Web services make customer connection

Web services promise to be the technological equivalent of being in the right place at the right time with just the right information at your fingertips. And some say the impact promises to hit the IT world like a tidal wave.

"Web services is a tsunami of technology evolution," Andre V. Mendes, chief technology integration officer at Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), said yesterday at a panel discussion at Computerworld US's Premier 100 conference here. The panel, led by Priscilla Tate, executive director of the New York-based Technology Managers Forum, focused on the mission-critical task of integrating enterprise applications.

Mendes said PBS, a nonprofit media organization in Alexandria, Va., that's owned and operated by the nation's public television stations, uses Web services to connect upstream with content developers and producers and downstream with public TV stations and viewers. "What we're developing is a supply chain optimization that puts us right in the middle of this equation," said Mendes.

For panelist John Carrow, vice president and CIO at Blue Bell, Pa.-based Unisys Corp., Web services enable a highly integrated flow of data between his company and the Dell Computer Corp. customers it supplies and supports. Customers can view their information on the Dell site, and that information in turn flows back to Unisys. The key benefits of this integrated channel, said Carrow, are ease of use, availability, consistent service and security.

Tony Romero, vice president and CIO at Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc., in Cypress, Calif., said his company uses Web services to link 700 dealers in the U.S. and Canada through the Mitsubishi portal -- a single point of entry for dealers online. "Anything a dealer needs to do can be done through the portal. No phone calls necessary," said Romero.

With a just-in-time manufacturing system developed three years ago, a customer can order a car online, and that order is sent directly to the dealer. The dealer places the order, then the vehicle is built. Manufacturing plants that used to hold US$40 million in inventory on a given day now have zero, said Romero.

Web services can also help out the front side of a business. John Ounjian, CIO and senior vice president of IS at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota, said his company adopted Web services five years ago to enhance the customer experience. "Web services is connecting that customer-directed data to the back end," he said. The health insurance provider, based in Egan, Minn., began with its own employees, determining which tools would make them better customer service representatives. The health care provider built client/server databases, then adopted customer relationship management software.

Despite the benefits, Web services can also create challenges, said Carrow -- by raising the expectation that data flows will be accurate and always available. "It's not just the hardware and software. ... People have to change to meet those availability requirements [too]," he said.

"You can't have Web services without infrastructure, back-end and business processes," Romero said. "Web services without business processes -- it's a disaster."

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