Two weeks ago I was asked to run a workshop on collaboration at an event in China. Based on some of the ideas I shared in an earlier blog, I developed the content of the workshop. What daunted on me, listening to people in the audience, is that both the users and the providers keep talking about tools, without looking at the full portfolio of needs. Let's look at what those are.
I am starting from a very simple model, in collaboration both structured and unstructured information needs to be shared, while interactions may have to be synchronous or asynchronous. Let's look at each of the four areas in a little more details:
- Asynchronous exchange of structured data. Most business to business transactions are of this category. Indeed, information is shared by the sender when it becomes available, and picked up by the receiver when it can be processed. There is no expectation by the sender of an immediate response. EDI transactions for example, follow this scheme.
- Asynchronous exchange of unstructured data. Exchange of documents, review processes, calendar planning etc., typically follow such scheme. Here again the information is shared by the sender at a particular moment in time, and processed by the receiver when he/she has availability. A good example is the review of a document. The author will send it when he/she finishes writing the first draft. The reviewer will take time to review and post comments. When done the document will be sent back to the author who will take the feedback into account and issue draft 2.
- Synchronous exchange of structured data. Some collaboration requires immediate commitments. For example, when an OEM requests whether a contract manufacturer has the necessary capacity available to produce a particular batch of product, the OEM expects a response (positive or negative) allowing him to allocate the production to this or another supplier. This is a two way collaboration where the messages are directly related to each other and as such synchronous.
- Synchronous exchange of unstructured data typically relates to direct human interactions or joint work on a document, a CAD file etc.
You are probably saying, what's the issue? We use B2B software for the first and the third category; we use e-mail for the second and unified communication and telepresence for the fourth. This is how many companies look at the collaboration issues. But they forget one thing, what if within one conversation, we move from one category to another. How do we keep track of what has happened and how things evolved?
Let me take an example. Let's assume an OEM and its contract manufacturer jointly work at the development of a new product. First specifications are written. The OEM develops the first draft, sends it to the CM for review and comment. The CM realizes that by slightly changing the specifications, manufacturing could be done cheaper, resulting in benefits for both companies. They send an updated specification to the OEM. All this happens through e-mail. But the OEM is not really convinced and decides a synchronous interaction is required. So, a call is set-up between the parties and a negotiation takes place, after which a new version of the specifications is developed. At this point in time at least two technologies have been used. But now, the actual development starts, using CAD and CAE tools. Subsequent versions of the design are exchanged to ensure manufacturability, regular design reviews take place, till the product is finalized and production is getting planned. Engineering change management tools, collaboration and communication tools are used throughout the process, but how do we maintain consistency of the information and logging of all decisions taken.
You may ask yourself why this is important. Well, let's assume the product has warranty problems, how can we identify which decision got us in trouble, allowing us to understand better what happened and improve things in the future.
The tools exist today, but each of them is taken in isolation. Google seems to be trying to address that through their Wave project, but Wave is focused at consumers. Who will address the true problem of collaboration in the enterprise space, particularly now that business travel has been reduced while companies become more international? Employees are expected to increase their productivity while neither tools nor training is provided regarding global collaboration.
A couple posts ago, I discussed the role of IT in manufacturing outsourcing. I'd like to come back to this topic, and discuss more in details the need for a cross-enterprise backbone allowing the companies members of the ecosystem to share information in an easy and transparent manner. Obviously, the same backbone may serve the collaboration requirements highlighted in my last post, titled "ecosystem collaboration, from tools to an integrated approach."
Today most companies are part of large and global eco-systems, as many products travel the world before being sold to the end-user. In that process, information is generated and needs to be shared to ensure proper traceability of the product. As cost reduction exercises increase, so decrease the buffer stocks used to shield portions of the ecosystem from variances elsewhere. This increases the dependency on timely information to ensure appropriate action is planned to reduce the effect of the variance to the customer service.
This requires visibility of what happens throughout the supply chain. In case of outsourced manufacturing, logistics and/or distribution, the implications are that multiple companies need to share data and make them available to the others. That data should comply with a number of criteria:
- The data should be correct and trustworthy
- The data should be understandable, which amongst others mean they should be in clearly defined units of measure
- The data should be timely and detailed enough
- The data should be consistent and sharable
Multiple approaches exist to share the data. It can start with a very simple website in which the partners provide the data, either through entering them from their browser or by using tools such as InfoPath. The advantage of such approach is to get the partners integrated quickly at limited costs. The first step is often the most difficult and requires most convincing as the partner may not have experienced yet what he can gain from sharing the data. So, having the barrier as low as possible makes it easier for the partner to embark on this transformation. In our experience it will take him about one year to really experience the benefits of collaboration, after which he is starting to look at more advanced communication mechanisms.
B2B communications can be used, exchanging messages between two companies. Standard message formats such as RosettaNet, eb-XML, EDI or others should be used to facilitate the definition of the formats and allow re-use. The drawback of such point to point approach is that, in case of the presence of many partners in the eco-system, managing those communications is becoming quite cumbersome. This had lead to the creation of private hubs. In the same way as the e-hubs that mushroomed in the Internet boom, a private hub links a large number of partners together. The functionality in the hub routes the messages to the appropriate receiver, eventually translating them along the way to ensure data relevance to all parties.
This approach facilitates the links between the partners, but forces one of the members of the eco-system to implement and manage the hub. Often this is the OEM or brand owner. All data is centralized in the hub or in the owner's systems, resulting in a potential security point of failure.
Cloud computing allows another approach in so that it makes the location of the data irrelevant. Indeed, one could imagine having hub type functionality available in the cloud, directly accessing the data of each of the partners in their location of origin. This distributed data would be seen as one logical entity although it is distributed along the ecosystem. Each partner would own its data, updating it whenever new information is available, while limiting access to the partners allowed seeing the data. Beside the fact nobody needs to invest in the infrastructure necessary for the partners to communicate, the approach leaves each of the partners in direct control of its data, making it easier for them to share the data with the relevant players, allowing an increased visibility of what happens throughout the eco-system. This in turn may result in greater responsiveness and cost reductions, benefiting all partners and the final customer.
As cloud computing is still in its early days, only a small number of companies are looking at such approaches at the moment. However, as the technology matures, this will most probably become one of the key applications for which the cloud is used in the manufacturing industry.