E-Business Technology Drivers
As business product cycles change more and more rapidly and each organization is required to form an individual and unique relationship with each of its customers and other stakeholders, only flexible processes and maneuverable technologies can enable knowledgeable staff to make the commitments required to continuously adapt. Technology can also provide a great opportunity for business change, perhaps one of the most important opportunities, as long as we don't deal with technology in isolation of the other factors of process, knowledge, and stakeholder relationships. figure 1.7 shows how these are related. Note that all arrows are bi-directional, requiring a two-way examination of opportunities and impacts.
figure 1.7-Interplay among critical competencies for performance improvement.
Without quality and productivity improvements made possible by strategic technologies, enterprises can fall behind competitively. Production technology improvements can take the form of new production capabilities, such as manufacturing process improvements and better production management solutions that allow ongoing feedback through real-time programmable logic controllers (PLCs) (These controllers link equipment into control rooms or virtual control rooms to monitor and automate production processes.)
In general, organizations are becoming more mature in their information technology applications and are building on their legacy. Some advanced organizations are approaching a new maturity level in the realm of Process Management ("What do I have to do?") and Data
Management ("What do I have to know to do it?"). As these organizations mature, they get closer to the business and data; process perspectives converge to the point that stakeholder relationships, business process, and knowledge are dealt with concurrently. figure 1.8 shows how this approach to IT is converging around business issues.
figure 1.8-The Burlton Data/Process Management Maturity Model.
How technology can provide access to information that has more integrity, whenever and wherever it's needed
How technology can initiate, track, and automate process execution
How technology can help create and distribute the latest knowledge
The following sections look at the effects that these technologies can have on businessnot in excruciating detail, but as examples of the types of enablers to search out.
Information Accessibility and Integrity
The availability of information that can be trusted, where and when it is required, means that new business approaches and processes can be imagined and designed without technological constraints. It's always a good starting point to gain agreement that accessibility constraints won't be factored into our thinking too soon. Let's imagine that all information will be trustworthy and available. Technologically, there's no reason not to.
The pressures of globalization and rising customer expectations means that information must be accessible by anyone, located anywhere, whenever that person chooses. This requires exploiting today's scalable information management technologies to store data, new information appliances to present it, and reliable network infrastructures to transport it.
Because information sharing is the key issue for many external stakeholders and internal staff, building a foundation of robust database management systems (DBMS) is a fundamental. Scalable relational DBMS for the transactional part of the business and object-oriented DBMS for the more complex types of data such as voice, graphics, maps, and video are now available to all organizations. These technologies are the storage mechanisms for information assets. Choose a system that can be a central coordination site across a number of applications, connecting many of their users. Other storage mechanisms are data warehouses and data marts that extract and consolidate data from a number of non-integrated data sources from inside and outside the enterprise. These mechanisms make data accessible to be manipulated and presented as if from one consistent source. The complexity of the provisioning process and infrastructure must be hidden from those gaining access.
This information can be presented through a number of different front-end technologies and user interfaces. Classical multimedia desktop computers for office workers provide a high-resolution, multiple-window environment for graphical and textual information and other rich data types such as spatial, sound, and video. Sophisticated analysis tools can also be accessed from there, to provide an online information management service. When assembled intelligently, a number of functions can be provided through one-stop shopping portals, making it easy for users to find all they need to know.
These integrated access sites are enabled by internetworked technologies for outsiders (Internet), trusted customers and suppliers (extranet), and internal staff (intranet). Delivering these technologies isn't difficult as compared to organizing the information that they must make available.
Providing information to anyone who needs it requires abundant communications bandwidth for anyone and from our sources anywhere. High bandwidth local area networks hooked to wide-area networks hooked to global networks must all be built or rented. Also, anyone and anywhere imply that the air and space become places for electronic information messages to traverse. Wireless networks using emerging standards such as digital cellular, wireless application protocol (WAP), infrared, radio, and satellites all support the use of mobile devices. These include Palm Pilots and digital telephones in our pockets, displays in our cars, and anything else that moves and can be located with digital cellular networks and global positioning devices. We can already push a lot of information through high-speed wireless networks. These will soon be faster and cheaper than they are today. They should be planned for now.
