Web portals spell less work for CGAs in B.C.

Cutting a swath of internal manual processes allowed the Certified General Accountants Association of British Columbia (CGA BC) to better see the forest from the trees.

The Vancouver-based professional accounting association and regulating body for certified general accountants (CGAs) in B.C. recently replaced its suite of outdated in-house applications with a Web-enabled service portal environment. According to Marc Fox, CIO for the professional accounting body, with more than 13,000 students, members and staff, the amount of paper use and manual processes was rising.

According to CGA BC, its members typically apply for professional development courses a few days before the deadline. Before deploying the portal, this meant the association would be inundated with more than 4,000 fax, e-mail, and post mail enrolment forms within a space of a few days. This had a big impact on CGA BC’s relatively small staff of 60 employees, Fox said, which would have to manually enter this data. It invariably led to a number of illegible or incomplete forms.

The portal, dubbed CGADirect, provides online registration, course information, and additional services. In terms of choosing the vendor, it was a matter of weighing the legacy and integration risks, Fox said. The portal uses Oracle Corp. technology, specifically Oracle Application Server, Database and the JDeveloper Java development tool.

CGADirect allows its members to enter the data themselves, Fox said. The portal also allows students to quickly check up on course information updates. Internally, this reduces the bulk of manual processes. It also better ensures the data entered is validated and that students select the correct courses needed for professional certification, Fox added.

The drive to improve end-user processes through a portal, however, can turn into an unwieldy project if companies aren’t careful. In the past several years, many enterprises have seen portals spring up like dandelions. Frequently created by an enthusiastic power user with little or no IT oversight, portals may belong to a satellite office, a department or a functional group of employees (such as salespeople). They may be little more than a welcome screen and a half-dozen links, or they may be true transactional sites used by customers and trading partners.

Today, businesses are waking up to the fact that portal proliferation is a potentially expensive mess at best and a disaster waiting to happen at worst. As a Gartner Inc. report in October 2003 put it, “Many enterprises — instead of easily reaping rewards from their portal implementations — find themselves dealing with a jungle of multiple portals that compete for the same resources.”

The resulting expense is difficult to track, because small portals are scattered across geographic regions and lines of business. “You want to save money eventually (by consolidating portals), sure,” said Steve Ellis, executive vice president at Wells Fargo & Co.’s Wholesale Services division.

Wells Fargo is a financial services firm providing banking, insurance, investments, mortgages and consumer finance, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. “But it’s almost as important just to understand where that part of your spend is going.”

Organizations seeking to consolidate portals are soon confronted with a number of thorny technology issues. “Each (existing) portal has different tool sets, languages and approaches to content and applications,” said Frank Torbey, a consultant at TandemSeven Inc., a Plymouth, Mass.-based firm that helps large businesses build portals. Log-on and user-identity features may also be handled differently, he added.

Today, businesses typically have separate portals for employees, the sales force and customer service. Each portal must access data from a range of applications (human resources, payroll, CRM, ERP and accounting) and then add a presentation layer. When a company considers consolidation, IT’s challenge is to rationalize existing portals into one system that addresses the data, functionality, personalization and authentication needs of all users.

The good news for IT managers is that there are more tools available for portal consolidation than there were a few years ago. Longtime portal specialists such as San Francisco-based Plumtree Software Inc. and Austin-based Vignette Corp. are facing competition from nearly every major vendor of enterprise software.

This widespread availability of portal software has altered the purchase decision landscape, according to Torbey.

“Many of our clients started their portals with a Plumtree or a Vignette,” he said. “But if that company is a heavy SAP AG user and now they see SAP has a strong portal offering, do they migrate (all their portals) to SAP?”

Torbey said many TandemSeven clients face a similar decision if their companies are heavily invested in IBM Corp., PeopleSoft Inc., Oracle or Microsoft Corp. applications.

Ellis said Wells Fargo’s investment in BEA Systems Inc.’s enterprise software played a major role in the San Francisco-based company’s decision to use BEA’s WebLogic Portal to create a consolidated portal for employees.

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