Proxicom Turns Customized Internet Solutions Into Products

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Proxicom Turns Customized Internet Solutions Into Products

By Nick Wakeman
Staff Writer

When the U.S. Chief Financial Officers Council was looking for ways to improve government agencies' accounting systems, the group turned its attention to communications.

"We knew one of the things we had to focus on was communications," said Hal Metcalf, acting director of the Veterans Affairs franchise fund program and a member of the CFO council's Joint Systems Solutions Team. The council looked at a number of ways to improve communications before deciding that the Internet and its cousins, intranets and extranets, had "matured enough" to make a real difference, he said.

In the end, the group selected products from Proxicom of McLean, Va., to build its online forums. Proxicom has spent most of its seven-year life custom building Internet and World Wide Web-based applications, but is now converting some of those solutions into products such as the Proxicom Community Suite.


Proxicom photo

Bruce Thompson,
vice president of
Proxicom's products
group

This product, used by the CFO council for its online forums, can build a knowledge base of what users are doing and saying, and it offers interactivity, said Bruce Thompson, vice president of Proxicom's products group. "We are seeing things not possible under any other medium," Thompson said.

The council is composed of CFOs from federal agencies and the Office of Management and Budget who work together to improve the financial management of the government.

The CFO council established four forums, Metcalf said. They cover requirements for government accounting reports, travel systems, core financial systems and the Federal Financial Improvement Act of 1996, which mandated that the agencies improve their accounting systems.

Proxicom designed the product so that there could be a moderator for each forum, which Metcalf said is preferable to a bulletin board.

"This is much easier to manage than a bulletin board," Metcalf said. "Bulletin boards tend to be too free-flowing."

Another plus for the interactive forums over bulletin boards is that a reservoir of data is built that the administrators of the forum can use to look for trends and track comments, said Brian Rupert, director of product management for Proxicom.

Coincidentally, tracking trends is what gave birth to the idea for Proxicom to turn some of its customized Internet solutions into products, Thompson said.


Another plus for the interactive
forums over bulletin boards is
that a reservoir of data is built
that the administrators of the
forum can use to look for trends
and track comments.

-Brian Rupert, Proxicom

While developing customized solutions for its mostly commercial customers, Proxicom noticed that recurring themes kept popping up from job to job, Rupert said.

Proxicom's customers were looking to provide better customer service, and they wanted features such as administrative capabilities, interactivity and scalability, he said.

"We've utilized our services group as a lab," Rupert said. So when requests for features continue to pop up in Proxicom's services division, which represents about 80 percent of the company's revenues, they are flagged as potential products. In 1996, the company had revenues of about $8 million.

"We don't do product development for products' sake," Thompson said.

One trend the company is trying to exploit is the desire among companies, the government and other organizations to use the Internet as a way to bring together people with similar interests, he said. Proxicom calls it "community building."

For example, Women's Connection Online, McLean, Va., used the Proxicom forum products to create an online service focusing primarily on women's business issues, said Julia Wilkinson, community builder for Women's Connection.

"I think [online communities] are going to be a big wave," she said. Any group of people with similar interests are a potential market for an online community, Wilkinson said.

The community the CFO council is trying to build is one that includes financial officers for government agencies and the vendors that serve them, Metcalf said.

While the forums allow for the exchange of ideas, the council also can post documents online and then use the forums to gather comments, he said.

From vendor comments, the government has learned that the agencies are not very good at defining requirements for new accounting systems, Metcalf said. "There is a big disconnect," he said.

The forums can easily be used as a way to create dialogue between vendors and the government to help define requirements, he said.

"This can bridge the gap about requirements outside of a formal contracting environment," Metcalf said.


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