Betting the Business on Beta Technology

The Menninger Clinic is revamping its records management system with beta versions of Office 2007 applications.

Last year the Menninger Clinic, a famous 159-bed psychiatric hospital in Houston, presented Insource Technology Corp. with what sounds like a typical challenge for a systems integrator: to take an unwieldy records management system built on a tangled web of legacy technology and make it operate seamlessly.

Insource, a Houston-based Gold Certified Partner, responded by proposing a simpler, more unified system that relied heavily on Microsoft Office 2007 applications. No problem ... except for one small detail.
Office 2007 is still in beta.

The prospect of relying on software that's still in the testing phase would make many systems integrators, not to mention the client, more jittery than Houston Texans quarterback David Carr facing an eight-man blitz. Insource, however, was confident that its track record as an early adopter of Microsoft technology and its extensive contacts within the company would make the project flow smoothly.

Today, Insource is progressing steadily toward an on-time launch in late November, having hurdled nearly all barricades along the way. The ease of development thus far-as well as the opportunity to take on the implementation in the first place-is a testament to the value of a partner company maintaining strong ties with Redmond.

"If you're a partner that worries about the bleeding edge, you might think again," says Insource Sales Director Bill Breslin, who is also president of the board of directors for the U.S. chapter of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners (IAMCP). "Because the risk isn't that strong if you're working alongside Microsoft. But if you try to do it alone, you may be at great risk."

System Inefficiencies
The Menninger Clinic is a world-renowned institution that has been training mental-health professionals and treating patients from all over the globe since 1925. In 2003, after forging an affiliation with Houston's Baylor College of Medicine and Methodist Hospital System, the clinic-long located in Topeka, Kan.-relocated to Houston, bringing along its patients, much of its staff and its utterly cumbersome Microsoft Word-based patient-documentation system.

This system, which Menninger relied on to track patients from admission to discharge, was based on 26 different Word templates developed in Office 97, with Visual Basic code and macros running in the background. The record of a patient's life became a series of unstable Word documents, with the system requiring that users re-enter basic information every time they created a new document. Worse, the templates continually broke, creating headaches for IT. And because all documents were done in Word, there was no way to properly search within them, as a user might do with Microsoft SQL Server.

When a new IT staff came on board after the move, incoming Menninger IT Director Terry Janis saw an immediate need to streamline the process. Janis envisioned a searchable, Web-based application that would enable data to be entered once and that could easily be maintained in-house.

He subsequently contracted with a local vendor to create the Menninger Clinic Information System (MCIS), which utilizes .NET technology and SQL Server as its back-end. MCIS, which was deployed in 2005, is a major improvement but has been far from the perfect fix.

Insource Technology Corp.

Headquarters: Houston
President and CEO: David Black
Founded: 1992
Line of Business: Network engineering, applications development, outsourcing
Microsoft Partner Program Level: Gold Certified
Annual Revenue: $8 million (privately held)
Growth Rate: Application development revenues this year will double from last year
Employees: 50
Customer Base: Energy, financial services, health care, industrial and manufacturing, nonprofit organizations, real estate and hospitality, services, sports and entertainment
Clients: ConocoPhillips Co., AIM Management Group Inc., Schering-Plough Corp., Waste Management Inc., The George Bush Presidential Library, Crescent Real Estate Equities Ltd., Atlas Freight Systems Inc., Houston Texans
Web site:

One problem is the database design at the back-end. The data is not normalized, meaning it hasn't been organized to minimize redundancy, which complicates reporting and data integration with the clinic's other critical applications. "It also slows down the system to users," Janis says.

Another problem is that MCIS was implemented with an old technology base, not the current .NET architecture. That's resulted in high maintenance costs, Breslin says.

