PGA Puts Data in the Fast Lane for Pros

In an effort to help keep all its players and employees on the same page, the PGA Tour is pitching its paper documents in favor of Web portals and IVR applications.

With tournaments, players and other workers scattered around the globe, and a business that changes its primary address almost every week, the PGA Tour has long been searching for new ways to keep its people on the same page.

In the old days, the Tour would simply mail out reams of paper to its golfers and tournament workers in hopes that everyone got all the materials they needed to be part of its whirlwind season.

But knowing that golf professionals, their agents, and many of its employees were rarely home to receive their paperwork, the Tour has been working to utilize technology to help bridge gaps.

In 2004 the Tour began building a new collaboration system made up of layers of online intranets that allow people to use the Web as their primary interface for communicating.

Now, in a step beyond its Web strategy, the PGA has launched a sophisticated IVR (interactive voice response) system meant to help PGA pros and other workers stay up to date.

Built on IBM technology and a voice automation system from Voxeo, Tour IT executives said the project has yielded major benefits for almost all of the people involved with it.

Improvements range from players happier to have a 24/7 point of contact for getting their personal information, to teams of PGA workers better informed as to whats going on a specific tournament, said Steve Evans, vice president of information systems for the PGA Tour.

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"Each player is an independent contractor and each tournament is like a small nonprofit business," said Evans.

"We as the organizing body are trying to make sure that there is great communication; a tournament is like a business thats only open one weekend of the year, the players are a mobile workforce, and theres a huge amount of collaboration that needs to happen between all these parties to make everything go smoothly."

The IVR was introduced during the fourth quarter of 2005, and Evans said that a growing number of players are using the system every day. When the Tour recently asked players for feedback, Evans said that most people involved with the program had questions and suggestions regarding the IVR system, and very few complaints.

"We expected more kickback, but we werent hearing a lot so we went out to interview people individually to get their experiences working with the voice system," said Evans. "We found that people had very specific questions and suggestions, not that they were frustrated, which was huge."

The PGA Tours collaboration network and intranet infrastructure was built on IBMs eServer iSeries, xSeries and zSeries servers, as well as its DB2 database and WebSphere applications infrastructure software. The Web site network currently supports about 15,000 users, Evans said.

Using the new IVR system, Tour players can call in from wherever they might be around the globe to get all their communications done on the fly.

By dialing in, players can do everything from register for a tournament, to check their status after completing a round or find out their tee time for the following day.

The IVR system is customized to each players preferences and features a human voice responding to almost all commands or queries.

The mobile application has been trained to understand all the various accents players might carry from their respective homelands, and claims to understand contextual information specific to the PGA Tour in order to help tailor automated replies to typical requests or problems.

The secret behind the sophistication of the voice system is Voxeos application development software, said Clegg Ivey, vice president of business operations at the company.

The firms Prophecy application building environment, which uses HTML and XML to translate commands into its IVR system, allows for faster and cheaper development of voice automation applications, said Ivey.

Voxeo, an IBM partner, contends that its tools allow companies greater freedom to try out new voice recognition applications because it eliminates the need for more specialized, expensive development.

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