IBM offers help with ERP blues

Interpath Communications Inc., an application service provider (ASP) based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., was strong in some areas, but decided it needed help in others.

“We had some strengths that we could provide and we needed some complimentary support services,” explained Berni Mobley, Interpath’s director of enterprise product development and delivery.

The ASP focuses on three major areas: enterprise resource planning (ERP), e-commerce and high-end application hosting. Interpath decided to find help to support its SAP AG customers, and last year turned to IBM Global Services.

IBM Corp. announced the launch of its Application Management Services (AMS) for Enterprise Resource Planning worldwide in February. The launch was enabled through the establishment of seven new IBM AMS centres, located in Toronto, Edmonton and Atlanta for North America.

“These application management services are post-implementation services for ASPs,” explained Mike Plymack, AMS executive for North America at IBM. “They typically include the kind of customer care, help desk or problem-solving kinds of tasks. As well, it includes the optimization test for the application – not so much in terms of computer performance but as to how the applications are returning benefits that were promised when the applications were implemented.”

The customized services range from help desk and custom report development to end-to-end application management, according to the company.

For a young ASP like Interpath – it was formed in January 1998 – the services help in a lot of ways.

“It definitely takes the burden off us to be experts in every piece of the ASP business,” Mobley explained. “We can’t pretend to be experts from end-to-end.”

Using the AMS services meant Interpath didn’t have to hire different application experts for all the different SAP modules that they intended to host, she said.

“We have engaged them for SAP end-user functional support. Our customers are connected to our data centre, we run their ERP system, the SAP systems, for them. And if they have a problem with access, or network or even a printer problem, we resolve it.”

But if it’s a question or problem with the SAP application, Interpath records it, passes it on to IBM and it helps the customer resolve the problem and update the system.

Interpath also uses the services for implementation and training.

The Government of Alberta is receiving the AMS services through Payment Systems Corp., an IBM affiliate, which is providing services in Canada.

“Payment Systems operates our financial, which consists of general ledger, accounts receivable, billings, payables as well as purchasing modules,” said Stan Hayter, the assistant deputy minister of the Government of Alberta. “In addition to that, they operate four human resource applications, comprised of payroll through employee benefits, through staff training and management.”

According to Hayter, the government develops its applications, customizes them and puts them in place. Operating them would have added to a significant overhead not only from a cash perspective, but also from a management perspective.

“The lessons learned for us was during our first run of implementation. We didn’t involve the application management organization as much as we could and should have,” Hayter said. “In early involvement in the development of the application, understanding how it works and why it was built the way it was, was something we learned as we went live with the first module, and we incorporated as an experience for our application management service company in the second go-around.”

IBM’s Plymack said a lot of companies that use these packages of services “tend to recreate their own enhancements. They tend to be working independently on release-to-release upgrades. They’re all looking for ways to extend their systems into the e-business and e-commerce world, so we’re doing many of the services inbound within IBM centres, and providing those services to multiple customers.”

Customers subscribe to the services, with contracts typically running anywhere from three to five years, according to Plymack. There is a fixed monthly payment, which provides customer support for a certain number of users and application modules. There are extra costs for services such as development work or major conversions.

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