e-Management Applications Galore!

e-Managing comes of age

e-Business - that brash, uncontrollable teenager of the late '90s, has matured into a responsible young adult - and management is finding the systems more manageable and the processes more productive.

Earlier this year, SolNet "e-vangelist" and dotcom survivor Mike Lowe changed job title. Formerly e-business solutions manager - today his business card reads: "national solutions sales manager". It's a sign of the more mature e-business, or more accurately, e-managing times we're living in. Just as quickly as it became popular in the '90s, the 'e-word' is now disappearing from our corporate vocabulary.

e-Business is business in the 21st century. It is conducted anywhere - thanks to mobile internet access - and any time. And it impacts virtually every management process and discipline.

The hype is over - companies are now 'e-nabling' their business pro-cesses because it improves service and profitability, not just because the competition is doing it. As Lowe puts it, "the 'fud' factor is no longer out there. Fear, uncertainty and doubt that once surrounded e-business has disappeared, along with its complexities of two or three years ago."

There is a new confidence surrounding e-managing - the confidence that comes with a coming of age. Furthermore, the costs and risks traditionally associated with applying e-business systems are a fraction of what they once were.

e-Business defined

What is e-managing - and how does it create efficiencies? Oracle's marketing director Nigel Murphy describes it as more than just electronic transactions between suppliers and buyers. "True e-business is the automation and web-enabling of all business processes, from human resource management to marketing and procurement," he says. "By automating business processes you streamline and standardise them, stripping out time wastage and cost."

Additional efficiencies are generated by departments, or even companies, sharing one e-business system for procurement or payroll processing, for example.

As a result, transaction costs fall and duplication and waste are eliminated.

"By implementing 'self-service' your people have the e-tools to do all their own procurement, travel bookings and so on, online," says Murphy, adding that such automated systems have the extra benefit of enforcing compliance with company policy.

Perhaps the greatest win from embracing e-business processes is the more efficient management of documents and data (information), particularly in supply chain applications involving many suppliers.

Rod Hall, of Tranzsoft Group, has seen the benefits first hand and points to the Pacific Health Exchange (PHE) as a good example. HealthAlliance, which is a member of the PHE provides a shared e-procurement service between a number of District Health Boards and potentially around 110 medical industry suppliers. "It provides a common platform for e-trading between hospitals and any suppliers that want a slice of the action," he says.

Hall lists the benefits as increased accuracy of information (data re-keying is minimised); the ability to receive purchase orders electronically (picking and invoicing becomes much easier); and the ability to use web browsers as an ordering platform (product selection, request, despatch, and invoicing is all web-enabled, and instant).

It's all about smarter management of information, and the deployment of electronic document exchange gateway platforms - Tranzsoft's I2ms product is one of them. The system enables the transfer and exchange of documents and information between disparate systems (for example finance, sales, and inventory), and speeds up cooperation and information flow between companies and their partners or suppliers.

e-Managing data helps cut the so-called 'paper mountain' down to size. The latest breed of document management systems will register and file inbound data such as email and, via secure customised intranets, make that information available across the enterprise (bearing in mind that the degree of data mining available to an individual depends on that person's position within the company).

The outcome of implementing such systems is vastly improved communication, and better informed management.

Security concerns

Microsoft New Zealand marketing director Tony Ward says it's ironic that the internet was created by the US Army out of a system of trust - and essentially it still operates that way today. "In the early days of e-commerce on the internet, there was a lot of paranoia for first-time credit-card users. As time has passed, the trust and comfort factor has grown considerably."

A major contributor to the increased security of web-enabled trading has been the emergence of the XML specification, and more specifically, ebXML (Electronic Business using eXtensible Markup Language). The latter is now considered the common standard for conducting business over the internet. ebXML picks up where the old, comparatively expensive EDI (electronic data interchange) left off - and because everybody is marching to the same tune, overall supply chain costs can be significantly reduced.

Fewer proprietary security software products on the market also mean less risk. Today's standardised security software means that authentication, ID management and encryption is more reliable and trustworthy than ever. Perhaps this is where e-business has demonstrated its greatest maturity.

In terms of enterprise network security, Scott Ferguson, regional director for Check Point Software Technologies, believes many companies make the mistake of dealing with e-security issues purely at a technical level, instead of treating it as a business issue. "Look at security as an enabler, rather than a brick-wall that protects everything," he says. "It's about making information available in a secure way, not keeping people out. So ask the questions: what key assets do you need to protect? And how do you want to authenticate people?"

Ferguson warns that the nature of security attacks has changed recently. Rather than the network layer coming under attack, the focus is now directed at the application and operating system level. Setting up firewalls on the perimeter is no longer sufficient.

"e-Security systems must provide protection from within as well as outside the perimeter. Companies are now subject to vulnerabilities from their distributed workforce," he says pointing out that many of the "Blaster" virus attacks recently were propagated by staff working on laptops at home, and then taking worms back to work.

"Like a six-lane highway, there will always be dangers associated with e-business. But don't be afraid of those risks, just recognise them and do something about them," says Ferguson.

