CATEGORY: Analytic Applications
REVIEWER: Keith Hopper, director of financial planning and analysis for BenefitPort.
BACKGROUND: BenefitPort is the leading provider of marketing services and technology-based sales solutions for the group insurance industry. The company combines a traditional network of strong general agencies with a premier Internet portal for end-to-end electronic transactions and technology- enabled tools for the broker. BenefitPort's product portfolio includes group health insurance (HMOs, PPOs, indemnity insurance, etc.), group life insurance, group disability insurance, group dental plans, long-term care, 401(k) products and HR systems.
PLATFORMS: Hardware: 731 MHz Pentium III, 524K RAM, 23GB hard drive used as a Web server, database server and application server. Software: Windows NT 4.0, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Microsoft Excel 2000, Everest application, OutlookSoft custom revenue recognition application.
PROBLEM SOLVED: BenefitPort's rapid growth, numerous acquisitions and intent to go public made it imperative to establish centralized financial planning, budgeting and reporting processes and controls. We required an application that could be deployed quickly to users with varying levels of technical expertise across multiple locations. We also needed the ability to record, analyze and report on more data to more people more efficiently. With OutlookSoft's Everest, BenefitPort's managers can collaborate on their interdependent budgets over the Web, attach documents to support their plans and run a variety of reports for internal and external use. For example, we can download our Great Plains general ledger into Everest with the click of a button. It takes only a few minutes to produce formatted reports that provide a real-time status of plan versus actual performance. With Everest, we have maximized our return from existing systems and created centralized controls without losing the flexibility of our distributed spreadsheet model.
PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: Everest is a Web-based enterprise budgeting and performance analysis application comprised of two components: WebExcel and MyOutlook. WebExcel is a Web-enabled version of Microsoft Excel that makes all of the functionality and power of Excel available via the Internet. With WebExcel, our users can manipulate and analyze data in real time. They also can link existing detailed spreadsheets to their budget submissions which eliminates the need to manually rekey data. MyOutlook is a Web portal that allows our users to collaborate, view reports and budgets, and conduct analyses.
STRENGTHS: Everest's biggest strength is that it offers an Excel-based front end that is linked to the Microsoft SQL Server and Microsoft Analysis Services database on the back end. With WebExcel, we can update and recalculate single cells in real time rather than having to recalculate several rows or columns at a time. Very little training was required for our staff to use Everest. Another strength is Everest's Collaborative Forum; it lets individuals collaborate on their plans and budgets, which often are interdependent.
WEAKNESSES: Initially, we had some difficulty loading Everest on our Windows NT server, but OutlookSoft consultants solved the problem and got us up and running.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We needed an application with a front end that would maximize our intellectual investment in Excel because so many of our users were comfortable with Excel and already using spreadsheets for planning, budgeting and reporting. It was important for our spreadsheets to be linked to a centralized database so calculations and analyses would be more timely and efficient. Additionally, by eliminating the need to rekey data, the number of errors in our data would be reduced. We also heavily weighed the fact that Everest is a Web-based application versus a client/server application because it means less application maintenance and easier deployment.
DELIVERABLES: We are using Everest for monthly internal management reporting and plan to use it to collaborate on and submit budgets, forecasts, long-range plans; analyze variances (e.g., actual expenses versus budget, current versus prior year, etc.); and produce management reports and cash flow statements that help us better understand how the business is performing.
VENDOR SUPPORT: The members of OutlookSoft's support staff have been quick to respond to our needs and questions. When we do run into problems with the system, they are accessible and deploy whatever resources are needed to solve the issue. It has been a pleasure to work with them.
DOCUMENTATION: At this point, we have not received any written documentation. However, we did receive written materials for the Web-based training courses we took and have utilized the help line.
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