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Building an Online Exchange

Today, KC Healthcare is poised to move into the next phase of its e-business initiative. It plans to implement the customer relationship management (CRM) element of the site. "The truer CRM portion of it—doing Internet sales and customer contact kind of stuff—we will be doing shortly," says Hoctor. "The sales force automation piece becomes fuzzy math. What's the real efficiency? It's hard to define. All corporations are struggling with that."

In an IDC survey of large and midsize Canadian companies, CEOs make up more than 20 percent of the executives rallying for CRM solutions. But none seem to know yet how to measure the success of an integration project of this scale. CRM solutions call for a shift in the corporate mindset toward what analysts call "customer-centricity." According to IDC analyst Fenella Potter, making this shift "is an iterative process of configuring every facet of the organization, every link in the customer value chain, to optimize value delivered to and derived from each individual customer relationship." Hoctor and his team face a challenging task that may not be solved by technology alone.

Meanwhile, as the healthcare standards war rages and with its new infrastructure in place, KC Healthcare is buttressed and ready for the next wave to hit. "What's unique about us is that Kimberly-Clark is known to be a very conservative company," says Hoctor. "Typically, we don't step out and lead. In the healthcare arena, we did. We're out there, ready to go, and a lot of people are still trying to catch up."

Jennie Rose is a freelance technology writer and former Web developer. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected].

Deconstructing SAP

When it comes to building enterprise applications, e-business teams with backgrounds in Web site development are often at odds with more traditional IT staffs. While the former group is prone to build on technologies like J2EE and open standards, the latter tends to select proprietary systems with full support packages, like SAP.

Despite the rift, some Web developers are starting to regard SAP experience as a skill that keeps them competitive given today's crowded job market and the general trend toward Web/IT convergence. According to a Hewitt Associates report released in August 2001, application development services for SAP software garner some of the highest pay in the industry. As more companies look to integrate their Web sites into back-end applications, retain customers with the help of CRM packages, and bring legacy data stores to the forefront, the demand for SAP experience is bound to increase.

Over the past decade, most SAP applications have been developed with ABAP/4, an interpreted language. ABAP is a fourth-generation language (4GL) that resembles a cross between Cobol and Basic. Unlike third-generation languages, such as C++ and Java, ABAP adheres to the 4GL philosophy of closely resembling human language. Of course, "close" is a relative term. ABAP statements can look like:

IF sy-subrc NE 0.
   WRITE: / 'Unable to read.'

With the SAP Web Application Server, developers write server-side applications by creating Business Server Pages (BSP). The concept behind BSP is similar to that of ASP or JSPdocuments can contain code and HTML, all of which is compiled by the server upon request. Developers can choose whether to use ABAP or JavaScript in BSP documents.

Because SAP kept ABAP close to its vest for so long, there aren't as many public resources for learning about the language as there are for Perl or Java. For instance, Amazon offers 1,050 books on Java and only 238 for ABAP. Fortunately, SAP provides several publications for its customer base. In addition, there are numerous Web sites that attempt to serve as comprehensive development resources for SAP.

One site even hosts an introduction to German for ABAP programmers. The author of the introduction, Michael Davidson, began to notice SAP's German origins when he started getting error messages that were partly in German. For instance, "Data will be lost. Wollen sie die Bearbeitung beenden? Yes. No." Davidson points out that some ABAP/4 system variables are based on German words, like Datum (date), and Zeit (time). Although the site was last updated in 1998, Davidson's primer is available at aix1.uottawa.ca/~weinberg/sap-germ.html.

For those not interested in learning a new language (and picking up a little European culture at the same time), SAP announced at JavaOne last year that it is integrating the J2EE engine into the Web Application Server. SAP also recently partnered with Borland to use JBuilder as its preferred Java development platform. This is both a kick in the teeth for Microsoft and a sign that SAP is ready to be viewed as a viable competitor in the Web services space. It's also a sign that enterprise systems and Web development are on their way to becoming a single unit.

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