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Behind the Green Door

Portals are fast becoming the standard desktop interface for corporate employees. Will finance staffers get theirs?

Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway; “and even if my head would go through,” thought poor Alice, “it would be of very little use without my shoulders.”

Most critics have concluded that this scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had a lot to do with author Lewis Carroll’s fondness for opium.

But Carroll was a numbers man — he was a lecturer in mathematics at Oxford — and he was familiar with the frustration of an elusive solution.

Chief financial officers can relate. For years they have been seeking unfettered access to the full array of treasury, accounting, and supply-chain applications deployed by their companies. No small wish. While the makers of enterprise business applications have generally promised flawless integration between their products and clients’ legacy programs, more often than not there’ve been flaws. In some cases corporate users have had to bring in third-party software vendors to help bridge the gaps between business applications, information, and hardware. Even when employees have managed to gain access to siloed systems, figuring out how to sift through the mounds of data inside has proved to be a daunting task.

If you think we’re leading up to something, you’re right. Like the swell garden in Wonderland, the promised land of single-entry computing is finally in sight. Enterprise portals — personalized Web pages that provide point-and-click access to almost all data and software, no matter where the stuff resides — have finally started to catch on with mainstream business users. Indeed, a number of industry experts believe that these commercial equivalents of consumer portals like MyYahoo will soon become the standard desktop interface for most corporate computer users.

Things certainly seem headed in that direction. In the past 12 months scores of US companies, including Boeing, GMAC-RFC, and Ricoh, have deployed enterprise portals of one sort or another. Admittedly, most of the deploying has been done by or for human resources departments. But now it appears that finance departments may soon be getting portals of their very own.

That’s a marked turnaround from last year, when — vendor hype notwithstanding — few companies were considering deploying corporate portals for the finance department (see “Portal Envy,” CFO, July 2000). One possible reason: There weren’t any corporate portals for the finance department. Early offerings in the market, including TreasuryConnect.com and CFOWeb.com, were external sites hosted by outside companies and had little integration with back- end systems. That made them more like niche Web sites than true portals, and most lacked the star power needed to attract large numbers of corporate clients. Many of these sites have since gone to that great URL in the sky.

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