Applications help services firms, despite obstacles

Like IT executives at other services-related companies, advertising agency CIO Mitchell Dickerman is finding that automating his firm's business processes is paying off in cost savings and improved efficiency -- but not without some obstacles.

For the past two years, Dickerman has been overseeing a rollout of billing and expense applications from Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft Inc. at Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos Inc. in Boston. Installing the software at a firm that's "not at the cutting edge of technology" has been challenging, he said, adding that he's cautious about giving workers too much automation.

But Hill, Holliday's management decided the company needed more timely billing information in order to better track employee productivity and to ensure more rapid payments by its customers. Dickerman opted to go with Lexington, Mass.-based Surebridge Inc., an application service provider that has customized PeopleSoft's software to work with the marketing agency's back-end systems.

The billing system went live a year ago, and Dickerman said there have been some clear benefits stemming from the ability of users to enter data directly from Web browser clients into the agency's finance systems. "For the first time, there were no missing time sheets," he said. "It has certainly made finance happier and most end users happier, too."

Hill, Holliday is also collecting thousands of dollars in fees that previously would have gone unpaid because of late or overlooked billing slips, Dickerman added. Next up is an expense entry system, now in beta-testing, that will let users at the 1,000-employee agency fill out Web-based forms that connect expenses to specific projects and clients.

Dickerman is one of an increasing number of users in industries such as advertising, telecommunications, law, health care and construction who are turning to software that fits within the category of professional services automation (PSA). Such applications could potentially help "almost any service-based organization interested in improving [its] business processes," said Ted Kempf, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

Another user is Integris Health Inc., an Oklahoma City-based nonprofit health care system that went live last August with PSA software developed by Richmond Hill, Ontario-based Changepoint Corp. The software lets business managers track projects and handle scheduling and invoicing without adding administrative costs, said Integris CIO Avery Cloud.

"We're able to better streamline work processes and collaboration," Cloud said via e-mail. The PSA software also gives Integris improved capabilities for forecasting how many workers will be needed at a given time, enabling more efficient resource utilization, he added.

Juana Clark, director of application management at Baltimore-based Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said new competition brought on by the deregulation of the electricity industry has made the kinds of capabilities built into PSA applications important to the utility.

"Like everybody else, we're suffering from budget cuts, and there's a lot of pressure to optimize costs across the board," Clark said. "We have hundreds of millions [of dollars] in IT expenses, and we had no handle on how we were spending the money."

Last June, Baltimore Gas and Electric began a phased PSA rollout that's due to include Changepoint's time and expense management software and its project management and reporting tools. The time and expense applications were the first to be installed, and the full project is expected to be completed shortly.

Dickerman said Hill, Holliday wants to eventually expand the applications it uses to include business analysis software and perhaps systems for managing documents and for matching workers to specific business projects based on their skills.

But there's a caveat that underscores Dickerman's caution about putting too much emphasis on automating the agency's business operations. "I understand how the business works, and I have to avoid interposing technology between the clients and [our employees] because that relationship is very delicate," he said.

This story, "Applications help services firms, despite obstacles" was originally published by Computerworld.

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