Online Tools Boost Expert Workers Efficiency

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - 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 organizations, 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 organizations 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 analyzes the PSA field at Aberdeen Group Inc., a Boston-based technology research company. "A growing number of service organizations are utilizing 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 organizations--at least theoretically--to get more work out of fewer employees.

RISING SALES

As service organizations 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 $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 organizations embrace the technology and as new solutions and enhancements become available.

Although IT-related organizations were the earliest adopters of PSA products, the technology has begun to spread to many other types of service-oriented organizations, 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 flavors: 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 favor with a range of service organizations.

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 authorization. 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 $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 organizations 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 organization, which provides enterprise network support and related services. Cali says the slow rollout was the result of an unforeseen organizational 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 organizations 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, personalization, 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 $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 $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 $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 synchronization without user or administrator intervention. The Domain Time II Server runs on Windows 2000 and NT and costs $125. Clients start at $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 $1,145. For more information call 303 682-3700 or visit www.tecmar.com.

BID BUY PHONE

Online auctions and e-commerce sites are revolutionizing 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.

Such was the case with neural networks. In simplest terms, neural networks are programs that arrange complicated objects into groups. They might be used to sort pictures of dogs into individual breeds, credit applications into good and bad risks or customer profiles into the class of products the customers are most likely to buy.

All the user had to do (or so the story went) was expose the network to a series of training examples, measure the error between the desired goal and the actual output, and enter these measurements back into the program. As these measurements propagated through the net, its processing behavior would use them as corrections and alter automatically toward the desired goal.

When the companies selling these products sat down to create a marketing metaphor, they didn't have to think for long. The original idea behind neural nets came not out of computer science or decision theory but from neuroscience, which had shaped a theory of how neurons cooperate to classify sensory inputs and thoughts into categories and make generalizations about the world. The metaphor followed naturally: Neural nets worked because they were like little brains.

A January 1992 CIO article on the technology was dominated by the analogy. "A serial computer, like the brain's left hemisphere, is ideal for managing your bank account," we explained, "[while a] right-brained artificial neural network could discern your spending habits by looking at the past year's checks." This was a dramatic claim, but we didn't shrink from the implications. We even suggested that the long-term social effects of neural nets might compare favorably to those of the internal combustion engine.

Eight years is not long term, of course, but the history of neural nets over the past decade suggests that their impact will be more modest. "I recall seeing a survey in 1995 that claimed that of the hundreds of companies that had tried to sell neural nets, the average life span was six months," says neural net guru Warren Sarle, now a manager of research and development at software vendor SAS Institute Inc., of Cary, N.C. In practice, neural nets turned out to be quite tricky to manage and often learned too slowly to be practical in a business context, sometimes requiring hundreds of thousands of training sessions to arrive at a useful level of performance.

Some users blamed the technology for these disappointments, but it is also true that while the brain metaphor might have stimulated sales, it also raised expectations to very high levels. Sarle recently published an essay explaining neural nets in a very different way. In his view, a given problem is a landscape; the solution is the highest point in the landscape; and the neural net is a blind kangaroo holding an altimeter, hopping around trying to find this point.

It sounds labored, but the metaphor explains why neural networks are so tricky to configure. To make them work effectively, somebody must figure out how far and in what direction the kangaroo should hop, how much history it needs to retain of its previous efforts and what sorts of analysis it needs to do on that history. If the designers make the right decisions, then the kangaroo will find a solution in a reasonable amount of time. If they make the wrong choices, the poor beast will hop around forever, sometimes even sailing right over the solution without ever landing on it.

During the past decade, as experience with neural net technology has grown, a new--and more reasonable--metaphor has emerged: neural nets as self-executing statistical functions or formulas, no more sexy or dramatic than chi-squared distributions or rank-correlation coefficients or any other statistical technique. The market has reacted by dropping products that placed the responsibility of setting up the initial conditions--programming the kangaroo--on the user to emphasizing products optimized by the vendor for specific applications (in SAS's case, data mining). These products often come bundled with many other classification or generalization systems as part of a sorting toolbox.

While this new perspective has lowered the technology's drama, the tighter focus has delivered results. Current neural net applications are as wide-ranging as detecting fraudulent credit and corporate card transactions (Nestor Inc. in Providence, R.I.), finding patterns in Web-surfing (Pingpong.com Inc. of Fountain Valley, Calif.) and navigating minivans across the country (two Carnegie Mellon University researchers accomplished the feat in 1995).

