Engineering Success: Publishing Host Reports to the Intranet Helps Project Managers Respond Faster

The publication of status reports to the Gannett Fleming intranet gives project managers the opportunity to respond to potential problems up to one week sooner than in the past. A new host report Web publishing software package now automatically publishes the reports to the firm's intranet for immediate viewing by all authorized personnel.

The publication of status reports to the Gannett Fleming intranet gives project managers the opportunity to respond to potential problems up to one week sooner than in the past. It used to take four to seven days for employees of the international consulting, engineering and planning firm to print and distribute status reports to project managers located around the world.

A new host report Web publishing software package now automatically publishes the reports to the firm's intranet for immediate viewing by all authorized personnel. Legacy Press, from Forest Computer Inc., eliminates thousands of dollars involved in organizing, copying and distributing the reports. It saves additional time for each of the project managers by providing them with hot links that they can use to quickly locate status reports on their own jobs.

Since its first engineering assignment in 1915, Gannett Fleming has completed thousands of assignments in the United States and 51 countries worldwide, and has grown to a group of more than 1,600 qualified, dedicated individuals. The firm offers engineering services in transportation, water resources, environmental, industrial/commercial, land development, construction engineering, management and design/build.

For example, Gannett Fleming is now in the design process of the I-90, Fort Point Channel Crossing portion of Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel, which calls for the first use of concrete immersed tube tunnels in the United States. Concrete immersed tube tunnel construction involves the fabricating of reinforced concrete tunnel segments on land, floating the segments into position, and sinking them into place. The Fort Point Channel Crossing forms a 1,525-lineal-foot portion of the new Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90) extension from the Southeast Expressway (I-93) to the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Status Reports

Gannett Fleming operates a custom COBOL application that runs on an IBM ES9000 host and provides managers of the individual projects, as well as the firm's management, with information on the status of each job. The application was developed by and is currently operated and maintained by GANCOM, a division of Gannett Fleming, that offers a range of information technology services, including traditional data processing, PC/network consulting, direct mail processing and laser printing. Previously, the voluminous job status reports were printed biweekly, in order to provide the management team with information on the status of each project, the time and expenses charged to each job, and compare the proportion of the budgeted time and expense that has already been expended to the percentage of the job that has been completed.

It was previously a very time-consuming job to distribute these reports to the managers. First of all, a staff member had to make copies of the entire report for general management and then separate the sections of the report that applied to the individual project managers and make copies of those. All of the copies were then organized and fastened. Finally, the copies were sent to project managers located in headquarters using inter-company mail delivery, and to off-site managers located around the country using an overnight delivery service. The biggest problem with this approach was that it took a day or two to prepare the materials for distribution and several more days for the reports to be delivered.

Timely Information

The projects in which Gannett Fleming are involved often require the efforts of many people and may be spread out over a considerable geographical area. In many cases, it's difficult for the project manager to determine whether each aspect of the project is on track, simply by viewing its progress. For this reason, project managers depend upon the biweekly status reports to help them keep their finger on the pulse of each job. If the report tells them that the amount of time and expenses that have been devoted to a particular job is significantly beyond the proportion that's completed, then they devote time and energy to getting things back on track. The problem in the past was that the information was already a week old when the project manager received it, so the job had often slipped further, making it that much more difficult to get it back on track.

GANCOM was assigned the task of finding a method to publish the reports to the Web so they could be available for immediate viewing with a browser over Gannett Fleming's intranet. Several different products that advertised capabilities in this area were examined. The Legacy Press Web-based host report publishing system was selected because Forest Computer was the most responsive and seemed to be the most dedicated to making our application a success. Their software was capable of operating on a fully automated basis and can automatically index the data, which saves a lot of time for users, compared to viewing a paper report. Forest also is about to bring out a utility that lets us print the documents on a laser printer exactly as they would appear on the mainframe.

Implementation and Operation

A Forest Computer technician helped GANCOM personnel go through a one-time setup definition that defines the report's frequency, host source file, Web server destination and indexing instructions. Rather than simply duplicate the format of the existing mainframe reports, index points were created that significantly improve the access of the information.

When the reports were printed on the mainframe, they were always done in job number sequence and operators provided each project manager with a subset of the total report that included all of their jobs, as well as those handled by many other project managers. During implementation of the new publishing system, the index points were based on the project managers' names so that on the title page, each project manager's name now appears above a list of jobs for which he or she is responsible. The project manager simply clicks on the job to see the status report. This saves a considerable amount of time that the project managers previously had to spend making their way through the large printed reports.

In the past, mainframe reports were generated at night. Now, they are passed manually over the Windows NT machine that runs Legacy Press. The manual process is a simple point and click operation that takes only a few seconds. GANCOM intends to automate this transfer in the near future by taking advantage of Legacy Press' ability to automatically retrieve the report from the host using an SNA, DECnet, IPX or IP protocol.

The report is then converted to an HTML document and an index for the report is created. Legacy Press then delivers the report and index to the appropriate Web server using FTP. The report's home page is automatically updated to include a URL link to the HTML version of the report. Users can view the report on their standard browser. Access to the report is restricted using the Web server software's security features.

