Betting the Business on Beta Technology
The Menninger Clinic is revamping its records management system with beta
versions of Office 2007 applications.
- By Eric Berkman
- September 01, 2006
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."
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
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
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.
President and CEO: David Black
Line of Business: Network engineering, applications
Microsoft Partner Program Level: Gold Certified
Annual Revenue: $8 million (privately held)
Growth Rate: Application development revenues
this year will double from last year
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
Web site: www.insource.com
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.
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
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
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
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."