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Business Tools Get "Webified"

Business Tools Get "Webified"

You can find a lot more on the Web than Furby auctions and the latest sports scores. Take administrative tools, for example. As more CIOs realise that the Web has potential far beyond publicity and e-commerce, many organisations are beginning to acquire and implement Web-based applications that bring new and powerful capabilities to sales, reporting and corporate communications.

The "webification" of such administrative tools is a trend that caught fire in 1998 and has the potential to become a major force in the years ahead, says Stacie McCullough, a business applications analyst with Forrester Research, a technology research company located in Cambridge, Mass. A lot of companies have invested millions of dollars in ERP systems that provide a foundation for an organisation to bring captured data across the enterprise," she says. "Web distribution tools complement ERP products very nicely." Major benefits of Web-based administrative programs include a browser-based interface that's compatible across multiple platforms located nearly anywhere in the world, unlimited scalability, the ability to personalize perspective for individual users or groups, and server-based management that offers painless deployment and simplified maintenance. Compared with traditional standalone and networked applications, Web-based software provides a wide and compelling array of advantages and can be used for varied functions such as the following: Sales-Force Automation Sales tools are a natural choice to become Web-based applications, says Keith Raffel, cofounder, president and CEO of UpShot The Mountain View, Calif.-based software publisher is banking its future on the idea that organisations will want to commit their sales forces to a Web-based automation program. UpShot's sales application provides a browser-based interface that offers universal access to team members in any location. The software allows strategic information to be easily disseminated throughout an organisation, including such material as price changes, inventory updates and late-breaking announcements. Sales-force collaboration is supported by the software's e-mail and chat capabilities.

Web-based applications also feature the advantage of reduced training costs, notes Raffel. "Most salespeople know how to use browsers, so they already know how to use UpShot Sales," he adds. But he acknowledges resistance from potential customers that have yet to introduce their sales staffs to browser technology. "It's harder to sell the product to organisations that are familiar only with Windows applications. You have to explain the potential benefits." But he notes that the market is changing quickly. "The world is coming around to the Web," he adds.

Enterprise Reporting/Decision Support

This is another field that stands to benefit from the arrival of Web-based applications. Actuate Software , for example, has adapted its Actuate Reporting System to allow organisations to distribute reports to managers, employees and external partners via the Web. An Actuate Web Agent software tool transforms the program's output into a Web site with individual URLs for specific reports and folders. The software also automatically "pushes" notices about new reports directly to targeted individuals.

Web technology helps programs like Actuate because it eliminates the need to know the physical location of all the people who need to view a specific report. "That's important for large operations, which typically have tens of thousands of people accessing data from all over the world," says Al Campa, vice president of marketing for the San Mateo, Calif.-based company. Campa observes that Web technology also greatly simplifies the development of front-end user interfaces. "With traditional applications, a lot of time is spent on the client/server interface: What are we going to make the client look like? How can we make it easy for users to figure out what each button means? Adopting a Web browser as an interface ends all those problems because technologies are standardized and users are accustomed to working with browsers," says Campa.

Concert Communications , a Reston, Va.-based telecommunications services provider, is using a Web-enabled version of Actuate to distribute corporate and technical reports to employees and customers worldwide. The software allows a customer in England, for example, to examine monthly, weekly or daily reports of services on demand, explains Ian Coleman, a Concert senior product manager.

He says the technology also helps company managers stay current on issues as wide-ranging as labor negotiations and corporate profits. "We've received plenty of positive feedback from both internal people and customers on how easy it is to locate and access reports." Coleman says Concert adopted Actuate after pondering the possibility of creating a report distribution tool in-house. "The cost to us if we had tried to build our own solution would have been horrendous-at least twice as much-and we probably wouldn't have been able to equal the richness in functionality," Coleman says.

Like enterprise reporting tools, applications that provide information to help executives make critical business decisions can benefit from Web capabilities by making the necessary data easy to access. Harmony Software offers Business Performance Management, software that produces a management Web site that executives can check daily to view key business statistics. "Harmony extends the return that corporations are demanding from their ERP and data warehouse investments into the executive suite," says Carla Gardepe, founder and CEO of the San Mateo, Calif.-based software publisher.

She notes that the information contained in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and data warehouse systems would be invaluable to executives if they could easily access and view the material anytime, anywhere. "We're providing the application that enables executives to essentially conduct daily operational audits regardless of their location." She says, adding that the Web is an ideal distribution medium for executives who hit the road. "What other way can an executive who's attending a meeting in South America or visiting a factory in Malaysia obtain instant access to information?" she asks.

Partner Information Management

Still another type of software can gain strength from Web connectivity.

Mainspan, published by Portland, Ore.-based Webridge , is designed to span the knowledge gap that often arises between product manufacturers and key customers. The product allows vendors to use the Web as a distribution medium for a wide array of confidential information, including pricing, product information and sales strategy. Organisations can control user access to information based on such attributes as geography, partner type and job function.

Gary Whitney, Webridge's vice president of marketing, says Mainspan significantly accelerates the information distribution process. "With standard mailings, it often took two or three months to get information out to partners.

With the Web, the same material can be distributed immediately." Additionally, unlike traditional mailings, the Web permits two-way interaction between manufacturers and partners. "Mainspan allows all users to be content contributors by using simple, Web-based forms," says Whitney.

In Focus Systems , a manufacturer of LCD projection systems located in Wilsonville, Ore., turned to Mainspan after unsuccessfully trying to build a Web-based information distribution system from scratch. Craig Friedrich, In Focus's CIO, says the company's do-it-yourself patchwork of e-mail and database software failed because it ultimately proved to be awkward and inflexible. "The first thing people noticed when we put Mainspan in was that it was much faster and easier to use," says Friedrich.

In Focus uses Mainspan to invite its dealers and distributors to a Web site that provides up-to-date information on a variety of topics. "It gives our partners a customised view of their order status, what orders they've placed, which portions have been shipped, which are still outstanding, credit balances and so on," notes Friedrich. "We also use the software to distribute information on pricing, product collateral and promotions. The software has allowed us to view the Web in an entirely new light." Despite their many advantages, Web-based applications also create some security and operational concerns, says Robert Desisto, research director for GartnerGroup , a technology researcher based in Stamford, Conn. He notes that the biggest threat to Web-based applications doesn't come from hackers but from organisations that improperly assign access rights. "Obviously, it's very important that the appropriate individual gets the appropriate data. You don't necessarily want a customer to get information that's intended for the CEO." Desisto notes that all Web-based applications come with tools that allow organisations to accurately direct information. "The trick lies in using these tools and not getting sloppy." Organisations also shouldn't view Web-based applications as a magical cure to their software implementation and management problems, warns Ron Davis, vice president of information systems at Fujitsu Computer Products of America , a Harmony customer located in San Jose, Calif.

He notes that while browser-based interfaces are a great idea, the approach isn't totally foolproof and that most organisations will need to fine-tune the Web page formats supplied by application vendors to meet their own specific needs. "With Harmony, for example, we discovered that all the information couldn't be seen at once. It needed to be reformatted to do that." Davis says CIOs and their managers should actively seek user feedback as they begin to implement Web-based applications. He notes that end users can provide valuable input on design considerations. "The thing we heard from our executives is that we should make the interface look something like a dashboard-like when you're driving a car and you can see all the instruments at once. So we're working on that now." Forrester's McCullough is confident that Web-based applications will soon shake their growing pains and that organisations will soon begin flocking to the technology. "Everybody surfs the Web-everybody knows how to do that," she notes. "The Web has the potential to make information omnipresent. This is just the start of something big."

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