In modern times, organizations use sophisticated systems to help them run their operations internally. Those operations include internal process design and support for headquarters and satellite offices. As needs evolve, so do the systems, which are frequently customized to fit the needs of the organization.
With the advent of globalization also comes the need for organizations to bring business partners into their systems in order to complete an operation. That means new pressure in the IT department, and IT is finding that it can't enable these external business processes with internal systems.
Consider the supply chain, where a company might have to certify hundreds of suppliers for interactive communications and data exchanges for the build of a new product. Companies are still using older electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, that have been used for more than three decades, in order to link outside firms into their ERP systems. With these systems, certifying the security and correctness of data exchanges with even a single vendor can be an iterative process that can take months to complete.
For CIOs and IT managers, working out external business processes like EDI and collaborating on business process projects with hundreds of different business partners can be a daunting and frustrating undertaking.
"We're in the process of assessing our external business process growth projections for the next three years," remarked one mid-sized company CIO. He was unsure as to which external business processes would be tackled first, but he made these points:
He was concerned about the readiness of his staff to team with end business users and users from other companies for effective business process design or redesign to enable the externalization of business processes that were formerly internal. He was also worried about whether security and governance measures were sufficiently robust to support external information exchanges with other companies.
"In many ways this is a new frontier for us," he said, "but one way or another, we have to develop a successful strategy for implementing external business processes that invite active collaboration between our company and others—or we will simply be left behind."
This is a sentiment shared by many companies as they do business in a global economy.
Given this, what are some best practices that companies can adopt as they implement more external business processes?
1. In almost every case, the focal point of linking systems together in external business processes is the effectiveness of interfacing diverse systems. Some of the systems being used by end business partners that must interact with your own, might not even be known to you. For this reason, the ability to use open software and interfaces is very important.
2. If the external business process is innovative in nature and it bears little similarity to what your organization has been doing internally, arrange to first pilot the process with a few trusted business partners and internal staff. There are two challenges that organizations face that a pilot project can assist with. The first challenge consists of the technical problems that invariably come up when two different companies first try to exchange data and to collaborate in processes. The second challenge is internal resistance from individuals in IT and the end business who don't want to see the change.
3. Include security and governance as top-of-the-list requirements for any externally-facing business process. Your own company's security and governance measures might be mature, but you can't be sure about the security measures that your business partners have in place.
4. Focus on ease of use and usability. If the external business process that is designed makes everyone's lives easier, they will heartily support it.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.