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Future Office

The very near future, that is, for six areas where technology is transforming business in dramatic fashion. CFO Asia examines what finance executives can do to manage the change.

Inside Hewlett Packard’s CoolTown IT-prototypes showcase in Singapore, Des Yee is in full steam. “This has a biometrically sealed chip,” he says, holding up an ordinary looking ID card. “During the personalization process, we scan your thumbprint, capture your signature, take a three-point biometric picture of your face, put in a PIN number or even do a DNA swab for encoding on this chip. Then, depending on the level of security required by your company, this machine will read your thumbprint and compare it with what is embedded on the chip, or your signature, or your face or your DNA swab. Pretty scary, huh?”

Yee, who is director technologist for Asia Pacific and Japan of Hewlett-Packard (HP), the U.S. IT-solutions company, moves on to a new radio frequency ID (RFID) application. “You can now tag brochures, medical records, or whatever paper-based applications you have and put an RFID tag on a tag on a tag on a tag,” he says, pointing to a document tray filled with a pile of brochures. “Previous to this, you could not do that, for the reason that if you put an RFID tag on top of itself, it will conflict. This in-tray, developed by Magellan Technology in Australia, can read all the tags inside it. A middleware allows your computer to communicate with the tray and tell you which documents are in there.”

Is this Asia’s future office? Better believe it. Perhaps DNA-capable ID systems are not for everyone, but RFID-tagged top-secret contracts and several years’ worth of tax documents are certainly useful in any firm. And what about an executive PDA that is not only e-mail-capable, but also shows the latest financial statements, sales, inventory levels, and other real-time data while you are on the move? “Our MC50 enterprise digital assistant has a faster processor and more memory than a PDA and can go 10 to 12 hours without a recharge,” says Mike Muller, president of Symbol Technologies Asia. The gadget connects to ERP, CRM, and other business applications via a wireless local-area network that allows high-speed access to data within a few hundred feet from the base station.

More important than the James Bond gadgetry are ever more sophisticated software suites that predict future trends, allowing companies to try and forestall profit-sapping developments. “We have a Fortune 100 customer called Ingram Micro, which markets computer systems to interim sellers,” says Richard Hale, analytics leader of IBM’s worldwide team for business intelligence. “When salespeople turn on their computer in the morning, a dashboard comes up. If there’s a red light, the system is predicting that a customer is showing characteristics that it is starting to buy computers from another company. So the salesman is alerted into paying special attention to that customer.”

The Future Is Now

Ingram’s sales dashboard is an example of a technology that’s becoming widely available, developed by global vendors such as Cognos, Hyperion, IBM, and SAS. Indeed, some of the gadgets on show at HP CoolTown are already in limited adoption. The Hong Kong government, for example, is replacing citizen ID cards with embedded-chip ones containing thumbprints and photographs, though not DNA swabs. RFID is now in airports (that strip of plastic on your luggage has an RFID transmitter telling conveyor belts which carousel it should go to) and in Asian factories serving America’s Wal-Mart, which requires its suppliers to use RFID tags.

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