For Businesses Hooking Up to the Internet, Shortcuts Can Prove Frustrating

By Greg Schneider

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 20, 2000; Page G23

You have a business, and you’ve discovered the Internet. You’re a bit like some guy sitting in a Soviet-era apartment in Murmansk watching an episode of “Three’s Company.” Boy, now, that looks like the life. But how do you get there from here?

It ain’t easy.

The Internet holds so much promise for business in the way of efficiency and reaching customers, but making it happen can cause headaches, cost money and disrupt lives. Wiring a company is almost always more of a hassle than expected.

“A lot of shops are ignoring the basic physics of the problem,” said Wayne Beekman, a principal partner at Information Concepts, which acts as a sort of SWAT team to rescue companies struggling to implement Internet-based solutions.

Just as with any overhaul of a major business system–computers or telephones, for example–getting a company wired to the Internet involves plotting a careful course. “You have to understand what your goals are, design a system to meet them, build it, test it and roll it out. That has never changed. The problem with the Internet is that people think they can shortcut those steps,” Beekman said.

And there are always problems along the way. Recent studies show that “80 percent of all software development efforts are 200 percent over budget,” he added. “We’re in an industry where success is the exception.”

Even if the experience turns into a nightmare, though, many who have emerged on the other side say the end result is worth the effort.

Jay M. Jaffe is president of Jaffe Associates, a firm that provides business development services such as marketing and public relations to law firms and other professional organizations.

With 25 employees in the United States and Canada and another eight in Britain, Jaffe considers his firm a “virtual company.” He runs it part of the year from Bethesda, and sometimes from Colorado; the employees work out of their homes.

The Internet was tailor-made for Jaffe, who has begun holding staff meetings via webcam. But when he tried to put his payroll and billing system online, the experience was “a horror story,” he said.

Keeping track of time is unusually important for his company. Each employee must submit hours spent with various clients, not only so the employee can be paid, but also so the client can be billed by the hour.

As far back as 1986, Jaffe used a computerized billing system. Back then, employees worked out of a central office, and once a week a bookkeeper would walk around to every computer, insert a floppy disk and download each persons’ billing information.

Then Jaffe began dispersing his employees, encouraging them to work out of their homes. He tried a remote, dial-in time management system, but the connection speed and server were infuriatingly slow. So the company retreated to a simple Excel spreadsheet that could be sent in via modem.

But what Jaffe gained in simplicity he lost in usefulness. Excel lacked many functions of a dedicated billing system; for instance, there was no way to split time spent with more than one client and allow for separate billing rates.

The company made do for three years. Early this year, Jaffe decided that the Internet had to offer something better. His office manager found a Web-based billing system that Jaffe subscribed to for about $5,000, plus another $2,500 for training.

“It never worked–never worked,” he said.

“It was a struggle. It was so cumbersome,” said Deborah Schwartz, a senior publicist who works for Jaffe from her home in Bethesda. “It would take two hours a month just to do your hours.”

What’s more, you had to be online to enter time. So if Jaffe went to a meeting in Toronto, say, and wanted to log it in on the flight home, he couldn’t. As a result, employees were letting minutes here and there slide off the books.

“Time would go unrecorded because it was a pain to do it,” Jaffe said. “It was hurting the bottom line. We were losing money.”

He scrapped the system, did an online search and found something else. A Los Angeles company called offered a product called Timesolv that seemed to fit the bill. For a certain fee per invoice that works out to less than $75 a month, Jaffe got access to a Web site that manages all his billing and time management needs.

“I own no software and I have no storage fees. It’s perfect,” Jaffe said. He’s been using the system for three months and said he is ready to start offering testimonials. “It has changed my life.”

Terry Dowdy hopes he feels the same way when his new Internet project is complete. As manager of information technology for the Washington-based Optical Society of America, Dowdy had to respond when many of the organization’s 12,500 members began clamoring for an online method to register for professional conferences and conventions.

He had already set up an online bookstore for the association and an Internet-enabled process for managing the publication of scholarly papers, so Dowdy knew what he was getting into.

“These things sound simple on their face, but when you try to tie these applications to your back-end, back-office processes, then it gets very complicated,” he said.

The society hired Information Concepts to set up its online conference registration system. The trick was to link an Internet site with the Optical Society’s internal computer system, so that if someone registers online to attend a conference, the internal system knows about it and processes registration fees on the spot.

What Information Concepts discovered is that the association’s back-end computer system is old and poorly documented–information about its components and programming was lacking–which made it far more difficult than expected to link it with the Internet.

“It ended up they had to spend a lot more time trying to understand the existing system,” Dowdy said. “And that was compounded by turnover. . . . When you start a project like that, you’ve got to make sure the people involved at the beginning [stay] around until the end. . . . If there’s turnover there, you may be finding out you lost more than just a body, you lost . . . a lot of institutional knowledge.”

The registration system is about three weeks behind schedule, Dowdy said, because of the unforeseen problems with the internal network and with staff turnover. That’s not cheap, but these days, the whole process is becoming unavoidable.

“It costs us a lot to develop something for the Web,” he said. “In the long run, naturally, it’s worth it. Your customers or your members–they’re expecting these things, because they see it everywhere else.”

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