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Case study: An out-of-company experience

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Back during the venture capital-fueled, job-hopping era that defined much of the late ‘90s, Hill & Knowlton Inc. was losing public relations executives as quickly as its dot-com clients were losing code writers. "There was a lot of turnover," said Ted Graham, director-worldwide knowledge management.

For Hill & Knowlton, whose b-to-b clients include Motorola Inc. and Compaq Computer Corp., the departures meant a whole lot more than the nuisance of finding capable replacements in a tight labor market. More important, it was the institutional memory that exiting workers took with them: reporters’ quirks, how clients’ software works, or a quote cut out of an old press release that might have suddenly become useful.

To stem the brain drain, the New York-based PR agency tapped Intraspect Software Inc. to develop a series of CRM-oriented extranets that would automatically archive the work of not only its employees, but of client contacts, as well.

Since piloting its extranet program in 1999, Hill & Knowlton has launched 70 of them, including ones for clients such as Compaq and Ernst & Young International. Hill & Knowlton’s executives migrated their client work from disparate Web and non-Web platforms to the extranets, posting everything from client stories to best practices lists.

Extranet acceleration

Recent analysis of the extranets’ benefits revealed that they were getting new Hill & Knowlton workers familiar with accounts 30% faster than before the programs were implemented, Graham said. This is because they are easy to use, requiring scant technical know-how—unusual for collaborative software.

"One of the failings of a lot of enterprise solutions is that you’ve got to download to your desktop," said Bob Schoettle, VP-marketing at Brisbane, Calif.-based Intraspect. With Intraspect’s CRM platform, he said, all one needs is a browser and e-mail capabilities. "It’s a Web address," he said.

The extranets allow for the gathering of information including e-mails, press releases and client executives’ biographies. It automatically stores the data and then makes it accessible with no input from the Hill & Knowlton employee using it. "You’re contributing to the archive without even knowing it," Graham said.

Clients, meanwhile, can access the extranets to do tasks such as signing off on press releases or reviewing PR campaign plans and stories. "On Sunday at 7 a.m., if a client gets an urge to see all clippings, they can get it there instead of calling one of our executives," he said.

It’s a small world

The extranets are especially useful to executives working on global accounts, Graham said. For example, the company’s New York-based workers regularly use the extranet to gather information contributed by their counterparts in Hill & Knowlton’s Hong Kong office. "M-commerce first hit Asia in a big way, so U.S. members could get up to speed on it for a press briefing," Graham said.

Hill & Knowlton has also recently begun helping its clients, including Ernst & Young, set up their own extranets. For the New York-based accountancy, which does nearly half its business outside the U.S., its extranet’s effect has been dramatic, said Catherine Svoboda, Ernst & Young’s assistant director-public relations.

"This has done wonders for us," she said. The company stores items such as press pitch letters on them, with the intent that its press executives from around the globe use the same template for a consistent brand feel. "It means that someone from South Africa, India and other places is doing the same thing," Svoboda said.

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