As more and more parts of the economy shift toward digital solutions, there are growing expectations that productivity will move forward in leaps and bounds as business and work processes are underpinned by ICT. One key challenge presenting itself in this context is how to provide IT systems that make the grade in terms of flexibility – people have strict requirements. Dr. Holger Gast, director of the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Agile Development of Information Systems, offers his customers an innovative software tool that makes it possible to create costum Web apps from standalone, adaptable modules.
Modern IT systems have to meet two key requirements. Firstly, the software has to be an exact fit with company‘s business processes. Secondly, it must be multi-client capable – in other words, users should only be able access the data they actually need to get their job done. Often it’s only possible to address these two goals by fully custom software and implementation timescales typically mean that this comes with a major price tag.
The lack of 100% appropriate IT systems in everyday business means that the data people require is often stored in spreadsheets or placed in carefully organized folders. This is probably the worst possible scenario because users have to be intimately familiar with the folder structures and check with others before they access files. Sometimes only certain users know how to use the data in the first place and the opportunity costs in terms of time investment are largely ignored.
To tackle this problem, Holger Gast is taking an innovative approach to software development: he turns the software developer into a true engineer. Using a graphical user interface that resembles a CAD environment, he pieces together basic, flexible elements into a functional model of the required software. The resulting model is taken by a special software tool to create a Web-based app building on industrial JavaEE standards. His principle is called “modeling instead of programing.” Gast has already worked on a number of projects and successfully shortened development cycles to between one sixth and one eighth of the normal time required. Depending on the complexity, a typical user screen can be created in no more than 30 minutes, including a suitable relational database. The development effort becomes comparable with creating an advanced Excel spreadsheet. IT systems to be used in special applications could be made available from scratch in some cases within a matter of weeks.
The new tool was tested as part of a collaborative project between two teams: Gast and his consulting center colleagues and their counterparts at the Business Start-up Steinbeis Consulting Center. The latter center helps business founders in a number of ways, including applying for startup vouchers funded through the European Social Fund and the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Finance and Economics. These vouchers provide startups with an opportunity to develop their business ideas further with the support of experts. The new software will be used to administer their vouchers more efficiently at the center and avoid mix-ups. It will also reduce the time needed to administer the more than 350 advisory sessions conducted each year.
The first step of the process for business founders involves submitting their application. This is now taken care of through an online questionnaire which founders use to enter their personal details and information about their business ideas and current plans. This information is assessed by a Steinbeis employee who decides whether to approve the application. The founder is then allocated to a consultant and the number of approved consultation hours is defined. The business founder and the consultant are then informed about the decision at the click of a button and are sent access details for the project data. They can then work together on taking the planned startup to the next stage.
One of the advantages with integrated software is that the system pulls together all relevant information and automates work-intensive processes. Until now, the details submitted by startups had to be transferred manually from written forms. Now the business founders can download forms as complete documents and just have to sign them. Invoices are also issued fully automatically. Finally, at the end of the year, a written record can be exported in uniform Excel templates to provide to funding partners.
The test project showed how important multiple-client capability and coordination between individual processes are. Business founders, consultants, and Steinbeis employees can only access the information they need to perform their individual tasks. They are guided through each step by user screens that are a precise match with each task.
This new approach to software development also makes it possible to set up special screens to deal with one-off situations. For example, Steinbeis employees who manage projects can now go back through consulting records and delays encountered much more easily than previously, simply by accessing separate screens. To access project data quickly, all they have to do is enter certain search criteria. Such special solutions are cost-efficient if the time spent to set up a special screen is negligible. With these examples it only took between 20 and 30 minutes – just a fraction of the time it would take up in administration without the software.
The system also plays strongly to the recent trend toward self-service IT solutions. Ideally data can be gathered in distributed locations – where it emerges – and processes can be initiated without relying on central service units. A typical example of this is when staff apply for annual vacation. Very often, the human resources department enters information submitted on paper into the administration software. If there is a system that allows employees to enter data themselves, HR can focus more on its core tasks of planning and decision-making. The new software created by Holger Gast allows startups and consultants to enter detailed statistical information and billing data at distributed locations. At the same time, the complex interrelationships in the data are checked immediately during entry, which results in fewer queries and corrections.
The Steinbeis project team has underscored the advantages of information systems that can practically be made available ad-hoc. After an initial planning phase of three weeks, the system was successfully introduced and tested within six weeks. The time and effort needed to program the software was a mere fraction of the investment normally needed to maintain the data. All in all, it was a win-win situation for everyone involved in the project!