It's one thing to have enterprise information available whenever you want it. It's something else for that information to have integrity. Integrity for data management purposes means that, if information is redundant, it must be consistent. That means that it can be trusted. The simplest form of data integrity is to be able to update a single data field in a single record in a single file. By definition, there will never be any redundancy issues if this is the case. Integrity in the information that is accessible to anyone you choose, regardless of location, is key if you want to avoid different people making decisions based on information that varies but that should be the same. Integrity of information means that relationships will be managed consistently, and that the costs of wrong decisions and corrective actions will be significantly reduced.
One major trend supporting the concept of key enterprise information integrity is enterprise resource planning (ERP), as enabled by technologies such as SAP, Baan, Oracle, and PeopleSoft. This approach strives to provide a single place to store and manage information about enterprise assets. Components that handle information about financial, human resource, and fixed assets are common. This integration of asset information has significant process implications. The difficulty of making ERP work lies more in the process and business changes required than in the concept of shared data with integrity. One shortfall of most ERP implementations is the difficulty of getting the information out in meaningful ways after it's captured. Data warehouses are often used to solve this problem.
Likewise, another significant trend deals with relationship management. Integrity of customer relationship information has also been a concern for a long time. Now there are significant software offerings from vendors such as Seibold, Vantive, and I2 that provide the mechanisms for customer relationship management (CRM) solutions. Pivitol has taken it one step further by broadening its offerings to cover a range of stakeholders, not just customers. I believe that others will do the same by extending their CRM and supply-chain management software to manage the integrity of all stakeholders' information in a more balanced way.
Business Process Automation
If business must be supported from anywhere 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, processes must also be accessible and executable in the same timeframe. Technologies that help navigate entire processes are now available to support this. Embedding the business's rules and its human knowledge into the organization's executable processing software can change your way of working. figure 1.9 shows the requirements for complete business process automationfrom initial business event through final business outcome.
figure 1.9-A business process view of information management.
To initiate the automated process flow, triggering events must be sensed or recognized. Some technologies that recognize triggers have been around for a while, whereas others are relatively new. Office workers have long been able to launch a workflow through their desktop computers' Enter keys or mouse clicks. The order process agent might take in a lot of information, but until the agent confirms the order, the bulk of the order process isn't initiated. Today, humans can use a handheld event recognition device to trigger process flows as part of a wireless network to do essentially the same thing.
Most of us are very used to swiping a credit or membership card in a reader to initiate self-service processes. Many airlines provide kiosks that take your frequent flyer cards and securely allow you to initiate the issuing of your seat assignment and boarding cards as well as luggage tags. Smart cards can go one step further by carrying information that might be relevant upon the triggering event.
Other devices, such as bar code scanners, also trigger automated action. When you scan your library card and the library book that you want to take out, the technology recognizes an event involving the codes, invokes the rules for that type of book and you, and tells you when the book is due back. Later, on return of the book, your record of liability is cleared, and the process instance is closed. If you don't return the book on time, other parts of the process are invoked to send you reminders and calculate penalties for lateness.
The capability of bar codes to initiate action should be examined for productivity and reliability. However, the process that follows it must be thought through to its conclusions.
The principles behind the bar-code style of triggering processes apply beyond the technology itself, whereby the reading device doesn't have to find the bar code to read it. Self-identifying tags can allow stationary sensors to identify the presence of a triggering event. These tags are essentially tiny computer chips that emit their own unique electronic message from the chip.
When the chip is in range of an energizing source, it sends out its fingerprint to initiate action. These devices have been used on personal ID tags so that, no matter where you go in the work site, you can be located. Farmers routinely use them to identify their animals at automated feeders and prevent them from overeating by dispatching just the right amount of food and water. All railcars have them to allow tracking and expediting of movement across the country. The uses are limited only by your imagination.
After it's initiated through these triggers, the complete business process flow can be automated through to process termination. This would include the movement and management of the mul-timedia information required to achieve a satisfactory outcome of value to the initiating stakeholder. Overall workflow technologies play a management role. These technologies pass inputs and control to specific applications that perform specific functions and then return outputs and control back to the transaction manager function of the workflow engine. Work is prioritized and delivered to users' in baskets for execution, or is sent to standalone applications for processing. The work products can be text, numbers, forms to be circulated and filled out, or even electronic approvals. The workflow environment is a flexible multimedia push technology requiring standards and openness across platforms and locations. It's based on a set of predefined business rules; the steps of the navigation can vary from instance to instance. The work-flow engine determines the needed sequence. It also tracks and traces and reports back status.
