And although e-mail and fax may be an inexpensive way to transfer information, they are hardly the most efficient. They are difficult to manage, subject to transcription errors, and -- because they can be easily intercepted and copied -- they're rife with security concerns.
Four years into the new millennium, thousands of businesses still rely on software applications developed years ago by various programmers in various languages. These applications still function adequately on their own, but are not able to share data, requiring a costly duplication of data entry efforts -- all of which are subject to transcription errors.
Critical information is often inconsistent within these applications, causing misinformation and inefficiency that can drain the ROI on information management investments.
Consolidation and efficiency
Fortunately, enterprise information can be consolidated securely with Web services -- software components that allow access to and communication between applications written in almost any programming language.
This means you can securely and accurately share information between systems both within your corporation and with your suppliers and customers. Consolidation of data means less duplication, more timely and accurate data, and better ROI.
Because of the word "Web," most people assume that Web services is a technology that requires the use of the Internet and an Internet browser. This is a common misconception; Web services is a technology that allows one application to find, understand and communicate with other applications -- either internally or externally, depending on your needs.
Down the road
By most estimates, Web services will be a widespread technology as early as 2006. Companies are already aggressively examining their information systems to determine where applicable interfaces can be built and savings can be realized.
Consider how many applications are accessed when adding an employee to your organization -- HR, payroll, e-mail, security, timekeeping and, in some cases, a separate benefits application will have to be updated. With Web services, it may only be necessary to add the information in one place.
The other applications access the data via Web services, having a very real impact on how efficiently your company uses information and how quickly you can conduct transactions.
Making the move
Migrating to Web services mixes the excitement of a new technology with the uncertain costs of a learning curve. Most companies fear the perceived technical complexity as well as the very real challenge of finding partners who will make you successful.
Major undertakings should only be considered by companies that are either comfortable with risk or that have the help of an experienced Web services team.
Since no new technology is adopted without challenges, companies should be certain they are making the migration for the right reasons. Again, Web services are designed to efficiently move data between various applications. The companies that will benefit the most are the ones that need to give various groups of people access to the same pool of data, and the companies that want to move data seamlessly and efficiently between systems.
There is much that can be accomplished using Web services, but as is always with a new technology, it's best to start small and grow from there.
Burr Sutter (email@example.com) is chief technologist at BravePoint, a supplier of e-business and enterprise IT solutions to mid-market companies. Reach him at (770) 449-9696.
Fortunately, most of them were based on concepts we were already familiar with. Take the word portal, for example. Online, it represents a Web-based application that aggregates information from a variety of sources. Like a port of entry for a shipping company, a portal is a single, secure gate where information can be accessed easily.
The most famous portal was also one of the earliest. Yahoo.com collects weather, news, sports information and e-mail from separate sources to be delivered at a single point. Yahoo! doesn't own all of the applications or all of the data displayed on the site, but it does own the technology used to pull the data together, and that's what made it one of the fastest-growing companies of the late 1990s.
Internet vs. enterprise portals
Yahoo! is a powerful example of how portals have been used in the mass market. They've been a vital tool for business-to-consumer communications (B2C) and have become an important way for companies to communicate with their employees, their business partners and their customers.
Most businesses have set up intranets within their companies that operate under the same principles as the World Wide Web. These intranets are populated by mini-sites used by employees to access the information they need to do their jobs. The entire intranet is usually protected by a firewall that acts as a shield to keep proprietary information from unauthorized visitors. Extranets extend this intranet access out over the Internet to friendly external parties.
Portals can be used to simplify navigation through intranets and extranets by giving the end-user a personalized point of entry. Just as on B2C portals such as Yahoo!, business portals allow content to be displayed according to the end-user's preferences.
As an example, imagine a territory manager who has a number of named accounts and customers and is also responsible for marketing and signing up new accounts. This individual would best be served with an enterprise portal that offers a quick link to his or her top 10 customers, detailed information on the last five support calls made by customers, a calendar of daily appointments and the most current version of the company's marketing collateral.
Like a dashboard on a car, the portal gives the manager a quick view of the information her or she needs to drive business.
Communicate and collaborate
More and more workers today are geographically dispersed. To manage a diverse and dispersed work force, businesses must more effectively communicate, more rapidly change business processes and quickly react to changing market conditions, customer demands and threats from competition. Portals can help employees work more closely together and business partners to act as part of a cohesive team.
Portals are built in a format most people are familiar with, mimicking the usability of their favorite Web pages. The portal concept is a natural evolution for internal communications, conveniently and securely delivering applications and data to those who need it most.
Real-time access to the right kind of information makes key decision-makers more effective and brings down operating costs by reducing data re-entry, support phone calls, paper-based reports and errors made due to faulty, incomplete or stale information.
As simple as it is to navigate information once a portal is in place, it's not always as easy to navigate the myriad options available when you decide to install a portal. A number of vendors offer portal systems and frameworks. When evaluating your options, rely on your IT staff's experience in developing and deploying Web-based applications, and look for a vendor with extensive experience creating portals that not only meet your technical specifications but also address key business challenges.
After all, a portal will be most effective when it helps your employees meet the business challenges they face. Burr Sutter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief technologist at BravePoint, a supplier of e-business and enterprise IT solutions. Reach him at (770) 449-9696.