Addressing Problems

The result has been a major improvement. Gannett Flemming has saved thousands of dollars by eliminating the need to handle, copy and deliver paper documents. More important, the vital project status information gets into the hands of the project managers almost as soon as it is compiled. Receiving information about the status of their jobs a week early helps them to keep projects on track. When there's a problem, they are able to address it that much sooner, saving money and aggravation for everyone involved. The fact that they can find their own jobs simply by pointing and clicking, and that they can use the search mechanism on their browser to quickly locate a specific line item, saves them more time.

The reports will become even more effective in the very near future when Forest Computer upgrades Legacy Press to include a new feature that allows the reports to be printed from a browser with the same page and carriage breaks as on the mainframe. While the reports can now easily be printed in a browser, in many cases they are too wide to fit a standard size sheet of paper. Also, the pages break in unpredictable places. The new feature means that when project managers print the report, the document will look just the way it's supposed to.

About the Author: Ralph Schwartz is the IT Manager for GANCOM (Camp Hill, Pa.), a division of Gannett Fleming Inc. He can be reached at rschwartz@gfnet.com.

 

A New Business Model for Mid-Sized ERP Systems

By Emile Hamou

The standard business model on which an ERP system is based is inherently inward looking. An ERP system, typically with client-server architecture and a Windows interface, works on the assumption that a fairly small number of company employees within a specific department will need to access an application - procurement, customer relationship management, accounting, etc.

The advent of the Internet has resulted in a far different business model; an outward-looking, Web-based model in which company information is open and available to anyone with the authority to access it. In the outward-looking model, Web technologies replace EDI, a technology designed to open an ERP system to vendors and customers, but whose benefits never materialized for mid-sized companies because of its high cost.

Business-to-business sales via the Internet are expected to total $1.3 trillion by 2003. To participate in this new channel, mid-sized companies looking to invest in an ERP system need to closely examine the packages they are considering to determine how compatible they are with the Internet business model's open approach.

There are three basic stages in the evolution toward an e-business model. Most ERP systems on the market are in one of these stages, with the number decreasing the farther along the evolutionary path one looks.

1. Web Enablement. In this stage a company moves information and applications from its client/server setup to Web servers. Anyone authorized can access the companywide intranet to get an update on order fulfillment, product availability or shipping date. Access is not limited to computers on company premises. A user can retrieve information remotely from a home PC, a palm top or a smart telephone, regardless of location.

2. The Extended Enterprise. Once a company's information resides on an intranet, it's relatively easy to extend access through an extranet to all the company's suppliers, vendors, partners, customers or other businesses.

This is accomplished via the company Web site. Suppliers, dealers or distributors access the ERP system's supply chain management, electronic procurement, stock management, integrated forecasting and quality systems management functions to keep up with the company's changing requirements. Customers place and track orders and interact with customer service representatives. And employees, salespeople or technicians working in the field upload reports and access company documents, like purchase orders, forecasts and shipping notices.

3. The Optimized System. In this stage, an ERP system meets the e-business need for responsiveness, flexibility and speed. Communications are almost instantaneously interactive and information is continuously updated.

For example, a salesperson sitting in a client's office connects to his company's Web site and queries the system about the possibility of delivering 2,000 widgets by the end of the year. The ERP system looks at current inventory to see how many widgets are in stock. If there are only 800 in stock, it checks the production schedule to see when the next production run is planned. If no run is scheduled, it verifies that there are enough materials on hand to produce the total order and enough containers to ship it in, and a product run is scheduled. If there is a shortfall, it queries suppliers' ERP systems for their delivery schedules and costs.

What the salesperson sees on the laptop screen is a production schedule, based on the quantity and deadline input, and a price. If they're not satisfied with the result, they can click on the schedule, change the delivery date, quantity or widget specification and watch as the system adjusts production parameters to meet the new requirements.

Getting to Stage Three

A mid-sized company considering integrating its business processes on an ERP system should examine how far the company has evolved in terms of e-business and what its specific needs are.

For mid-sized companies, especially, an ERP system must be easy to install. Installing and integrating an ERP system is a major investment in time and money and represents a significant risk for a $10-to-$250-million company. It sometimes dramatically changes the corporate culture and can put a strain on company finances for a long time.

An ERP system must be easy to operate. When a relatively small number of employees need to access an ERP system, the time and expense of training in system-specific procedures can be jus-

tified. But the more people who access the ERP system, the more it should rely on standard graphical user interface conventions. The application should also provide pre-configured tables or templates for specific industries and/or processes.

It must be modular. It must provide the full complement of finance, manufacturing and distribution functions the company needs and be scalable to change with the company.

Finally an ERP system must be well-parameterized. Companies need to alter their business processes to accommodate specific customers and transactions. To do this they have to be able to set a wide range of parameters within the ERP system. Parameters define the structure of the system and control its behavior. They also govern how a company interacts with each customer and supplier and how company departments interact with one another from order entry to receipt of payment. Proper use of parameters can give a company the flexibility it needs to maintain its competitive advantage.

Finding the ERP application that accommodates your e-business goals takes considerable, up-front evaluation of company needs. Make sure the ERP system will evolve with your needs, not force it to change the business processes that differentiate it from the competition. The goal should be to move as quickly as is reasonable to the third stage of e-business evolution to enjoy the cost efficiencies and enhanced performance that it embodies.

About the Author:

Emile Hamou is Chief Executive Officer at Adonix (Sewickley, Pa.; www.adonix.com).