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PwC forecast looks at IT priorities

Firms have put the brakes on a lot of information technology projects, but data analysis and business system integration efforts will continue, PricewaterhouseCoopers says.

Companies may have hit the pause button on many of their information technology projects recently, but they'll continue work on those involving data analysis and business system integration, according to a forecast from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The business consulting firm's Technology Forecast: 2003-2005, details of which were released Monday, predicts that businesses will focus their IT resources on a handful of developing technologies during the next several years.

At the top of the list is a new breed of so-called business intelligence systems. Traditionally, businesses have used data warehouse and analysis software to aggregate and study historical data from across different departments, said Eric M. Berg, managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers' Global Technology Center. Newer data analysis tools let companies monitor their operations on a minute-by-minute basis at a more-detailed level. They also alert business managers to problems as they arise, he said.

For instance, a traditional data warehouse system might tell a retailer how many units of product x it sold in a certain region last month, enabling the company to plan inventory levels for the following month. With a "real-time" system, an inventory manager could keep tabs on shipments and inventory involving a specific store and make adjustments on the fly.

Another trend, according to the PwC report, is the use of Internet protocols and formats to allow different computer programs to talk to one another and exchange data. Standards based on the Extensible Mark-up Language (XML) and Web services will evolve and become more sophisticated, allowing computers to automatically relay information without any human intervention, the report predicts. In such a world, a company could send a purchase order to its supplier without anyone on either side having to manually enter data.

PwC also pushed for the adoption of a specific type of XML format called Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), designed to simplify the sharing of financial statements, accounting records and other financial information among different software programs. Enabling the flow of such data across networks should give business managers, investors, analysts and regulators access to more accurate and timely information about how a company is performing financially, PwC said.

PwC, the Nasdaq Stock Market and Microsoft launched a pilot program promoting the use of the XBRL file format in August. "Corporate transparency continues to be at the forefront of discussion in the business world and provides an important incentive for businesses to make use of these capabilities," Berg said.