MS Convergence 2004 looks at history for future

Mid-sized businesses have enterprise-size issues and require the same attention as their larger corporate counterparts. That was the message reverberating through the halls during Microsoft Corp.’s annual North American customer last month in Orlando.

With much chatter on the past, present and future of middleware solutions along with a couple sneak previews of upcoming wares Convergence 2004: Microsoft Solutions Conference for Customers, offers a forum for Microsoft customers and partners to network and share experiences in dealing with customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions to name but a few.

With its “Better Together” motto, MS kicked off the conference by comparing the great minds of the past with the applications of the future. During his opening keynote, Doug Burgum, senior vice-president of MS Business Solutions, told conference goers that the technological life led today is definitely “not as good as it gets.”

“Our customers (today) are saying that the solutions available now don’t solve their pain issues,” Burgum said. “But, the capability is there to address…their issues.” Drawing on the past, Burgum explained that just as the early innovators believed the sun revolved around a flat earth, so with today’s environments there is a world of opportunity waiting to be discovered.

He said that despite the amount of customer pain in the market at present, the next decade will bring about a dramatic change in the way customers view their own customer and partner-facing environments. Burgum explained that with the constant innovation in networking, processing, storage and peripherals, Microsoft’s systems and software must be able to respond quickly.

“Our goal is not to set up separate areas for innovation,” he said. “We are focused on integrated innovation of our software. We are better together, not just in our products but in (working with) our partners and customers.”

And, in heeding demand from customers, MS is set to release the latest iteration of its Great Plains Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software application, slated for release this July as well as a new customer relationship management (CRM) offering that MS said will take the technology to a different level.

Called CRMMobile, the application allows wireless salesforces to access customer information in real-time from any Windows CE-enabled device.

The anticipated solution has piqued Chris Patten’s interest. Patten, vice-president of information technology with The Orthotic Group, a Markham, Ont.-based maker of orthopedic accessories, rolled out MS CRM 1.0 in April of last year to enable the company’s salesforce to better service its customers.

“Our sales reps deal with doctors and patients,” Patten said. “They were using Outlook to manage their activity. With the CRM application, (they can now) work offline on things like patient orders, patient histories and general patient information. We needed customer service reps to be on the same page in the event of customer problems or concerns.”

He said that through MS CRM, customer service agents in British Columbia now have access to the same information as their counterparts in Toronto.

Accessing information across corporate departments is key to business success, Microsoft said. According to Nancy Teixeira, ERP product manager for Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont., while the company has not divulged all the details of the newest release of Great Plains — version 8.0 — customers can expect more than 120 product enhancements focused primarily around manufacturing, distribution and project accounting capabilities.

Acquired in 2001, Great Plains is one of four ERP offerings MS has under its belt. The application focuses on the financial aspect of resource planning and management and features three key elements: financial management, allowing for accounting and finance operations; supply chain management, featuring manufacturing and procurement capabilities; and analytics for business reporting.

“There are over 40 million underserved businesses in the SMB range,” Teixeira said. “Their needs are just as complex as in large enterprises, but they don’t have the (enterprise) budgets.”

For Clearwater Seafoods, a Canadian fishing company based in Nova Scotia, Great Plains has helped the company fulfill its motto “From the ocean to the plate,” for the last 10 years.

“The main features of Great Plains (aside from) the financials and supply chain management elements are the analytics and reporting capabilities. Those are really big for us,” Green said. “‘From the ocean to the plate’ is really about knowing what is going on with your product as it goes from the ocean to the plate. If you don’t have control of your product, you can’t sell it.”

According to Garth Dean, director of Microsoft Business Solutions in Canada, Clearwater was “bleeding edge” in terms of its integration of Great Plains with other disparate business applications. For example, Clearwater chose to integrate Great Plains with WiseFish, an application designed specifically for the fishing industry. Built by TM Software out of Iceland, WiseFish offers integrated ERP solution or an implementation in modules. The two applications run in tandem at Clearwater.

Integrated ERP offerings are priorities for the Canadian mid-sized market, according to Deloitte Inc. Canada’s Sangeet Bhatia, a consultant with the firm. She explained that SMBs are not just looking for software solutions, but rather total solutions to avoid having to rip and replace existing systems.

“ERP is the foundation and plumbing (in an organization)” Bhatia said. “It is the basic table legs to hold the rest of the pieces like customer relationship management and electronic information delivery (EDI) applications.”

In addition, the mid-market is looking for more “out of the box” functionality and less customization, according to Steve Poelking, research director for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto. He explained that while the ERP market overall has heated up significantly over the past two to three years, the main activity is in the SMB space. “The large enterprise market is relatively saturated,” Poelking said. “Now, traditional ERP vendors are hard-pressed to translate value and come to grips with the needs of the SMB market.”

Poelking noted that while the Canadian software market counts for nearly $6 billion, ERP and CRM combined account for almost $600 million of that total.

He said that IDC is expecting approximately one-third of the Canadian market to buy, add on or enhance their CRM environments this year.

Michelle Warren, research analyst with Toronto-based Evans Research said there is a huge market in Canada that can take advantage of CRM functionality. “Microsoft has the ability to cover all different areas,” she said. “Customers maintain a strong comfort level in its products.”

Convergence 2004 ran from March 22-24.

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