Microsoft pushes collaboration in business apps

Microsoft is pushing out a series of enhancements to its business applications that will boost collaboration and integration capabilities among employees, customers and partners.

This week at the Convergence 2003 customer conference, the company's business solutions unit announced a new portal interface for its products and showcased upcoming technologies that will be part of its Microsoft Business Network Web-services-based collaboration framework. Other executives detailed improvements coming to the company's customer relationship management applications and FRx financial software.

Perhaps the biggest announcement was about the portal, which Microsoft said will be able to collapse multiple screens into one browser-based interface and will be able to be configured for specific roles. End users will have direct access to applications, data and business processes through secure central log-on, said Mark Jensen, group product manager of new solutions.

Microsoft will also be rolling out a human resources self-service suite that will allow company employees to log on and get information about their salaries and enter time and attendance information. The suite will ship in June.

As part of the Microsoft Business Network collaboration initiative, the company is also planning to release a beta service suite next month that will enable partners to exchange documents in electronic data interchange (EDI) format via XML standards. The goal is to help cut costs for small and medium-size companies that need to standardize their transaction formats. Microsoft also plans to add broker technology to the Business Network offering, said Marcus Schmidt, lead product manager at the business solutions division. He didn't give a specific timeframe for when it will ship.

Several users expressed interest in the portal. Bill Siemerling, CIO at Seattle-based health care provider Healthforce Partners, said that his company for the past couple of weeks has been beta testing the business portal as an intercompany communications and collaboration tool. Healthforce, which already uses Microsoft's Great Plains financial and accounting software, is now using the portal as a central place to deliver company news and let users access resources based on their work on a particular project or their role in the company.

Siemerling said the portal is tightly integrated with the Great Plains software.

Both the portal and the Business Network enhancements caught the eye of Fred Argir, CIO at catalog services company Fingerhut Direct Marketing, in Minnesota. Currently, Fingerhut is running its own homegrown portal that connects to back-end Great Plains enterprise resource planning (ERP) software running off a single Microsoft SQL database. But he said he would be willing to consider moving to the business portal because it would probably have greater built-in efficiencies. The Business Network services suite would be especially useful at Fingerhut, which does a lot of trading with partners using EDI, said Argir.

Nashville, Tenn.-based Gibson Musical Instruments, which makes stringed instruments, has been beta-testing the portal with about dozen users for the past five weeks and is considering using it as a general corporate portal. Gibson also runs Great Plains ERP software. However, Chief Knowledge Officer Matt Mullins said he would like Microsoft to offer vertical applications specific to his industry. He would also like Microsoft to roll out an integrated point-of-sale system in the suite.

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