Web a popular database tool

The Web has entered the corporate mainstream. What used to be the domain of anorak-sporting Internet surfers is now gaining credibility as a knowledge management resource for financial managers.

In finance departments, the Web can be accessed directly using accounting software for instant credit checks, operate as an online procurement system or provide a wealth of research material. For example, at North London accountancy firm Berg Kaprow Lewis, partner Neil Graham says the Companies House online service is ‘a great time-saver’ for conducting company searches and background checks on potential clients, as well as for filing company documents.

Companies House Direct holds UK company registration information and allows users to download and view scanned images of accounts that are filed at Companies House.

Berg Kaprow Lewis, featured in ‘IT Focus’ (24 September, page 18) has taken its intranet a step further. Using indexing facilities within its Microsoft BackOffice software, the 11-partner firm uses the Web as an online practice management system. The indexing system means that staff can retrieve any documents held on the firm’s Windows NT server through a browser-based search engine.

According to Sift managing director Andrew Gray, the man behind the AccountingWEB site, integration of online data sources on the Web is the key development of the past 12 months. ‘Corporations are recognising that having a lot of information sources is okay, as long as indexing is standardised,’ he says.

Ten years ago, IT and finance managers would have considered choosing an SQL database a strategic decision. In the knowledge economy, the search engine has become key, argues Gray.

AccountingWEB draws together news, company information and directories for accountancy professionals. At next Tuesday’s Online Information exhibition at Olympia in London, Sift will launch a new service – KnowledgeBoard.

Developed in conjunction with Siemens, KnowledgeBoard is designed to filter a variety of online information sources and present the results to a community of users with shared interests – typically, employees of a single company or members of specific professions or project teams.

Content providers such as Reuters, Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) and Dialog all provide tools to search their databases, and search engines such as Yahoo, Infoseek and HotBot provide access to the Web, he says. ‘But nobody has anything which allows you to search all these sources.’ KnowledgeBoard will fill that gap.

With a new product to launch, Gray obviously takes an optimistic view of the market. But online information group Dialog recently experienced a blip when disappointing Q3 results prompted a 46% drop in its share price.

The company was formed last year, when business information group Maid acquired US group Knight-Ridder Information. Hailed by analysts as the new Reuters, Dialog’s prediction of 16% growth through 1998 failed to live up to expectations.

Dan Wagner, chief executive of Dialog, accepted that the acquisition had taken longer to bed down than the company expected. He also admitted the company had miscalculated its pricing structure when it switched from a proprietary interface to delivering information with Web browsers.

As a result, turnover for the quarter to September fell 4% to #42.4m.

Gray, however, believes Dialog’s discomfort will be short-lived. ‘Some people felt they were inheriting a lot of problems. But the Maid people have done an incredible job to make the profits they have. A year from now, they will have replaced the technology and, at that point, will have market share and great technology.’

Rival business information service OneSource is hoping to exploit Dialog’s difficulties by increasing its market share in Europe. In partnership with D&B, OneSource is previewing its European Business Browser product at Online 98. The browser-based company information source is being constructed in phases, as D&B expands the scope of its databases to include non-listed companies. By the time the project is complete, European Business Browsers will hold information on a million companies in 19 European countries, the companies boast.

As the Dialog experience suggests, online suppliers are in for more growing pains. Much of the material that accountants want, for example, on accounting standards and company law, is not available online. It either sits in large volumes on bookshelves or on CD-ROMs.

These suppliers face an even bigger challenge than Dialog, which has a track-record of online delivery, explains Gray. ‘They’re concerned about the substitution effect. They are used to charging a few hundred pounds for a book or disc. Over the Net, people want to buy on a piecemeal basis. If they offer the information over the Web, what will it do to their pricing structure?’ he asks.

Until the profession’s key reference providers grasp that nettle, Gray suggests, ‘there’s still an enormous way to go’.

Sponsored by Accountancy Age, Online Information 98 will take place at the National Hall & Olympia Conference Centre in London, from 8-10 December. The event includes a special Online Information for Accountancy & Finance zone, supported by CIMA.

For information, contact Learned Information on 01865 388000, or register on line at: www.online-information.co.uk.

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