Worse yet is the mixed use of programming languages within the different electronic forms that have replaced the Word templates to track patient progress. The partner Janis hired to create MCIS only knew how to program in Active Server Pages (ASP). And Janis's own internal developers, who'd taken over the development of a couple of pieces of the application, wanted to modernize the application to be in ASPX (ASP.NET) so it would work better going forward. But this hybrid situation put the staff in a bind. Every time a form needed to be altered, the use of ASPX meant that the fix would have to be done by an internal developer only after everyone had logged out. "So we needed something that could be fixed during work hours," says Thuran Ly, one of Janis's internal developers.

Janis also wants to make about 30 enhancements to the system. So earlier this year, he enlisted Insource to revamp the design and architecture of the system.

This upgrade, MCIS v.2, will enable Menninger to combine information from various Microsoft Access databases it's currently using into a single database repository. With MCIS v.2, Janis will also see cost savings of at least $30,000 per year-plus the added efficiency of reducing errors and eliminating double entry of data-through the jettisoning of certain legacy applications. Additionally, MCIS v.2's use of still-in-beta Office 2007 applications like Infopath 2007 (for forms creation) and Office SharePoint Server 2007 will enable Menninger staff to create, alter, fill out and share forms with minimal burden on IT staff. Finally, Menninger plans to roll out an electronic medical records system within the next three years, and MCIS v.2 will be much more easily integrated with that system.

Early Adopters
At first, Janis was worried about the prospect of making MCIS v.2 so heavily dependent on Office 2007 while it's still in the testing phase. "It's an absolute beta product," says Janis. "When someone proposes to develop something in an application that's not readily available to the public, there's fear there.

There's tension there. There's not excitement, let's put it that way."
But Insource was able to change Janis's mind for several reasons. First in his mind was Insource's experience with implementing beta products. "They're definitely early adopters of Microsoft products," he says.

Janis also had confidence in Office 2007 itself. He recalls Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's quip at last year's Microsoft CIO Summit that the company never gets anything right until version 3. "The Office suite products are past version 3 and SharePoint and Infopath will be version 3," Janis says. Besides, he adds, he still has Office 2003 applications available as a fallback.

But the most significant factor was probably Insource's close relationship with Microsoft. Insource, one of just 58 U.S. partners working with Microsoft in its Office 2007 Rapid Deployment Program (RDP), was able to involve Menninger in that program. This meant that Microsoft would pick up part of the development costs. "That's an incentive Microsoft uses to get people to test this stuff," Insource's Breslin explains. "It needs people using it before it's public in order to make it as bulletproof as possible when it's released."

Involvement in the RDP also meant that Microsoft support personnel would be available to both Insource and Menninger day and night. Better still, a Microsoft project manager would be available to quickly move problems through the Microsoft organization to obtain a quick fix.

Insource's Microsoft connections have already paid off. For instance, the hospital's various forms are so complex and do so many things that Menninger has had to embed some of its own code into the new Infopath 2007 forms. At the same time, one of the project's major features is providing the ability to implement Infopath 2007 on the server side to avoid the huge cost and effort of installing it on every desktop. But the project team ran into a problem in July: Menninger's code was initially incompatible with the forms. If the problem couldn't be resolved, says Janis, "it would have been a showstopper."

Fortunately, the Microsoft tech support person dedicated to the project was able to elevate the issue in Redmond, where it got pushed up the chain quickly. The problem was solved within two weeks and the project is back on track.

Don't Go It Alone
Accordingly, Breslin's best advice for other partners is that they shouldn't attempt to implement beta technology unless they're heavily engaged with Microsoft.

"If partners have good relations, they've got Microsoft's arm wrapped around them," he says. "You get the credibility that comes from the Microsoft name if you can walk a Microsoft representative into your customer's accounts."
Similarly, Breslin says end-user companies shouldn't consider beta implementations unless they and their partner are working directly with Microsoft through an early-adopter program.

Janis agrees. "[The vendor that created] the first version of MCIS was not a Microsoft partner and it showed," he says. "They knew how to develop Microsoft products, but it was nothing compared to what we have now."