to import the data into a Microsoft Excel worksheet.

But these data sets live in separate databases or software applications. And each one—along with about two dozen other software applications, databases and servers—had to be integrated into the portal infrastructure over the last four years. It was the application integration within the constraints of the existing network infrastructure, according to Peterson, that created the toughest technology challenge when building the portal.

First, UNICCO had to select a portal software application that would allow it to securely connect and integrate into the firm's existing hardware and software, Jenkins says. Some of those technologies included an enterprise resource planning software package from JD Edwards (now part of Oracle), IBM Lotus QuickPlace messaging and collaboration software, a work-order management application from IBM's MRO Software and several IBM DB2 databases.

UNICCO eventually selected IBM's WebSphere Portal for its portal application server platform because of its interoperability with UNICCO's IBM-centric hardware and software platforms. To help develop applications and application interfaces within the portal, such as an invoice processing application, Peterson and Jenkins selected portal software called WebSphere Portlet Factory from Bowstreet, now part of IBM. The tool includes reusable code that developers use to automate the process of adding components to the portal. When UNICCO takes on a new client, for example, Jenkins and his staff can build a customized Web interface that pulls data from separate sources and reflects the client's brand.

The myUNICCO.com site creates the impression, however, that the information resides in a single source. There is a single sign-on for employees and clients that grants them varying degrees of access to billing and financial information, enterprise resource planning and work-order management data, and quality inspection results. The site also contains an e-commerce component for ordering supplies and areas for employee collaboration and training.

Linking disparate applications and data repositories required some creative technical work. In addition to JD Edwards, Lotus Notes and DB2, for example, UNICCO uses Maximo, MRO's work-order management software, to schedule and manage routine tasks and unplanned work requests, such as when an air conditioning unit fails or the executive kitchen runs out of paper towels. But the software could not easily produce status reports for clients, according to Jenkins.

To fix the problem, two UNICCO software developers spent 285 workdays building a Web-based work-request application called UNICCO Work Request. The application pulls data from Maximo, which runs on a Microsoft SQL sever at UNICCO's data center, and allows clients to initiate and check up-to-the-minute reports through the portal at any time.

If customers want to view data on the portal that resides in their own data center, UNICCO can accommodate the request, Jenkins says. For example, a customer may want to use its own invoice processing system instead of UNICCO's, but it may not want UNICCO to go within its firewall. In those cases, Jenkins says, his staff can develop a Web interface for the customer to view the data and upload the information from a storage tape each week (that the customer sends in by mail) to a server that links to the portal. Problems sometimes arise, according to Jenkins, when clients make a change in the data model, for instance, and forget to tell UNICCO. A new model could mean that the portal user interface (called a portlet) that is translating the data cannot understand the new code, and therefore cannot post coherent information to the portal.


Dashboards Show the Big Picture

UNICCO piloted the portal in 2003 with a couple of hundred internal users and two clients. "The response was overwhelming," Peterson says. Clients liked having access to different kinds of information in the same place: account information such as a list of all the services UNICCO provides, or how many work orders were open or had been escalated.

Since 2003, UNICCO invested roughly $1.5 million in software, hardware, consulting fees and ongoing maintenance in the portal. More than 1,600 employees and clients use the site.

And now, 20 UNICCO customers can view a graphical snapshot of key performance metrics in a dashboard screen on the portal. For example, green bars might depict the percentage of high-priority work orders that have and have not been completed within the agreed-upon time frame.

"The goal of the dashboard is to continually monitor each of the measures that are part of the service contract agreement," says Peterson, who adds that not all performance metrics can be monitored through the portal. In those cases, he says, UNICCO's tech staff may develop customized code or a data capture mechanism for reporting through the dashboard.

On UNICCO's end, an account manager will use the dashboard data and reporting tools to monitor service on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

The portal includes a feature that allows a customer to track UNICCO's performance: An algorithm randomly generates customer satisfaction surveys and e-mails them to employees who request work orders. The consolidated results are posted on myUNICCO.com.

UNICCO estimates the cost to support each internal and external user based on infrastructure and maintenance investments has gone from $327 to $120 since 2004, largely because a big chunk of the software, hardware and consulting costs came in the project's initial years.

The company figures it saves about $125,000 annually on labor, now that customers can view invoices online versus calling a customer service agent to pull them from a filing cabinet and fax them over.

Another savings: Customers can also submit work orders on the portal instead of by phone or fax. Since April 2006, UNICCO has seen a 40% cut in call-center inquiries from one customer alone, who uses UNICCO for janitorial and other services under a $5.8 million annual contract.

While the portal helps UNICCO collect metrics to gauge its operations, the portal's ability to serve up metrics specially geared for customer use is key. Metrics—such as average time to close a trouble ticket—is an important service that portals can provide, says Rebecca Wettemann, vice president of Nucleus Research. "Companies should have a specific business problem in mind when building a portal," she says. "Think about what the problem is you're trying to solve. If it's meeting a real challenge, there are likely to be both direct and indirect benefits."

UNICCO Base Case

275 Grove St.,
Newton, MA 02466
Phone: (617) 527-5222
Business: Facilities maintenance
Chief Information Officer: Jeff Peterson
Revenue in 2006: $713 million (privately held; no other details available).
Challenge: Establish a corporate portal for employees and clients by integrating disparate software applications and developing custom applications where necessary.

Baseline Goals:

  • Reduce cost per user, from $1,065 in 2004 to $65 in 2008.
  • Reduce technology spending as a percentage of revenue, from 0.7% in 2006 to 0.6% in 2007.
  • Implement 10 customer dashboards by fall 2007.