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How far can we go?

Nov 10, 20038 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsSmall and Medium Business

Despite technology barriers, the real-time enterprise is the next milestone for today’s extended enterprise.

Many network executives and industry analysts clearly can see e-business’ next milestone. Some call it the “real-time enterprise,” a business structure that allows the automatic routing of information to the right person at the right time – instantaneously if required. Hand in hand with that, they foresee how the network would become a commodity utility.

This would free up the network’s creators and guardians to focus on solving far more difficult technical problems than the reliable transport, storage and access of data. One such problem is true collaboration. Despite rosy projections for adoption of real-time collaborative technologies, automating interactions among human beings is an enormous technical challenge, researchers say. Yet this technology will be critical for the real-time enterprise and beyond.

As for the shape of e-business infrastructure in that beyond, it remains anyone’s guess – although pundits prophesize that this commoditized real-time network will lead us to amazing global possibilities. The most prescient technology navigators can see beyond even this, to a sci-fi future in which tiny, honeycomb-like independent organizations, glued together seamlessly by the network, compose the corporate world. Others contend the instantaneous data network will affect even more than that by influencing geopolitical interactions. But wherever the destination, lead us it will – and quickly, too. We have already started down the path.

Extended-enterprise forerunners are using real-time e-business functions now (see story, “Real life real time”). But bringing real-time to the mainstream requires mass adoption of a stable, open systems-based network. Some liken this to turning the network into a commodity-like service and focusing higher up the Open Systems Interconnection stack, says Robert Handler, vice president of enterprise planning and architecture strategies at Meta Group.

Tom Ballard

He notes that this process has begun: For instance, network people rarely concentrate on which network interface card is best, nor do they fret over routers and protocols. Rather, they now concern themselves with issues such as which application server is best, he says. Eventually open standards among applications will make the entire stack a non-issue, he adds.

Business laundry list

Business processes across partner networks also must be standardized before the real-time enterprise can take root, says Thomas Koulopoulos, president and co-founder of market research firm Delphi Group. “I may have all the networking I need to initiate a process, but no way to control [the transaction] once it leaves my business. I’m at the mercy of my partner’s processes,” he says. In other words, no matter how many monitoring or workflow triggers you’ve built into your application, if a partner prints the transaction record to paper for handling, then your ability to automate processes becomes irrelevant.

Users agree that they must rid the network of the last vestiges of yesterday’s model – proprietary technology – to reach the next e-business milestone.

“Real-time info sharing is imperative, but implementing it is all over the board,” says Tom Ballard, CTO of financial site Hoover’s Online in Austin, Texas. In the absence of standards, real-time implementations tend to be vendor-dependent, he notes. “That’s a big stumbling block. My vision is a more open architecture – more driven by the technology people that understand the business needs,” he says.

Portability, identity management, collaboration and business process management would top a laundry list of such business needs.

Portability is a sticking point because the real-time extended enterprise will need to complete transactions regardless of device or location, says Patrick Gannon, CEO of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), an XML standards body. “If you’re trying to link into all distribution networks, you’ll be using a variety of devices,” he says. “There are technologies available to do this – the question is, how do they go about integrating?” Gannon says the answer is open systems. OASIS approved the first version of a portability standard, called Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP), in August. WSRP creates plug and play for devices accessing portals (or Web applications that conduct transactions by tapping into disparate sources).

But porting the transactional datastream to any device or location leads directly to an identity management problem. And that scares users.

“On the whole, identity management – being able to go into another office, plug in and be on the network – is a great idea, but a big security challenge. There are no real standards for knowing if that network is secure. I don’t see that being resolved,” Ballard says.

Of course, groups such as the Liberty Alliance are trying, and some companies are building their own identity-management systems. Nevertheless, identity management remains a hurdle for real-time extended enterprises.

No exceptions

Collaboration also must be a doorway to the next-generation e-business, but for now is more of a wall. Some users do have success stories to share, but for the most part implementations are limited in scope – custom-built for a particular project, for example – or in sophistication. Web meetings and instant messaging are seeing an uptake in corporations, but these collaboration types are fairly simple.

“We’re already doing as much [collaboration] as we can. I haven’t seen anything out there that’s that savvy – we’ve used NetMeetings and Web seminars. But the tools have got to be faster, and there’s got to be an investment in bandwidth across the U.S.,” says Michael Newcity, e-commerce manager at ABF Freight System in Fort Smith, Ark., adding that collaboration also poses cultural issues. “I’m not sure human beings are really ready to work like that – it’s kind of a solution chasing a problem. We’re slowly getting used to working without paper. . . . Maybe the next generation of people can do more with collaboration.”

Koulopoulos agrees. “A lot of us will die off before we figure out what collaboration will really be,” he says.

Collaborative workflow today is frighteningly inflexible, which makes it a major impediment to true supply-chain automation, says Mark Klein, a professor at the Center for eBusiness at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“Supply-chain technology now is good for well-defined, consistent processes,” Klein says. As companies become more service oriented, more exceptions occur, and the inflexible collaboration technology becomes problematic, he says. “If things go a little bit different from what the system was designed to do, customers can fall into a black hole – and get incredibly angry,” he says.

Moreover, because automated systems have less human oversight than manual processes, bad exception-handling might not be detected quickly enough. If the error occurs during a financial process, then “you may not know that a lot of money is missing for quite a long time,” Klein says.

The classic illustration is Nike’s implementation of supply-chain software from i2 Technologies in 2001. Forecasting systems misled factories, creating both inventory excesses and shortages (see story, “Nike says i2 fouled its profits” ).

Whether designing a product or conducting Web meetings, success heavily depends on people’s willingness to share information and populate the collaborative database. It also depends on the ability to improve efficiency. Yet Klein notes that automating a group process won’t necessarily boost efficiency. Groups often spend eons on a new product design, only to decide that the original concept as drawn was best. Investing in collaboration tools to encourage more such group work – or even to help automate such an inefficient work system – isn’t necessarily a smart move.

Solving such dilemmas will require the maturing of business-process management, Handler contends. This type of software monitors for “major types of exceptions” and ensures they are dealt with properly, he says (see story, “Never-fail business services” ).

Imagining a new world order

If past performance is any indication of future success, the next e-business milestone will be arriving within two to three years. But how far can we go after that? Some say that once the commodity, always-on, real-time collaborative network is in place, we’ve got the makings of a brand new corporate structure.

Real-life real time

Some users already are moving beyond today’s extended enterprise to tomorrow’s real-time one.

Examples abound of cutting-edge extended enterprises already testing real-time — meaning near instantaneous — automation.

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“The next ultimate from where we stand is a component-based architecture for building businesses. We’re going to become so good at that that [a corporation] will really be a bunch of smaller corporations glued together – very highly networked, very integrated. The network works so well, you don’t know a network is in place,” Koulopoulos says.

This honeycomb corporation then will tackle crossing the language and cultural barriers to build international e-businesses. And from there we step into the realm of science fiction.

“Global connectivity is going to impact us in ways we can’t even imagine,” Handler says.

Oh, but we can, users say.

“We can all just imagine fiber to every home in every industrial nation in the world, and we’ve all got instant messaging and everything else. We’d have some serious issues about government regulations and invasion of privacy, a whole slew of security issues. But I firmly believe there’s a next cool thing,” Newcity says.

So maybe the ultimate evolution of e-business is still bit fuzzy. Yet, when it comes to the extended enterprise, much of the future is visible today – for those who care to look beyond the barriers.