The lesson here is a bitter one for both marketers and journalists: A sexy marketing metaphor can kill a product almost as easily as it can sell it.

"I recall seeing a survey in 1995 that claimed of the hundreds of companies that had tried to sell neural nets, the average life span was six months."

-Warren Sarle, R&D manager, SAS Institute PREDICTIONS MULTITENANT BROADBAND BROADBAND'S BUILDING BOOST If you've got your eye on DSL or cable modems as the ideal access solution for your branch offices and remote workers, you may be missing a better option. A number of companies are taking proven broadband technologies such as T1 and T3 and making them available to a wider range of customers through "multitenant broadband" applications.

The concept is simple enough: Run a high-speed pipe to the basement of a commercial or residential building, then let all the tenants share the cost.

The idea isn't new, but the timing is finally right. According to a report by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm Cahners In-Stat Group, multitenant broadband services and equipment sales should jump from $371 million this year to nearly $2 billion in 2004.

The companies, such as Allied Riser Communications Corp. and CAIS Internet, are making an end run around the slow deployment issues plaguing the DSL and cable modem markets by offering reliable technology at competitive costs, says In-Stat analyst Mike Wolf. These providers approach building owners and offer broadband services as a means of attracting and retaining tenants. To ease installation, they often use existing phone wiring or wireless networking hardware to avoid any problems running cable--a particular issue in older complexes.

Putting employees in one of these buildings has some obvious advantages for corporations. First, the broadband access some employees need already exists.

Even better, the service providers often provide support for the network, so neither the building owner nor the tenants need to keep a support person onsite or send one out every time a problem appears. Wolf says the providers also plan over time to offer more advanced and business-friendly services, such as voice, virtual private networking and videoconferencing.

The biggest problem may be finding a building prewired for speed. The market has just begun to grow, and Wolf says the providers are focusing on the lowest-hanging fruit in tech-heavy locales like the West Coast. He notes, however, that the providers are likely to expand to other urban--and even some suburban--areas during the next few years as demand for broadband services increases. Even so, if you need a home for remote employees, it may pay to add "broadband-enabled" to your list of housing requirements.

UNDER DEVELOPMENT DISTRIBUTED COMPUTING WASTE NOT, WANT NOT Every day, hundreds of millions of people turn on their computers--and then let them sit idle much of the time.

So says Adam L. Beberg, a 26-year-old computer scientist who is looking to put all of this wasted computing power to use. He wants to link underutilized PCs into distributed computing environments that can handle supercomputer-caliber tasks, such as weather forecasting or animating feature films. "The idea is to take computers that are sitting idle or wasting processing cycles on screen savers and turn them into a single supercomputer," says Beberg.

The concept isn't as exotic as it sounds. Now that most PCs are connected to the Internet--and ventures like Napster Inc. and Gnutella are linking computers via the Net for file sharing--getting people to run distributed computing software on their PCs in the background shouldn't be difficult. In fact, the SETI@home project has already convinced more than 2 million computer users to join in a search for possible extraterrestrial radio signals by having their machines analyze data gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

That's not the only example, either. Back in 1997, Distributed.net, an organization founded by Beberg, used distributed computing technology to crack a series of complex encryption keys. In a demonstration designed to prove the futility of U.S. government restrictions on the exportation of cryptographic software, three different 56-bit keys were consecutively unraveled in 250 days, 40 days and under 24 hours as more people joined the project. The export restrictions have since been relaxed.

Distributed.net, thanks to its members, now has the combined processing power of more than 160,000 266-MHz Pentium II PCs. But Beberg has bigger plans. He's working on Cosm, a set of programming tools and protocols that will allow organizations to create their own distributed computing environments.

"Companies such as pharmaceutical firms or movie producers will be able to hire people to participate in their projects," he says. Beberg is developing the technology through Mithral Communications and Design, a Minneapolis-based company he founded in 1995.

Beberg's efforts haven't gone unnoticed. Several government and educational institutions, such as Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute, are now working on their own distributed computing projects. Meanwhile, Porivo Technologies, a startup in Research Triangle Park, N.C., is planning to open a distributed computing Web portal that will allow computer users to view and select projects they would like to participate in. "We're following the ant colony analogy," says Sam Kirby, Porivo cofounder and vice president of marketing. "We're going to use millions of fairly unintelligent entities, working together to do very complex things."

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