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ERP with a view

Microsoft is betting that midmarket companies will ante up for a way to measure energy efficiency.

Carbon footprint. Greenhouse gas emissions. Not many companies have the luxury of simply saying "we don't care" anymore. Businesses need to, at the very least, have a rough idea of how their operations fit into the grand scheme of environmental responsibility.

And midmarket companies have reason to want to know -- whether to save money, improve their "green" reputation in the eyes of their customers or both.

So Microsoft is building a dashboard for its much-touted Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP system that charts energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

It will need to be tested, though, and tweaked. That's where Sole Technology Inc. vice president of IT George Bock comes in.

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The Lake Forest, Calif.-based company, which makes snowboard and skateboard footwear and clothing, will be one of five organizations to take a test run of the dashboard, first previewed at the Microsoft Convergence conference in March. Bock will report back to Microsoft with notes.

"I would imagine we're going to be helping with content, helping with design, current configurations and giving [Microsoft] feedback," Bock said. "We're very excited about the prospect of having an impact on where the product is going."

Sole's involvement will help Microsoft "understand what are the measures and things we're interested in for the long haul," Bock said. Sole is a good fit to give the tool a test run because of its company-wide emphasis on environmental impact, Microsoft Dynamics senior product manager Jennifer Pollard said. Working from an office that uses waterless bathroom fixtures, among other innovative earth-saving ideas, Sole leaders are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020.

"George is very lucky to work for a company who values these green initiatives so highly and to be on the cutting edge of this," Pollard said.

Bock will take his first shot at the dashboard as he upgrades to Dynamics AX 2009, out next month, during the summer. The "fully functional" version of the dashboard will be available early next year, Pollard said.

In one sense, the dashboard isn't that big a deal. A quality, properly configured ERP program could collect and present a company's relevant energy use information. Microsoft just proposes to make it easier to dial all the information up and derive meaning from it. The final product looks just like any other screen in Dynamics.

What isn't easy is determining exactly what information should be included, grouped and presented. The dashboard will package information into four categories: Direct energy consumption, indirect energy consumption, total direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and other relevant greenhouse gas emissions. But tracking that data requires peeking into every aspect of an operation, "every facet and nook and cranny of our business," as Bock put it. It could even go so far as to incorporate estimates of energy used by employees driving to work.

And then there's the matter of presenting it to employees. Bock is asking for a dashboard easy enough to be read and used by end users. The concept is simple; the details aren't.

Bock said he expects the dashboard to help provide content detailing what to measure and what steps to take when putting together the company's environmental sustainability plans for 2009-2011, a process Sole is just beginning. He also expects it to be a major time-saver for the company's environmental affairs manager.

Pollard said Sole Technology is far from alone in the effort to reduce environmental impact, but she noted that most other midmarket companies don't have the luxury of an environmental affairs manager or a similar position. She referenced findings from AMR Research Inc. -- in fact, she says it kick-started plans for the dashboard -- as evidence that businesses are seeing the value in going green. With fuel costs up and environmental responsibility gaining ground as a moral imperative, companies are increasingly looking for ways to monitor and reduce their energy usage.

I would imagine we're going to be helping with content, helping with design, current configurations and giving [Microsoft] feedback.
George Bock
vice president of ITSole Technology Inc.
AMR Research director Nigel Montgomery found in March of last year that 89% of American companies plan to use technology to manage their "corporate social responsibility" by 2009.

"Nearly half of U.S. companies claim to have some or fully integrated systems to provide information on [corporate social responsibility] topics," Montgomery wrote in a report.

"Disappointingly, less than one-third of the [survey] respondents are using their ERP systems to help them manage these big uses," he added. "Yet because they are integrated and enterprise-wide, ERP systems should form the foundation for managing … environmental and social business objectives."

A 2006 AMR survey of Microsoft customers found that all but 9% of them would find an environmental metrics dashboard at least "somewhat useful." And 77% of respondents said they would like to see one developed within 24 months, Microsoft corporate vice president Satya Nadella said at the Convergence conference.

Pollard said companies and corporations are putting pressure on employees and managers to track and improve energy usage.

"A lot of these people have no idea how to get this information," she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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