The path towards an interactive Content Management System

The Merck Serono division came into being in 2007 when Merck KGaA took over the Swiss biotechnology specialists Serono. The division is responsible for prescription drugs at Merck and is headquartered in Geneva. It is also responsible for pharmaceutical research and development for the Merck group. Darmstadt and neighbouring Gernsheim are the largest production and research sites with approximately 9,500 employees.

Merck Serono invests around one billion Euros every year in researching and developing new drugs. Merck started out as an Engel Apotheke in Darmstadt that was bought by Friedrich Jacob Merck in 1668 and is the world’s oldest pharmaceutical-chemical company. Largely family-owned, the global player operates in more than 60 countries and its 32,000 employees achieved total proceeds of 7.6 billion Euros in 2008.

Merlin’s strength lay in extraordinary know-how

Merlin is the central application used by Merck’s research team. 1,250 of Merck’s employees use Merlin to feed various types of data into a storage system and they can then access their colleagues’ documents on the basis of specific rules. Such documents relate to pharmaceutical research and development for formal drug approval processes.

Merck has been using Merlin since 2001 when the original project was based on proprietary technology, but the business instability of the software provider necessitated a change. Therefore, Merck began to look into possible alternatives and began to analyse the alternative products and technical applications for their suitability as the basis for Merlin. Proprietary solutions came out strong in individual aspects but on other areas they were less suitable, for example - implementation and integration proved to be too people-intensive and too costly.

Alfresco – easy to use with desired functionality

Finally Merck tested Alfresco’s Community version. After initial enquiries with Alfresco regarding specific developments, they entered active development dialogue. Suggestions then featured in new versions of Alfresco. Andreas Tielmann, Operational Excellence R&D / Research Informatics at Merck, explains that:

“User friendliness of the system was important to us from the outset. We did not want users to have to get to know additional tools or methods for publishing and finding content. Content management can only be a success if the obstacles in the way of using documents are kept to a minimum. Alfresco allows users to connect to the document database via their existing Windows environment and to work without having to learn new publications methods.”

Merck’s takeover of Serono and the formation of the new division Merck Serono occurred right in the middle of the preliminary project to implement Alfresco. Both companies had worked with different proprietary solutions for document management but were open to doing away with the old systems and creating something new together. On that basis a new comprehensive Content Management System based on Alfresco came into being for research projects and knowledge management at Merck Serono.

After lengthy review: upgrade to Alfresco Enterprise

At the beginning of 2008 Merck Serono switched from Alfresco’s Community to the Enterprise version. At this point Alfresco had been able to incorporate a number of Merck’s specific requirements. Furthermore, the team at Merck had almost two years to put the solution through its paces but were also able to test the necessary interfaces, develop and try out add-ons in their own IT environment.

Only then, when the team were happy the solution could meet all Merck’s requirements, did they make the final decision. As a result, the IT project mitigated any risks and its costs only came at towards the end of the implementation. This differs significantly from the practice with proprietary software vendors where a decision has to be made after a 3-month test phase and which can have immediate financial implications although project risks have not been fully eliminated.

The solution was known as “Merlin 2” in the style of “Web 2.0” an indication of greater possibilities for users to work interactively. At the click of a mouse users had access to video, audio and text documents in various formats. Access was via a browser through an intuitive interface or Windows Explorer. Conversely users could also input their documents in their preferred format into the system and so a researcher never had to leave their usual system environment. The Alfresco system also made provision for documents to easily be input in line with the rigid formal procedures for drug approval.

Functionality, standards and openness – criteria for modern CMS solutions

Today the system holds 450,000 documents with a data volume of 300 GB. Key benefits of the Alfresco solution is that it easily supports many research sites and is designed to ensure system stability. The system allows direct intranet access, full-text search and navigation to the desired objects. Indexing of particular documents is very easy and check-in and check-out of documents, in particular their versioning, is largely automated. Access to documents is secured at hyperlink level through individual and group user rights under ‘policies’.

The biggest advantage as seen by those responsible for the project is based on three decision criteria: functionality, standards and openness. Thanks to Alfresco, the organization now has more freedom to tailor the content management solution to meet current and future divisional business requirements and respond to user requests.

After many years of working with Alfresco, Andreas Tielmann can now conclude that:

“The ability to work with Alfresco’s Community version, which did not require a license or incur any costs, allowed us to start small. It meant that we could implement a system bottom up, carry out detailed tests and gain experience. Above all it gave us time to develop the necessary interfaces and enhancements. We were able to access the functionality of the entire system before we launched the enhanced system internally.”