Emerging Technology

Crestone International had a problem. The Atlanta-based e-commerce consultancy couldn't find enough local designers, programmers and other IT professionals to meet its rapidly escalating workload. Experiencing triple-digit growth each year since its 1995 founding, the company needed to find a way to get extra productivity out of its current employees--or face the disagreeable prospect of turning away work. "It wasn't a matter of cutting expenses; it was a question of long-term viability," says Cal Yonker, Crestone's president.

Like a growing number of project-oriented organisations, Crestone decided to try its hand at using a professional services automation (PSA) tool. Although PSA was virtually unknown only a couple of years ago, software vendors now make PSA modules that can handle a variety of tasks: planning and scheduling, project management, sales-force automation, customer relationship management, performance management, communications, billing and more.

Survival Tools

Ideally, PSA products bring to service organisations the same benefits that materials requirement planning and enterprise resource planning products give the manufacturing and distribution sectors, says R. David Hofferberth, research director, who analyses the PSA field at Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based technology research company. "A growing number of service organisations are utilising PSA solutions as a survival tool in an increasingly competitive business market," he says.

The increased customer interest has resulted in more developers going the PSA route. More than a dozen software vendors, including such major players as Icarian, PeopleSoft and SAP, as well as an array of newcomers including Augeo Software, ChangePoint Corp., Opus360 Corp. and PlanView, now offer PSA products. The vendors promise that their tools will boost the productivity of knowledge-oriented personnel, thereby allowing organisations--at least theoretically--to get more work out of fewer employees.

Rising Sales

As service organisations search for new ways to improve their efficiency, they're beginning to turn to PSA products as a means to that end. Worldwide revenues from PSA solutions came in at slightly over US $100 million in 1999, according to Aberdeen. And the researcher pegs the market's annual growth rate over the next five years at more than 85 percent, as more organisations embrace the technology and as new solutions and enhancements become available.

Although IT-related organisations were the earliest adopters of PSA products, the technology has begun to spread to many other types of service-oriented organisations, including engineering companies, law firms and advertising agencies. "Wherever there's a need to better manage and deploy individuals, PSA solutions can help boost efficiency and, ultimately, profitability," says Hofferberth.

PSA solutions come in two major flavours: Windows-based applications and Java-oriented thin-client tools. While Windows PSA products can be easily integrated with other Windows-based applications, servers and databases, Java-oriented PSA tools allow faster deployment and lower overhead, according to Aberdeen. As a result, Java PSA tools are rapidly gaining favour with a range of service organisations.

Getting More From Less

At Crestone, once the decision was made to implement a PSA solution, everything quickly fell into place. The company looked at offerings from several PSA vendors but ultimately decided to use PeopleSoft's Professional Services Automation product because of its scalability and array of service-company-oriented capabilities. The four-month implementation went smoothly, although Yonker says the company lost several days from its original schedule when it jumped the gun and reassigned several IT team members to other tasks before the project was completed. "We rushed," he says.

Crestone uses PSA technology to support its 200-plus consultants based in cities worldwide. Prior to the software's implementation, Crestone's consultants had to fax or snail-mail their time and expense forms to headquarters for processing and approval. Now employees use a Web portal and a Java client to enter the data into a pop-up window that connects directly into the PSA software. The product automatically processes the information and forwards it to company managers via the Web for final authorisation. The software also helps Crestone track report earnings and revenue by state, an important factor for a company with a geographically dispersed workforce.

Yonker estimates that the time-and-expense reporting system alone saves Crestone approximately US $19,000 per year.

Yet there's always room for improvement. Most important, Yonker would like to replace the system's current in-house-designed user interface with something more intuitive. "What we have now is pretty clunky," he says. But Yonker views the interface flaw as a minor annoyance, since he estimates that the total PSA solution will save the company nearly $50,000 per year. "We can grow to an unlimited number of consultants without any danger of overburdening our systems," he says.

Order From Chaos

While many organisations use PSA products for an array of tasks, some turn to the technology to streamline a specific business process. Sprint Corp.'s Enterprise Network Services (ENS) unit, for example, is using the Web-oriented PlanView solution to automate its billing and invoicing. The PSA software features a thin-client interface that's accessed through a Web portal, coupled with software engines, gateways and a standard SQL database that contains work and resource data.

Sprint ENS signed up for PlanView in January 1999 and implemented it nine months later--though it was supposed to happen more quickly. "It was a rough time," recalls Paul D. Cali, director of information systems for the Houston-based organisation, which provides enterprise network support and related services. Cali says the slow rollout was the result of an unforeseen organisational restructuring that struck the project in midstream. The sudden shift in employees' roles and responsibilities required Cali to make a variety of configuration and training changes. "We basically lost about four-and-a-half months' worth of effort," he says, although much of that time was recovered by pushing the project into overdrive during its final weeks. As a result, the rollout missed its planned deadline by only one month.

Outside of a balky reporting module, which runs slower than he would like, Cali is generally happy with the PlanView technology. But he remains somewhat discontented, noting that a problem with PSA solutions in general is their broad--perhaps overly comprehensive--scope. According to Cali, PSA vendors offer so many functions that customers tend to buy more technology than they really require. "In fact, one usually needs only 15 [percent] to 20 percent of a product," says Cali. Besides inflating costs, the superfluous functions can lead to training headaches as employees struggle to learn features they may never use. Cali says that if he could start over, he would focus on the processes that would directly benefit from automation, such as accounting and resource management functions, and forget about everything else.

