Complexities of Collaboration

The mantra for e-business in 2001 is "collaborate, collaborate, collaborate."

The mantra for e-business in 2001 is "collaborate, collaborate, collaborate." Seemingly everyone is heralding collaboration as the fastest path to business prosperity. This collaboration is supposed to happen across the board, including a manufacturer's suppliers, customers, and service providers. The collaboration vision begins by everyone "opening their kimonos" to their respective trading partners. That is, they share hitherto internal information with outside partners. Collaboration requires, at least indirectly, opening up legacy databases, applications and systems to trading partners.

The key watchword in collaboration is "visibility." Specifically, collaboration proponents argue that the more visibility, the better. Many collaboration champions, however, overlook the fact that information is power. A company's data in the wrong hands can hurt it mightily.

The Internet makes it easy to give visibility. However, older-generation information systems, when directly coupled with the Internet, are not at all well suited to support safe collaboration. "Safe" means giving only pinpoint access and visibility to partners.

It is very hard to not give almost unlimited access to all corporate information when opening up even a small area to a business partner. For instance, a firm may believe it is giving a trading partner only limited access. However, an unscrupulous employee there with only limited technical skills could roam around almost unfettered in both firms' systems.

Nevertheless, these challenges to collaboration should not rule out Internet-based approaches altogether. Instead, they require firms to address collaboration as a business relationship issue; a policy issue; an information-technology (IT) infrastructure issue. Only in this way can a firm safely collaborate.

Driving the urge to collaborate are a host of inefficiencies that can be directly remediated through better visibility. A most glaring example is in supply chain coordination: Using inventory is an extremely costly alternative to relying on better information and visibility.

Also driving the collaboration movement are the literally hundreds of e-business vendors now offering Internet-based, collaboration tools. These areas (and vendors) include

  • Order fulfillment (e.g., SupplySolution, Vigilance)
  • Product development, (e.g., NexPrise, eRoom, Oculus Technologies)
  • Logistics, (e.g., UPS Logistics Group, Descartes)
  • Electronic exchanges/marketplaces (e.g., Covisint, eSteel).

The Internet makes it phenomenally easy to give almost universal visibility of a firm's internal data to its partners. In a complementary way, it can provide almost total visibility to the internal data of a partner firm.

Major difficulties make collaboration other than a straightforward "love-in." These are in both the business and technical areas. Easy to neglect in the rush to collaborate is that a firm's business partner is also likely to be simultaneously engaged in collaborating with that firm's arch business rivals, as well.

Trust certainly leads to better business relationships. However, a firm's business partner seeks to maximize its stakeholder value above all else. Hence, a partner firm may not always have another company's interests foremost in mind. Therefore, it is prudent to limit the risk accompanying each collaboration and do so on a case-by-case basis.

In addition to business problems, many technical problems loom when wishing to collaborate safely. These stem from the evolution of both the Internet and corporate legacy systems. Neither were architected from the ground up to support today's collaborative, commercial applications.

As an example, in the 1990s individual departments (such as accounting, material planning, etc.) independently installed local area networks (LANs). Later, these multitudinous LANs were patched together via routers in a helter-skelter manner. Today's collaborative visions and the Internet weren't even on the radar screen 10 years ago. Consequently it should come as no surprise that today's corporate network infrastructures do not support safe collaboration.

The specific requirement that must accompany collaboration for it to be safe is to isolate access. This means restricting what specific users can see and where they can go. A simple example has a parts supplier only being able to access information about its specific part (e.g., onsite inventory levels in the customer plant) and nothing else.

IT administrators, in particular, must be able to limit visibility along several dimensions by:

  • Part number/assembly
  • Project and program
  • Database
  • Partner company
  • Individual
  • Application
  • System.

The trick is to support such access control without it becoming onerous to the user or excessively complicated to the I.T. administrator. For instance, a user would like a single sign-on and a single password if multiple areas are open to him or her. The administrator, on the other hand, would like to be able to easily add or remove individuals from registries, for instance, as they join or leave the company.

In terms of solutions, both BMW and General Motors' GMAC employ IBM's Tivoli software. They use it to centrally manage user access control and security across various personal computer, server and mainframe systems. Companies such as Checkpoint and Cisco aid in centrally managing security, a necessity for safe collaboration.

Additionally, a firm cannot overlook the non-technical issues. For each potential collaboration, a firm must evaluate how the proposed new visibility will change the fundamental business relationship. Appropriate security/access control measures should be introduced to that relationship.

Employees must also understand how the business risks and vulnerabilities accompany each new collaboration. Employees guided by clear company policies greatly reduce the risk that new collaborative technologies and business processes will compromise the firm. Indeed, safe collaboration is the only way to go to capitalize on the phenomenal opportunities presented by today's Internet-based innovations.