At Work: Finance and IT - IT intelligence

Robin Fisk reveals what a little bit of XML can do.

An IT manager once had a dream - that he could install a single software application that would take care of everything: customer relationship management, fundraising, accounting and website and project management.

There would be only one system to support, one supplier to pay.

It's still a dream, and one unlikely to come true. No one software package can meet the huge range of challenges that today's organisations face.

The key is integration, not hoping for the monolithic solution.

Meanwhile, charities struggle with a host of different contact databases, let alone the effort required to keep them up to date. The accounting software (or perhaps the accounts department) won't talk to anything, and the website is busy collecting contact names in a world of its own.

Before long, the organisation won't know who its supporters are and the IT manager will disappear with long-term stress.

So if the dream is unattainable, do we just have to learn to live with the mess? Thankfully not: the IT industry has an answer, and it is called XML (extensible markup language). It's not all-singing, all-dancing software; it's simply a common standard for describing and sharing data between different software applications that have XML web services capabilities, even if they are from different stables. Software can stick to what it's good at and talk to other software when it needs to. It means, for example, your website can instantly and securely call on the data in your back-office customer relationship management system: a user's credentials can be validated at log-in using the latest information from the back office system, and the user could be welcomed with a personal message.

Progressive charities are already joining up their systems in this way and reaping the benefits. An XML-enabled CRM application and a little work on your website could turn an integration nightmare into a dream.

- Robin Fisk is managing director of software company Fisk Brett.

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