Use VPNs for security and transparency

U.S. president Bush speaks about the need for financial transparency: the ability to figure out what’s going on inside a business. But the only way this will happen is for top executives to create and use IT infrastructure to get vital data when it’s needed, rather than after regulators and investors have been duped.

Using IT for a clear picture of business operations isn’t new, but it has acquired increased urgency, for practical reasons in addition to legal ones.

Last year, when William S. Sciortino joined Classic Residence by Hyatt (the senior-living affiliate of Chicago-based Hyatt Corp.), the company was chasing a scattered paper trail that often meant financial statements didn’t get closed for 60 days. The company’s 15 luxury living facilities weren’t connected to a network (they were using dial-up connections), had no file-sharing and relied on faxes, telephone calls and e-mail attachments of information such as Excel spreadsheets.

“It was like running 16 different databases, and we were manually consolidating information at our headquarters,” says Sciortino.

It took 10 days for a typical facility to develop a financial statement that included occupancy rates, rent collected, food service costs and personnel changes. Bigger facilities took 13 days to compile information. It took until the 17th day for corporate accountants to get a real financial summary. Compiling the results from all locations sometimes took as long as 60 days.

Sciortino wanted to lay down an IT infrastructure and put ERP on top of it. The goal was to streamline the financial process and give what he calls transparency to operations. “I want the executive chefs to know what the food cost is every day, every week,” said Sciortino. “And I don’t want them to have to sit at the terminal waiting for this information.”

Sciortino’s IT choice was a VPN using appliances from Nokia Corp. preconfigured with Check Point Software Technologies Ltd.’s security software. “We went the appliance route because we are concerned about security, and dial-up isn’t reliable enough,” said Sciortino. He also didn’t want to load a bunch of Windows NT servers with Check Point software that would require IT personnel at each site to administer.

Now Sciortino drops a team of consultants into a new location — the senior-living market is booming — and users are up and running in three to five days. “We’re able to save time getting financial information to people who need it,” says Sciortino, who believes the system will be instrumental in quickly integrating new facility acquisitions.

Now, if only we had something as tangible to produce transparency and simplicity for the president’s effort to curb corporate excess.

Pimm Fox is Computerworld’s West Coast bureau chief. Contact him at [email protected]

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