Traditionally, workflow capabilities were found in imaging and forms management software; today, it's the opposite. Imaging and forms are just two types of data that can navigate a networked environment with the control of a workflow engine. When well designed, this engine assembles and controls reusable software components and invokes them using navigation rules documented separately from computer logic. Business people, not technicians, do the management and modification of the navigation rules. They define them in business language, not technology constructs. Adaptability is the consequence.
Knowledge Creation and Distribution
As business cycles shrink and time-in-market opportunities diminish, those organizations that can create and exploit knowledge faster and better will succeed. Making knowledge accessible to business processes as guidance is a make-or-break process in its own right. Technology can play a key role in delivering the latest knowledge to the people doing the work or can deliver encoded knowledge that software can automatically execute.
In customer interactions, as well as internal interactions, learning never stops, and the business environment never rests. For these reasons, finding ways to improve the support of human knowledge is starting to get a lot of attention.
The concept of just-in-time (JIT) training isn't new. It recognizes that the best application of training occurs when it's provided just before it's applied. Consider what it would take to keep
training courses and reference guides up-to-date using traditional media development methods. Also think about how you would deliver the new messages quickly. It would almost be impossible. By utilizing technology available to all organizations today, this problem can be solved. Through intranets, you can widely, quickly, and inexpensively distribute the latest guidance to front-line staff members who are part of a workflow. Likewise, new knowledge can be delivered to customers. These environments are multimedia in nature and can update documents, graphics, voice messages, and video to show what business changes are occurring and how to deal better with current scenarios. This replaces training courses and procedural guides, which become the same thing in this multimedia delivery environment. In structured or transaction-oriented situations, the training can be linked to specific aspects of the workflow and available through a function key or drop-down list. Notification of new knowledge can also be prominently displayed the first time someone enters into an application after the knowledge has been posted.
For less structured work, providing access to knowledge portals can be valuable. In this situation, knowledge is structured according to some form of knowledge "yellow pages" that segments the knowledge in indexes understood by the knowledge seekers. Hierarchical and hypertext relationships of knowledge concepts are shown in the structure, as is a map of all known human sources and knowledge stewards. The map can also depict the cognitive authority (trustworthiness) of the source. These portals would include access to relevant documents and search engines to find other internal or external sources. They also contain mechanism for knowledge feedback and the use of lessons learned.
Another way to use technology to support the leverage of knowledge is to embed it in the software that runs the business applications.
As we saw with workflow software navigation, business rules can capture a subset of knowledge. Business rulesbased application development engines are available in the marketplace from a number of proven vendors. These technologies separate business rules from data definitions and workflow. This ideally allows ease of updating rules, based on lessons learned and marketplace changes, because no software coding is required. Rules and business event triggers are stored in a layer between normalized databases and the workflows or applications that use them. Ideally, the rules and the knowledge that they depend on reside in a shared rule repository and are executed from a rules server.
Expert systems have been with us for some time. They are gaining attention again in domain-specific situations in which expert knowledge is required but not available in all staff members. Call centers and help desks provide typical opportunities to exploit these technologies, especially those that use case-based reasoning approaches. In these, knowledge and best practices are generalized and transformed into useful rules. The difference is that case-based approaches aren't just strict rulesthey reflect and recognize patterns and then guide the service provider through a most likely path of action or questioning. New patterns arise and are inferred from new situations.
Knowledge, like all organizational assets, must be created or discovered and then acquired before it can be distributed and used. Some technologies can support the creation of new knowledge in collaborative communities, as well as its distribution to those in day-to-day work processes. Although collaborative creative work is primarily a human endeavor, communications technologies can be very helpful when it comes to iterating ideas across a wider community, either inside or outside the enterprise.
Technologies that support person-to-person, team-to-team collaboration include
- E-mail and messaging
- Group calendars and scheduling
- Electronic meeting systems
- Desktop video and real-time data conferencing
- Group document handling
- Groupware services to support collaboration
Groupware solutions identify and connect knowledgeable people through the mechanism of living discussion documents or reference databases. This form of technology is particularly useful when it's built on a replication mechanism, so that globally all interested members of a work group or a virtual community of practice can contribute concurrently. These varied technologiessuch as Lotus Notes, Microsoft NetMeeting, and other collaborative, Internet-based applications and productsare best used when complex, fast-changing knowledge must be shared in an iterative knowledge creation cycle. For sharing lessons learned and knowledge feedback, these technologies maximize human interaction while minimizing technological interference.