From collaborative software to alert management, business collaboration has taken on new looks, The Advisory Council says. Also, your company's size and market dictate whether a modular or integrated retail order-management system is best.
Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers two questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
Question A: What can IT do to improve organizational collaboration within the company?
Our advice: Business collaboration occurs, in general, because no matter how we organize work, we end up with activities that cut horizontally across that organization. Collaboration has these goals:
To optimize business activities that cannot be optimized by the "sum of the local metrics"
To identify innovations that are unlikely to be seen from any local vantage point
To reinforce professional disciplines that cut across product or geographic organizations
To identify and replicate operational best practices
To identify and cross-train next-generation managers
Deliberate, organized business collaboration can take personal, process, and technological approaches:
Personal approaches identify "fast-trackers" and create ways to introduce them, educate them, inspire them, and use their insights. These approaches are usually HR driven. They may include cross-organizational training courses to build both skills and culture, inclusion in task forces, or inclusion in otherwise senior strategy activities. The goal is inter-personal bonding and culture norming, leading to future informal collaboration.
Process approaches involve the design of policies, rituals, and cross-organizational teams to achieve some business purpose. A simple example would be a three-member committee that sanity-checks the monthly demand forecasts across the manufacturing, distribution, and sales organizations. A more complex example would be the "best practices" culture at Intel, where a rich infrastructure exists to identify optimal practices for most of the company's operational activities, backed by the disciplinary muscle to impose a best practice across the company but with almost every practice being challenged by a "blessed" experiment with new technology going on somewhere.
Technological approaches are process approaches that depend so heavily on computer support that personal interactions are impossible without the system, and change because of the system. (Where but in E-mail is "Tx" considered a complete and cordial thank you note?)
Collaborative Application Development Methodology At the "purpose-built" end of the collaboration spectrum is software designed specifically to manage the development of application software. IBM Rational Software is the standard, with the richest functionality at typical IBM prices. SpeeDev offers a useful example at a lower price. Both excel in the collaborative components, letting stakeholders monitor and contribute to the development process with highly friendly and informative Web portals.
Collaborative Project Management The confluence of universal Internet, universal laptop, and Web-server underpinnings has reinvigorated the once-stable project-management world. All the stakeholders in a large capital project now expect easy oversight and input services in the airport lounge. Fortunately, as the functionality has exploded, the price has gone down. Serious project-management systems with low price points (e.g. Microsoft Project, TrackerOffice, Intuit QuickBase) are forcing re-evaluation of entrenched project-management methodology.
Collaborative Crisis Management A new technology -- alerts management -- is ready for operational use. Alerts management (e.g., Categoric Xalerts) provides a rules engine to spot trouble in operational processes, a multiplicity of alarms and notifications, and a follow-up mechanism for all the organizations involved in a fix.
-- Wes Melling
Question B: What should we consider when selecting a retail order-management system to support both "brick-and-mortar" and "click-and-order" businesses?
Our advice: The retail industry is very fragmented, with numerous merchandise specialties, and retail enterprises of all sizes and shapes. Multichannel retailers -- those companies that have presence in "brick-and-mortar," "click-and-order," and possibly wholesale as well -- have complex needs. Companies that have multichannel order-fulfillment requirements, such as home improvement and furniture retailers, have even more complex needs due to the additional challenge of complex inventory and warehouse management. Most really large multichannel retailers (Wal-Mart, Sears, etc.) have their own homegrown proprietary systems, but for the smaller companies, which don't have those kinds of resources, there are a number of affordable options.
Order-management systems are never really standalone solutions, even if the application is purchased from a specialty vendor; the system must seamlessly integrate with front-end sales systems and back-end inventory or warehouse-management applications to achieve process efficiency goals. From that perspective, there are two main approaches for building these systems -- the fully integrated single vendor solution, or the modular approach. Which approach will work best for your company will be dependent on your business model, existing systems, and desired outcome.
At both the high and low ends, there are plenty of commercial, off-the-shelf systems designed to work with pure-play online or point-of-sale business models. The products range from expensive end-to-end systems from the large players -- IBM, SAP, Seibel, etc. -- that handle every function from campaign management and market analysis, through order entry and fulfillment, and finally to warehouse and inventory management. As a mid- to large-size retailer with a simple business model, it is more a matter of writing large checks and slogging through the deployment process. For more budget-conscious folks, a "best of breed" or modular type of architecture can be an effective alternative. There are many solution providers who will create customized, integrated systems from well-tested component applications. The advantages are that you can more easily implement the system in pieces, thus minimizing disruption of your operations. For more complex situations, the modular approach might well minimize the risk associated with any major process change.
In the end, which approach you take for your business is going to depend more on your specific needs and budget than any inherent advantage of the full end-to-end system over a modular system. As with any large-scale change to your business, make sure you map your requirements carefully during the planning process before settling on a specific architecture.
-- Beth Cohen
Wes Melling, TAC Expert, has more than 40 years of IT experience with a focus on enterprise IT strategies. He is founder and principal of Value Chain Advisors, a consulting boutique specializing in manufacturing supply-chain optimization. He has been a corporate CIO, a Gartner analyst, and a product strategist at increasingly senior levels.
Beth Cohen, TAC Thought Leader, has more than 20 years of experience building strong IT-delivery organizations from user and vendor perspectives. Having worked as a technologist for BBN, the company that literally invented the Internet, she not only knows where technology is today but where it's heading in the future. Her specific expertise includes building scaleable, robust IT architectures, operating systems, desktop support, process improvement, program management, IT/business alignment, security, and integration of networks, applications, and systems.
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