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8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

System stretching

How many phone calls does it take your customers to access their account information? Sounds like the introduction to a bad joke, but in reality, if your answer is anything but “zero,” your organization may already be falling behind the competition.

“The biggest change in today’s business systems is the extension of them across not only the enterprise, but out to customers, vendors and employees,” says Tom Mescall, Partner-in-Charge of the IT Solutions Department, Armanino Mc-Kenna LLP. “Now you can take information that has traditionally been kept behind the four walls of your company and put it out to others in a secure environment.”

Smart Business recently spoke with Mescall about the evolution of the Internet and how today’s systems can be stretched into collaborative and efficient portals for employees, customers and vendors.

Have we reached a point where all businesses must consider extending their systems beyond traditional processes?

Absolutely. The companies I talk to aren’t doing this because the technology is available or they think it’s cool; they’re doing it because their business partners are asking for it. Customers are asking for electronic invoicing and ordering systems, shipping statuses and purchase histories because it’s more cost effective. It’s always coming from a business perspective. Large and strategic customers are pushing companies for these solutions, but companies can then turn around and make this technology a selling point to the next customer or vendor with whom they are trying to partner.

What are portals, and how are they creating new levels of collaboration within companies and between customers and vendors?

Internally, portals are a virtual place for knowledge workers to complete their work, or at least organize their work and their collaboration around that work, through their company’s Internet-based platforms. Traditionally, employees who needed a report would call and ask another employee to look up and send them this information. Portals allow employees, in a self-service mode, to find and consume this information. In our global economy, portal technologies also allow employees to better collaborate with other employees that are not close geographically.

Externally, companies are creating portals for customers and vendors so these partners can come in to look at and consume information, check order and shipping statuses, review purchase histories and other vital functions.

How do you implement these systems without compromising security?

This is an extremely important point that needs to be considered upfront. It’s largely based on your current network set-up, firewall and overall network architecture. If the goal is to extend your systems out to customers so they can review orders and invoices, then you need to make sure they can’t also access your entire price list, HR data or sensitive personal information. Anytime you face information out toward the Internet, you risk security penetration. We recommend that our customers do quarterly penetration testing to assess if somebody is hitting their systems from the Net and determine how far they can go in without being detected or blocked. As technology changes, hackers get more ingenious and viruses and worms get more sophisticated — new methods come along that can make you more susceptible to attack.

How does extending key systems change the way a company operates?

The big message is that it’s bringing companies closer together because many of the tasks that previously were performed internally now can be shared with customers or suppliers. It really provides a level of service that’s higher than an individual company can provide. Extending your systems to employees allows them to become more efficient, and a natural outgrowth of this efficiency is the ability to grow a company without adding as many heads.

How can companies best integrate system extensions and portals?

There has to be good vision from the top, and embracing of the latest technologies. From there, a dedicated person from each area of the business should bring the catalyst to the forefront. For example, somebody from customer service should be driving how to share information with customers so they can get ordering information, order status reports and be able to execute returns online. Meanwhile, the finance manager is driving how to better share financial information to all the key managers around the company, no matter where they are. What we usually see is business driving the change, and then the key IT staff understanding what needs to be accomplished and figuring out how it will get done. In the end, people can do their work more easily, without relying on IT to generate as much information.

An outside resource can bring in best practices and describe how other companies have done it and what tools and technologies were used. The first project may feel like foreign territory, but the success and knowledge gained is brought along for the second, third and fourth project, and reliance on the outside consultant typically is reduced.

TOM MESCALL is Partner-in-Charge of the IT Solutions Department. Armanino McKenna LLP is based in San Ramon and is a Microsoft Presidential-level partner. Contact Tom at (925) 790-2600 or Tom.Mescall@amllp.com.