Portal Power

Personalized views of data are changing the way people work


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Eric Kurjan could be talking about his company's end users. But he was talking about himself when he discussed the kind of view he needs to be provided by his software. As president of his company, Kurjan doesn't have time to review dozens of reports. But with a dashboard designed for his specific use, he can access the most up-to-the minute data quickly.

"It's exception reporting that you're looking for," says Kurjan, president of Plumbline Solutions. "When that little red light comes on, that's a warning sign that something's not right, and, when you drill down deeper, you find out what is the case."

Plumbline has an edge in providing a better view of data. The Findlay, Ohio-based company does development work on the Dynamics SL line (formerly known as Solomon) for Microsoft. Plumbline, whose revenues are approximately $8 million, has been involved with more than 50 modules for Dynamics SL, including its financial and distribution suite and the Microsoft Business Portal.

Partner Insights

Portals help vendors provide customized views of data available via software applications. Portals can provide different views via the Internet to a company's customers, resellers, suppliers, employees, or end users. Dashboards offer snap shots to help decision-makers avoid the need to wade through piles of reports or to dig deeply into databases.

Individualized views of data, through a roles-based approach, is also becoming important in companies where employees in accounts payable do not need to access to the same parts of the application as the people in accounts receivable or those who are dealing with inventory. And certainly, those workers aren't supposed to have access to higher-level financial data.

A Bright Future

Portals are going to become increasingly important, if, for no other reason, Microsoft is making Sharepoint a part of a platform that ties together Office applications and its Outlook contact manager.

In fact, the term "roles-based" was repeated many times by many different Microsoft executives in discussing the future of the software line at the Microsoft Convergence user conference in Dallas.

The roles-based experience involving portals and collaboration was part of Wave I of the planed product development for the four Dynamics financial applications and Dynamics CRM, noted Doug Burgum, the senior vice president who heads Microsoft Business Solutions. Burgum made the point that those two elements have been achieved when he delivered a keynote speech at Convergence.

Indeed, Sharepoint is part of the glue helping to pull together what Microsoft is calling composite applications that will draw together different views of different kinds of data on the same page, noted Satya Nadella, the corporate vice president who heads Dynamics research and development.

The goal is to change how users access business application data. For example, Nadella showed a home page in which the user would have an Outlook interface, retrieve data from a Dynamics accounting package, and write a letter in Word based on that data.

Roles go beyond simply fitting software to the user and the user's job. According to Dallas Wilt, her company, Axis Accounting Systems, can no longer help its clients differentiate themselves simply by having a better accounting system.

"We are helping our clients differentiate themselves by the experience their customers have via their portals," says Wilt, CEO of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Value-added Reseller. Wilt's company sells Epicor Financials, Sage PFW, and Microsoft Dynamics GP.

Wilt believes that most businesses will use portals by 2008.

"Employees, customers, and vendors demand having access to the company's information," Wilt says. "Those demands are what's going to fuel companies investments' in portals." Wilt continues the number of Axis clients using portals has doubled in just the past year to 40 percent. Most of the rest have inquired about them.

Microsoft, in particular, has made a big push with roles-based applications through the Microsoft Business Portal, available as a separate product for users of Dynamics GP. Customers using the portal enter data in GP by entering their GP user number.

Roles are useful for both managerial and non-managerial workers, says Jim Utzschneider, general manager Microsoft Dynamics marketing. For example, it can be valuable to those workers who enter invoice data all day.

"We stripped away parts of the application they never use," he says. In fact, one of the problems with software has been that as users have demanded more features, application pages became cluttered with "more and more tabs." Roles-based software can reverse years of tab accumulation and make the pages easier for users to navigate. "Instead of development by adding, we are developing by subtracting," Utzschneider says.

Portals have been emerging over the last two years from most major financial software vendors. Epicor Software introduced the Epicor Portal, based on Microsoft's SharePoint portal technology, last fall. Like other portals, it is designed to provide role-based access to Epicor applications. The company had user, role, and industry-specific content packs under development at the time of the announcement.

Portals are also being utilized in enterprise and mid-market systems alike.

SAP is in the portal game with the xApps portal for NetWeaver, a data management system that updates data across an organization's enterprise and synchronizes its process management and development management tools to let users personalize their pages.

The portal offers a single Web-based view of all applications and presents the information that is important most to them, says Andrew Cabanski-Dunning, director of solutions marketing at SAP NetWeaver.

"People spend a lot less time figuring out how the software works and a lot more time getting the job done," says Dunning.

xApps integrates data from SAP's various business applications including CRM and ERP all on one page. Switching between applications, the telephone, and email, can reduce a worker's productivity by 40 percent, says Cabanski-Dunning, quoting "Fortune" magazine. "xApps," he says, "puts all of the information on one screen which can make people incredibly productive."

A Real Appeal

Ivan Cole says for one quarter of his firm's new business prospects a portal interface is the primary reason they are looking at a new system.

"The business decision makers have been expressing an interest in its KPIs [key performance indicators], and having them accessible from the portal'' says Cole, president of New York-based Cole Systems.

Replogle: Portals Open New Doors

Resellers including Business Computer Technologies are forging into new territory because of the portal capabilities in Exact Software's e-Synergy, which has enabled BCT to expand beyond its traditional manufacturing and distribution market.

"With e-Synergy my hands aren't tied," says Tod Replogle, COO of the Bloomington, Ill.-based Exact reseller. "Every business can utilize the functionality of e-Synergy from a portal standpoint."

For example, the reseller is considering development of an application that lets students at universities communicate with their instructors via portals. To receive their grades, a student could access an account card within the portal by typing in a user name and identification number. Within the portal, the student would go to "documents," click on "transcripts" and then get grades online.

Students who have questions regarding a grade, could go to "request" and click onto "send professor a task." A message could then be sent asking the instructor to review the grades with the individual student. The request would carry a time stamp and be automatically entered into the professor's workflow.

Once the professor reviews the workflow event, he or she can click onto the student's name to access their account card. From there, the professor would click "document" and then "transcript" to send the student an email to set up a meeting to discuss any discrepancy.

By responding this way, Replogle says, there is no chance of the student coming back to say, "I didn't receive that email." "This is one of our leading solutions," says Replogle, "We believe this is how the industry is going with Web-based solutions."

The functionality of the portals also extends to users outside of the back office.

For example, a sales manager may not need to enter an order, but may want to see a summary list of existing orders. In this case, the KPIs are important because they're configured to provide reports directly from the live database so that the information is up to the minute, as opposed to reading spreadsheets.

"With spreadsheets," Cole says, "the data is only as good as the day it was reported."

Portals also help pull data together from disparate sources.

Arthur Machinery, an Elk Grove, Ill-based manufacturer and distributor turned to a portal view available through Exact Software's e-Synergy module to manage its sales transactions. Previously, its salespeople and other employees had information stored on various PCs, scattered drives, and in file cabinets located throughout the company.

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