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Oklahoma E-Mail Connects

Oklahoma state workers knew e-mail, but unfortunately, nobody knew the same version. A new system allows them to connect without giving up familiar ways.

by / April 30, 1996
PROBLEM/SITUATION: A wide variety of different e-mail systems made it difficult for Oklahoma employees to communicate with one another.
SOLUTION: A message handling system allowed workers to communicate without having to learn new e-mail systems.
VENDORS: Control Data Systems, Sun Microsystems.
CONTACT: George Floyd, 405/522-3156.

Not long ago, Oklahoma found itself in a situation that's become common in state governments. Departments throughout the state were using a wide variety of e-mail systems.

"In Oklahoma we have over 150 agencies, of which over half had e-mail systems," said George Floyd, telecommunications network manager for Oklahoma's Information Services Division. "But they were all heterogeneous environments -- nobody could talk to anybody else."

As technologies improved and people began to realize e-mail could save them time and spare them the drudgery of continuous games of phone tag, e-mail integration suddenly became a high priority. "It became obvious this problem had to be solved," said Floyd.

Around that time, Floyd was hired away from private-sector employer TRW and joined the state, with the task of integrating e-mail first on his priority list. "By statute, our division is responsible for interagency connections. We wanted to at least get the larger agencies, like the Department of Health Services, Public Safety, etc., talking to the governor and the lieutenant governor as soon as possible," he said. "At that point the governor could not even send e-mail to his own cabinet members."

Soon after, the state issued an RFP, from which three companies were chosen to do a live demonstration. Control Data Systems was eventually chosen to complete the job using its Mail*Hub message handling system (MHS).

Control Data started implementing the MHS for Oklahoma in late January 1995 and completed it in late March. "We set up all the directory synchronization for them," said Lee Morris, account executive with Control Data. "The system was installed on a SunSparc 50 platform and we designed and built the gateways that provided the interconnectivity between all those mail systems."

The fact that the disparate e-mail systems could be connected without having to install an entirely new system was important, particularly for employee morale. "Unfortunately, when you have eight or nine different e-mail systems, people get used to their individual systems," said Morris. "They like certain features of it, and they don't want to give up those systems, even though they can't talk to anyone else and they can't send messages or documents."

"Using the MHS, workers never leave their native mail system," said Floyd. "That was one of the big things -- we couldn't go in and change everyone because everyone has their own funding profile. Plus, people like what they are used to."

In addition to connecting disparate systems, the MHS can provide document conversion and network management capabilities, so state officials can see in realtime the number of messages being transmitted. If there is a failure in sending a message they can now use the system to track down the problem.

Control Data's final task was two full weeks of training for state staff. Officials there now manage the system and are able to bring new agencies on by themselves. "They are a little bit unusual in that they are doing it themselves," said Morris. "Most state governments would rely on us a little more, but they have very strong people there."

Floyd admitted that even though employees were able to continue to use the e-mail systems they were familiar with, there was still a slight learning curve with the new system. "We ran into a point where some agencies had to start to think globally rather than locally. They were used to communicating only within their departments, so they had to change some of their configurations internally."

Duplicate names also became a problem with the MHS. "When you're talking 12,000 to 13,000 users, it suddenly becomes a big issue how you handle duplicate names."

But overall, the MHS has made major breakthroughs for Oklahoma, including increased productivity, enhanced information sharing and improved internal awareness of issues affecting the state. Oklahoma has also witnessed an exponential growth in e-mail traffic patterns (more than 1,000 inter-agency messages daily) and an increase in the number of mailboxes and users. "We started out with nobody being able to talk to each other. Now we have approximately 13,000 people hooked to the message handling system. We're handling inter-agency mail as well as Internet mail now, and we don't play telephone tag anymore," said Floyd.

Oklahoma Gov. Keating also uses the new system for talking to various people outside state government. "Gov. Keating set up a standard mailbox where anybody who's connected to the Internet can send e-mail to him," said Floyd. "He's touching a lot of people he never did before."

Other departments within the state government are continuing to tie in to the MHS regularly. "Our next step is to go toward mail-enabled applications and try to get mail-enabled EDI going from there," said Floyd.

Floyd said state employees are now using e-mail to communicate with people outside the state. "People are getting new ideas and learning new things as they converse with the federal folks and other states, and ask things like 'how did you handle this situation?' Basically, it's allowed us to venture outside the confines of our own little environment."


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