PeopleSoft melds new tech with business

Much like Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman in 1974, PeopleSoft Inc. has managed to use a rope-a-dope strategy to avoid a knockout punch from Oracle Corp., and this agility is paying off.

With the successful acquisition of J.D. Edwards & Co. under its belt, PeopleSoft is now focusing on being a leading-edge, not bleeding-edge, company, where technology is developed and sold when it is “viable in the marketplace,” said PeopleSoft chief technology officer Rick Bergquist, during a quick customer tour through Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto recently. It’s about “harnessing new technology for business solutions,” he added.

An example of harnessing a new technology is PeopleSoft’s recent integration of instant messaging into its enterprise applications. One customer, who Bergquist did not mention by name, has added IM to its customer help centre. The advantage over a call-centre-only approach, Bergquist said, is that some customer questions can only be answered by specific people, and those people don’t generally work in the call centre. The result is a game of voice and e-mail tag.

Now when a call requires a specific expert, it can be forwarded, via IM, to the expert’s desktop. Companies can set up an on-call system (much like at hospitals) so there is always an expert available to answer customer queries. This allows experts to continue their usual work, except when they are “on call.”

IDC Canada Ltd. software analyst Warren Shiau said he has “heard of a lot of [companies] trying to incorporate…instant messaging into the corporate environment,” but added that no success stories have been “pitched” to him.

PeopleSoft is also working hard on the implementation side, Bergquist said. “You can have perfect technology fail because you didn’t have the right project management,” he said. To avoid this PeopleSoft “tries to be in as early as possible” on new projects, said Peter Smith, vice-president of PeopleSoft Global Services with PeopleSoft Canada Co. in Toronto. This gives its consultants a chance to “understand what [customers] are trying to do with their business,” Bergquist added.

In today’s market few solutions are totally off the shelf, and thus require customization, both to integrate properly with existing systems and to gain competitive advantage.

But Bergquist said companies have to “be very focused on what [they] customize.” He said that less than five per cent of an average PeopleSoft install is customized, and that it is enough to get a competitive advantage. After all, there is only a three per cent difference in all human DNA, he said. “And look at the diversity.”

Nevertheless, not all PeopleSoft implementations of late have received praise.

The California State University (CSU) recently attempted to implement the largest software project ever undertaken in a U.S. post-secondary institution. But according to a recent state audit, CSU is spending more than it had planned. The initial estimated US$450 million cost has ballooned to just over US$660 million.

Another install, a PeopleSoft human resources system for the U.S. Department of Defense, is finally ready to start development work on the US$320 million-plus project. But it will take another four years to complete the rollout, military officials said, and the project is already about 12 months behind schedule.

These cases do not surprise Bergquist. He said large-scale projects are difficult endeavours, since so many people and arms of an organization are involved.

How an organization reacts to problems within its project management structure is a good indicator of how a project will succeed, Smith added. Those with the systems in place to deal with surprises tend to have smoother implementations, he said.

In PeopleSoft’s defence, the CSU problem was due more to internal processes than techno-logy, according to an insider.

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