Tools for an agile business

18 Dec 2003

When it comes to helping companies reap the rewards of integration, naturally Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, is there to help.

“It’s really about organisational agility,” explains Clive Ryan, business group lead — client and information worker at Microsoft Ireland. “The angle from which we are approaching it is innovation and we are introducing integrated innovation into our products. These are new ways of working and the innovations we are introducing, both at a desktop and application level, enable our users to be more effective and productive as part of teams.”

According to Ryan, developments in desktop technology over the past 20 years have been focused on enabling the individual to be more productive. “We feel there is now a huge opportunity to help teams and organisations operate. The large investments that organisations have in systems, despite their best intentions, are pretty much siloed. For instance, an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system might not talk to the CRM (customer relationship management) system in a banking or manufacturing context. The challenge is to glue these siloed systems together at the back-end at the same time,” he says.

“Ordinarily an employee or information worker would have to access to different systems to get different information relating to the same customer or account. This requires switching between applications. But what if you could enable the ability of any document to talk to the back-end. It would allow the information worker to focus their skills on interpreting the information rather than just finding it.”

The first substantive example of this approach, says Ryan, is the new version of Microsoft Office. “A number of organisations are using the office suite to reinvigorate their business processes, reinvigorate their teams and join up the disparate parts of the organisation. HP, for instance, has been able to cut down processes like preparing marketing material by 46pc. To take another example, a Finnish bank with presence all over Scandinavia managed to save huge amounts of money by enabling people to meet and collaborate as part of a project without huge amounts of travel. The integration of office technology with new technologies such as Sharepoint and Livemeeting allow us to do this.”

Sharepoint, Ryan explains, is quite a large product and comes in two varieties. The first is Sharepoint Portal Server, which allows an organisation to create an internet portal and search vast amounts of electronic information much like Google. “The other variety is Windows Sharepoint Services and this is aimed at team collaboration, allowing people to work together on a document or project. It uses the online workspaces and, continuing the integration theme, it implements Information Micro Management that allows people working on, say, a report, to control who has access to the report right down to the paragraph level,” he says.

The other technology is Livemeeting. According to Ryan, Microsoft research has found that information workers spend a large chunk of their day in meetings. “We want to enable people to talk to one another as they want to but do away with travel. They can attend meetings online, view PowerPoint presentations, contribute to discussions and have very effective two-way meetings without actually being face to face. The potential for applying Livemeeting is huge. Within Microsoft, our chief financial officer, John Connors, has issued an edict that we should reduce travel costs by 20pc this year. This will have an immediate impact of US$57m on our bottom line,” he says.

At a system level, Windows itself is built so it can support the office experience quite closely, explains Ryan. The latest version contains online collaboration tools such as instant messaging. While he agrees that these are often seen as consumer tools, Ryan points out that they are also important corporate tools. “Companies want to deploy instant messaging for two reasons,” he explains. “The first is to take the load off email systems and the second is to enable people to find out who is the best person to contact for a particular issue. We now have a new offering in this area called the Live Communication Server. This is a corporate instant messaging solution that does not require going out onto the internet. It permits secure instant messaging by adding encryption and it creates an audit trail, which is very important in areas like online investment. You can also use it to determine a person’s online presence. For instance, if a customer walks into a bank with a query, the clerk can look up the customer in a Siebel system and find the customer’s details. They might see that the person in customer service who usually deals with that customer is, say, John Smith and if John Smith is online at the time an icon will appear by his name.”

All of these tools allow users to save time. According to Ryan, for example, aircraft manufacturer Boeing has cut the time it needs to prepare a weekly status report by a factor of five using instant messaging.

Microsoft’s next version of Windows is codenamed Longhorn and is due for release in 2005. According to Ryan, many of the themes in the current version of Windows will be carried forward into Longhorn. “Some of the abilities introduced to focus on collaboration will be incorporated into the core operating system, for instance, to allow rich collaborative online meetings,” he adds.

By David Stewart