Advice for first-timers

According to SolNet's Lowe, managerial time constraints and a shortage of experienced top-level industry consultants in this country, can make the adoption of e-business processes more risky than it should be. "You need to do your research, or pay an expert to do it. If you're after an e-business solution, instead of seeking specific products or consultants find a preferred supplier with a track record."

He suggest the knowledge of many consultants is out of date and therefore it's better to work with a supplier who can successfully integrate systems - one who understands the complexities surrounding e-business.

The speed of implementation is also a key to successfully adopting e-management processes. "Nobody wants an army of consultants swarming around for 12 months with little to show for it at the end," says Oracle's Nigel Murphy. His company has e-business systems that can be implemented in as little as 10 days.

"Outsourcing the management of your e-business applications is another way to address cost," he says. "The main advantage is certainty - you negotiate a monthly fee, and that's it, no surprises."

When researching where to apply e-business systems, a good start is to focus on your most acute 'pain point'. "By definition, that's where you'll get the fastest ROI if you fix it," says Murphy. "Examine the complete business flow around that pain so you understand all the ramifications - how it impacts on finance, customer service, and so on. Then look at how best to automate it, in a way that will allow integration with other processes and business flows later. Ultimately you want an integrated suite of e-business applications that can seamlessly share data - and you want all that data stored in one place."

e-Business is booming

e-Management is happening everywhere. Most of New Zealand's larger organisations are becoming, or have already become fully-fledged e-businesses. The health industry is working on a number of exciting e-business strategies and the e-learning framework is also under constant development. Even central and local government is beginning to recognise the benefits of e-management.

Mike Lowe believes that - just as it has revolutionised the sales force automation industry - mobile wireless e-management technology will also impact on the way government officials work, mobilising them away from their desks and out into the community. He suggests that only then will we start to see a better return on our tax spend.

The biggest e-business boom in recent times has been in online publishing (pushing corporate information into the public domain), and online trading. "In the early days everyone was busy extending their catalogues onto the web, and while there was much hype and some casualties, many companies did manage to open up new markets," says Lowe.

"Commodity dealers captured markets by stripping costs out of supply chains, but unfortunately the economies of scale just weren't there. Online mass marketing produced only a few high-profile winners."

Lowe says the valuable lesson learnt from all this was to look at e-business purely as an opportunity to put niche products into niche markets (no more than 100,000 customers worldwide). "This is where online trade is very valuable, and of course, for New Zealand it's a tremendous opportunity. Our ingenuity lends itself to e-business."

By addressing security concerns, mindsets have been changed and what Lowe calls "circles of trust", have been established. In other words we know that the person we're communicating with electronically is indeed the person we think he or she is. Much of the progress on this front was achieved by the establishment of the Liberty Alliance Project back in 2001. This alliance of private and public organisations worldwide was formed to develop open standards for federated network identity management and identity-based services. With digital identity issues put to rest there's absolutely no need for a 'big brother' approach to online trading and collaborating.

Lowe's advice for e-business newcomers is to start small and extend slowly. "Stick with what you're good at. Use reliable software infrastructure and capable integrators."

There has never been a better time to run with e-management solutions. As Microsoft's Ward points out, all the pieces in the technology puzzle are finally coming together - smarter information management across networks, real-time wireless business applications out in the field, all the back-end technology, and new generation communications infrastructure from the major telcos. "e-Business is the great enabler that could finally get our work/life balance back to where it should be."

e-Managing is likely to become so pervasive over the next five to 10 years that the 'e' will almost certainly disappear forever.

"Larger companies are already beginning to insist that their suppliers, regardless of their size, 'plug into' their systems," says Oracle's Murphy. "So smaller companies too, will have no choice but to become e-managed." M

Case Study: Flag falls on taxi-chit abuse

Want a good example of how automated e-business applications can impact the bottom line - look no further than TaxiCharge. Established in 1994, the cost management specialist now processes more than $50 million worth of taxi travel a year.

Regular taxi users will be familiar with how it works. Using charge cards and vouchers, TaxiCharge captures all travel on one consolidated tax invoice, regardless of what taxi provider is used. It then works with clients to highlight areas of cost savings, and scans vouchers to provide authentication.

Not only is the system secure (TaxiCharge cards and vouchers can only be used for taxis), the system also provides minimum administrative input while ensuring that maximum information is captured for reporting and consolidation purposes.

TaxiCharge general manager Mark Lines says the system offers clients two levels of access, ensuring that only those authorised can have more than 'read only' access. He says TaxiCharge succeeds as an e-business application because it offers real savings for customers, and there are no fees or administrative charges passed on.

"With any e-business application it's important to keep it simple and easy to navigate," says Lines. "It's also important to hold people accountable. Ensure that the accounts are set up in such a way that it minimises time spent with administration - that way companies can concentrate on their core business activities."

Lines says the next significant step for TaxiCharge will be to install terminals in taxis - to cut out manual processing entirely, and operate in real-time. With some 250,000 transactions per month, that's bound to make a difference.