Portals top of mind for two Sapphire attendees

Several SAP Canada Inc. customers at this year’s Sapphire user conference said their use of the software vendor’s integration and application platform NetWeaver is helping them transition to a services-oriented architecture.

Khalil Nasrallah, manager of emerging technologies at Montreal-based aircraft manufacturer Bombardier Aerospace, explained how the adoption of SAP’s Enterprise Portal and Business Intelligence offerings, which are both platform components of NetWeaver, have helped his group streamline its purchase order (PO) process and improve communication and collaboration with its suppliers.

Previously, with SAP R/3, all of Bombardier’s POs were automatically faxed to the supplier, which, upon receipt of the PO, “had to acknowledge it (and) agree with the terms and conditions,” Nasrallah explained. The acknowledgement would then be faxed back to Bombardier and someone would enter the acknowledgement back into SAP R/3. The problem, he said, is that “sometimes faxes fail” – the supplier might get a busy signal or might just not get around to faxing the acknowledgement right away.

After doing a four- to five-month portal pilot in three of its locations, Bombardier launched a portal to external vendors, with the goal of eventually giving 2,500 suppliers access to purchase order management and source inspection capabilities.

The vendor portal streamlines the PO transmission and acknowledgement process, Nasrallah said. Both employees and suppliers can track, validate and attain detailed status and requested actions for each vendor’s POs. Upon accessing the portal, the supplier is able to “see all POs that they have to acknowledge…and they can check the revisions of the POs,” giving them insight into the order history, he added. One major benefit of the portal is that faxing and paper are no longer necessary for the PO process, he said. “We don’t have to deal with delays and be unsure about an accepted fax.”

The suppliers can ask questions and have copies of the POs for themselves. The inspection-at-source capability means suppliers can “go online and inspect goods before we receive them at Bombardier,” instead of Bombardier doing the inspections after it receives the goods. Because of the elimination of faxing, this feature has helped the firm reduce its dock-to-stock lead time by as much as 10 days.

John Harrickey, director of IT applications at Mississauga, Ont.-based product testing and certification services provider Canadian Standards Association (CSA), said Enterprise Portal has also helped streamline his organization’s communication and collaboration with more than 30,000 customers.

“We are very much a knowledge-based business,” Harrickey said. “Everything we produce is the result of testing, or (a piece of) documentation, or a standard we sell.” The standards testing and product certification process requires a high volume of communication between CSA’s clients and its engineers, certification specialists and client representatives.

The drivers behind CSA’s portal implementation were similar to Bombardier’s, Harrickey said. There was a “demand for instant access to the information that we published,” and the association wanted to reduce cycle times. During the standards report creation process, there were version-control issues, and once the report was out, CSA wanted to have a place where the report could be downloaded, rather than “e-mailing (the reports) all over the place” – that’s where a third-party knowledge management solution, Documentum, would come into play.

Finally, CSA wanted to ensure the consistency of customer service so those clients calling in would not get different answers to the same question each time they called. In April of 2002 CSA launched its initial external-facing portal, following an integration proof-of-concept to figure out how Documentum would fit in.

This month, the association launched its full-blown knowledge management portal, www.csagateway.com, which is based on Enterprise Portal 6.0. The goal is to be serving 3,000 to 5,000 customers by the end of June, Harrickey said. From an employee perspective, the portal has “improved preparation, approval and distribution cycle times,” and offers XML forms-based authoring, he explained. On the customer side, “there is total segregation of customer data” – depending on their roles, when customers log into the portal, they see only what they want and “only what they are supposed to see.”

They also receive notifications, for example, “go and check out a report that is available for [them],” he said. There is no longer any sharing or moving of the reports via e-mail, which allows CSA to maintain control of the document. Metadata tagging allows for filtering, classification and search/retrieval functionality, and CSA has also developed a taxonomy that will allow customers to refer to what they are searching for in product terms, or according to the invoice or order information they have.

To deal with content distribution issues, CSA developed a “small Web-services component,” residing on the portal, which automatically replicates content in Documentum to SAP.

Harrickey said the SAP portal in combination with knowledge management capabilities from Documentum has provided “enormous opportunities to easily share master data between systems….The content quality is slowly being improved.”

Both Nasrallah and Harrickey noted that change management – getting internal users and customers to accept a new way of doing things – was probably the biggest challenge for their implementations.

“Technology-wise, the implementation was not hard,” Nasrallah said. “The most challenging thing is getting users to accept change. Any change, even if it is an improvement, is change.”

In the process of switching to online POs, some users of the Bombardier portal insisted on continuing to fax the PO for a time, he said. Usually there is a curve that starts with rejection of the new process and gradually moves toward acceptance; eventually those same users become the ones who want to move forward.

Harrickey said he doesn’t think there’s any magic to dealing with change management issues. It “comes down to basic nuts and bolts” of easing users into the new system by “getting them involved, letting them design things,” and keeping things simple, he said.

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