Rewarding ROI

Feature overkill aside, there's a simple reason why service organisations are rushing to PSA solutions: The products usually offer a positive return on investment. "For most customers, PSA solutions pay for themselves within a year," says Aberdeen's Hofferberth.

Yet finding a suitable PSA product requires some effort. Mark Richardson, vice president at consulting company Cap Gemini Ernst Young, says CIOs need to look for PSA solutions with modules that are integrated and scalable, since these are the key attributes required by any rapidly growing service business.

The New York City-based company has used PSA technology since 1992 to automate its payroll, benefits and human resources functions. Richardson says that as more startups enter the field, prospective buyers also need to investigate a vendor's long-term viability. "A PSA solution that will only be around for a few years isn't going to be of much help," he says.

Sprint ENS's Cali urges CIOs to keep an open mind when considering PSA tools.

"Customers usually want a solution that fits into their processes, but sometimes it's better to revamp your processes to fit a tool," he says. "After all, the goal is not to keep things the same way, it's to become more efficient." Are you an efficiency expert? Tell us about it at et@cio.com. John Edwards is a freelance technology writer based in Gilbert, Ariz. He can be reached at jedwards@john-edwards.com.

NEW PRODUCTS

Portals R Us

Enterprise software developer Hummingbird has announced the release of the Hummingbird Communications Ltd.'s EIP Version 1.5 Web-based work space. EIP 1.5 provides tools that let companies build enterprise portals that include features such as single log-in, search, personalisation, collaboration and security. Customers can also integrate a database or file repository and implement load balancing to help ensure acceptable performance levels. The product runs on Windows NT, HP-UX, Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris and Linux.

Pricing starts at US $100,000. Developers looking to evaluate the product can download a developer's edition that supports a single user for free. For more information, visit www.hummingbird.com or call 416 496-2200.

Printer Power

Who printed what, when and why? Answering those questions can save corporations a lot of money. To help, Software Shelf International Inc. has released Print Manager Plus Version 2.7 for Windows 2000 and NT. Print Manager Plus lets administrators manage all the printers on a network from a central location.

Companies can track who printed what documents, as well as set quotas on how many pages or what type of files employees can print. The product supports individual users as well as groups, and administrators can use any ODBC-compliant reporting tool to view detailed information about printer usage.

Print Manager Plus is available for US $495 for a single print server license.

For more information, visit www.softwareshelf.com or call 727 445-1920.

Instant WAN

Setting up a secure connection between two offices isn't always easy or quick.

But OpenReach.com Inc. hopes to change all that with a new product that lets companies connect their remote networks with a few mouse clicks. Users simply download and install the OpenReach software, which automatically configures any PC into a network appliance capable of securely communicating with other OpenReach-enabled computers. They then simply point and click on a map of their other offices to connect over any Internet connection (modem, T1 or DSL) and through any Internet service provider. Pricing starts at US $99 per month, per location. For more information, visit www.openreach.com or call 781 246-2410.

Right On Time

Time isn't always on your side. Misset PC clocks can incorrectly stamp e-mail and other documents, throw off time-and-billing tools and otherwise confuse other time-sensitive applications. Domain Time II Version 2.2 from Greyware Automation Products lets administrators automatically configure and update client clocks. The Domain Time II client can automatically locate network time servers and then configure the local PC's clock, keeping every PC on a network in near-perfect synchronisation without user or administrator intervention. The Domain Time II Server runs on Windows 2000 and NT and costs US $125. Clients start at US $7.50 each and are available for Windows 2000, NT, 95, 98 and 3.x, as well as Linux, Unix, NetWare and MacOS. For more information, visit www.greyware.com or call 972 867-2794.

Drive Time

Looking to update your backup drives? Tecmar Inc. recently unveiled its WangDAT 9400 model, a Digital Data Storage 4 (DDS-4) format tape drive that supports 20GB of storage on a digital audio tape (DAT) cartridge combined with a data rate of 2.75MB per second. The drive can also read older DDS-1 through DDS-3 cartridges. Tecmar has increased the term of its warranty to three years and also offers free technical support for the product. The WangDAT 9400 lists for US $1,145. For more information call 303 682-3700 or visit www.tecmar.com.

Bid By Phone

Online auctions and e-commerce sites are revolutionising how companies buy and sell products. But what happens when you're away from a computer when that critical item is about to close? Bid.com International Inc. has introduced several solutions to the problem for users of its Commerce Engine products.

Now, Bid.com customers will be able to receive notifications and update bids via Research in Motion wireless communications devices. They can also call a special phone number to receive product information and place bids via voice recognition. Pricing for Bid.com e-commerce solutions varies by application and can involve a one-time fee, monthly fees and profit-sharing arrangements. For more information, visit www.bid.com or call 888 287-7467.

REVISIT

Neural Networks

If It Only Had A Brain

Novel technologies must have metaphors to make the market take notice. Cars were once sold as "horseless carriages," zeppelins as "ocean liners in the air" and computers as the next step in adding machines. But all metaphors are potential time bombs: A good technology sold using a metaphor that has the buyer expecting an even better technology will suffer.

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