At its seventh Convergence software user conference held last month in Orlando, Microsoft Corp. previewed several product offerings as part of its Business Solutions division.

The division offers an array of integrated business applications designed for small- to medium-sized companies. The software focuses on business areas that cut across human resources management, financial management, customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain, e-commerce and ERP.

The two main product announcements centred around its portal interface, which allows organizations to deliver Web-browser access to business applications to employees and customers alike through central log-on; and its Business Network solution, a software and Web services offering that looks to streamline how businesses collaborate with their vendors, customers and partners.

The latter will integrate with Microsoft Office, Outlook, Excel and Great Plains software. In fact, it is initially geared at existing Great Plains customers who don’t have an ERP system in place yet, explained Marcus Schmidt, lead product manager for Microsoft’s business solutions division.

Given that the division was established in 2002, a Microsoft spokesperson said the products give it the opportunity to enter into the midmarket with technology it historically has had difficulty accessing.

“It’s a vast market with no clear market leaders. Small and medium businesses have not typically been particularly well served by ERP solutions,” said Garth Dean, general manager Microsoft Business Solutions Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

It was just over a year ago that Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. -based Great Lakes Power Ltd.’s generation division began its search for an ERP vendor. The branch employs about 70 people in its northern office and approximately 200 in total. As a completely new division of the company, it was working from scratch on building its network. The utility settled on Great Plains E-Commerce and ERP system, but with a slight twist.

“We came up with the unique solution of using modules, so we had to do some customization between the field service and the project accounting modules,” said Gary Wight, manager of finance and administration at Great Lakes Power’s generation division. A new project was automatically created when a field service call was reported, and this portion is the core module. He added that the company is already in the process of adding additional modules to complete its plans for an “integrated solution.”

As Wight explained, part of the allure of the product was its functionality and the integration. It plans to upgrade to version 7.0 of Great Plains and to install it to 11 other sites across the province. The company is still waiting on an interface to become available in Canada for electronic statements such as travel expenses or gas charges, he noted.

Both the portal and the Business Network enhancements caught the eye of Fred Argir, CIO at catalogue services company Fingerhut Direct Marketing Inc., in Minnetonka, Minn. Currently, Fingerhut is running its own homegrown portal that connects to back-end Great Plains enterprise resource planning (ERP) software running off a single Microsoft SQL database. But he said he would be willing to consider moving to the business portal because it would probably have greater built-in efficiencies.

– With files from IDG News Service



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