Collaboration in a Flat World

By Karen S. Henrie  |  Posted 03-07-2007

Collaboration in a Flat World




Large-scale, inter-enterprise collaboration is on the rise, and maturing collaboration tools make it easier to support those efforts.

Thomas L. Friedman's metaphor of a flat world, which he describes in his bestselling book, The World Is Flat, is centered on the notion that lower trade and political barriers, combined with advances in digital technology, will produce an exponential growth in collaboration while allowing people and companies anywhere in the world to effectively participate in the global economy. Today, a wide range of corporate strategies and initiatives across many industries—concurrent product design, capital markets financing, mergers and acquisition integration, global supply chains, outsourcing—can join far-flung partners at the hip in pursuit of common goals.

Perhaps no one understands this better than Boeing Co., the $62 billion aerospace company that is engaged in a massive, global, concurrent design effort with its new 787 aircraft, known as Dreamliner, due to be delivered next year. The design program comprises significant high-level collaboration among Boeing and its partners, located in 11 countries. Boeing, along with each of its partners, has had to overhaul its design and manufacturing processes to accommodate the concurrent design strategy, and all parties are committed to using the same product lifecycle management software from Dassault Systémes.

This huge undertaking involves what Boeing CIO Scott Griffin characterizes as high-level collaboration: two or more companies working together as if they are the same company. And the most difficult form of high-level collaboration is designing—at the same time—two or more parts that will be attached to the same product. Most other day-to-day work at Boeing surrounding the production of the new aircraft, in departments such as marketing, IT and finance, he considers low-level collaboration. In making that distinction, Griffin doesn't suggest that all work other than concurrent design is neither important nor strategic. Rather, he simply highlights the orders of magnitude greater complexity that concurrent design entails.

Much collaborative work, especially that involving people located across time zones, takes place asynchronously, in online workspaces where people share documents, files, project plans and calendars. Business users also increasingly turn to weblogs, wikis and other newer-fangled Web 2.0 tools to support asynchronous collaboration. When real-time, or synchronous, collaboration is needed, CIOs must support tools such as Web conferencing, presence awareness, instant messaging and live chat, all of which are increasingly embedded in the software and everyday business processes.

Many CIOs view collaboration as having value only in the context of a specific process, task or project, perhaps because that is how business users shape their requests, says David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC. And Gartner Inc. Vice President Bern Elliot adds that it is much easier for an IT executive to clarify the return on investment for a tool when it is assigned to a specific project.

Ask your CEO:
• How vital to our business strategy is inter-enterprise collaboration with global business partners?
Ask your business unit IT managers:
• How satisfied are you with the collaboration tools supported by the IT organization?



Design an environment to support the real-time and asynchronous collaboration needs for each inter-enterprise project, and build it from a standardized platform of infrastructure and tools. In the 1990s, when it built the 777, Boeing conducted all design work internally. With the new Dreamliner, Boeing relies on its global partners to concurrently design the 787 components that each partner will manufacture. For example, Boeing enlisted Nordam Group in Tulsa, Okla., with the task of designing and manufacturing the aircraft's window frames. So Nordam had to design those window frames in tandem with Boeing partners responsible for manufacturing the aircraft's fuselage components, including Tulsa neighbor Spirit Aerosystems Inc., Alenia in Italy and Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan.

Boeing, on a colossal, global scale, is recreating the collaborative design environment used by engineers in the early 1900s. "Engineers worked together in a room on their own drafting boards," Griffin says. "Each part had just one drawing [and engineers] might lay their drawings side by side to ensure that, say, a bolt in one part was aligned properly with the hole in another part." Today, Boeing defines the requirements for global collaboration in concert with Dassault Systémes and other partners, providing everyone with the environment they need to work in real time. It includes the product lifecycle management software and the database that contains all the design and manufacturing data.

Boeing's Global Collaboration Environment includes team rooms set up with videoconferencing and presentation-sharing software, to let engineers in a single location gather and access a second (or third, if needed) group assembled elsewhere. Engineers rely on team rooms to exchange progress reports, place designs side by side to identify differences, and discuss design alternatives. "By its nature, design and engineering is a group activity best accomplished by gathering a variety of inputs to form the best solution," Griffin says.

Yet a large swath of collaboration efforts across many industries will likely remain too industry-specific, or to complex, to support with out-of-the box collaboration tools. Which is why third-party software and service providers extend basic collaboration platforms to include more industry- or process-specific workflows.

Reuters, the London-based, $6 billion global information provider, tapped into a need for improved real-time collaboration among financial services companies by developing a hosted real-time collaboration product based on Microsoft Corp.'s Live Communications Server. More than 90,000 traders, portfolio managers and financial services professionals subscribe to the product. Global trading desks use Reuters Messaging chat rooms to report the latest trades and prices, often replacing squawk boxes on trading floors. They also use chat rooms as a market handover between time zones. And chat rooms let those not online during the conversation review the discussions made by their cohorts, and help informed traders make decisions faster.

David Gurle, head of collaboration at Reuters, characterizes real-time and asynchronous collaboration as the "yin and yang in financial services. It is impossible to separate them." In one scenario, a market analyst publishes a report in an online workspace. The system notifies a trader of its availability. The trader downloads the report, reads it, and then may wish to question the analyst about some assumptions. The system embeds the analyst's user name and presence into the report, allowing the trader to make an instant connection. The trader reaches out across the global trading desk to share the findings, and collaborate on pending trade activity and market moves that might be influenced by the analysis.

High finance of this sort signifies an increase in fast-paced, inter-enterprise collaboration that is changing the pace and nature of Wall Street deal making. Traders once relied heavily on the telephone to collaborate, but these newer approaches make the capital markets more price efficient and introduce fewer errors. "People don't talk nearly as much as they used to," Gurle says. "Talking isn't nearly as efficient."

Ask your business unit heads:
• Which business processes would you most like to embed with real-time collaboration capabilities?
Ask your collaboration suite vendors:
• How does your product design support inter-enterprise collaboration over the next few years?



Collaboration tools have more value when they allow all users to effectively partner cross-enterprise. They shouldn't be too pricey, either, so adoption isn't hampered.

Philips Medical Systems, an $8 billion unit of Royal Philips Electronics N.V., manufactures x-ray machines, CT scanners and ultrasound machines among its many products. Philips embeds the machines with medical-imaging platform (MIP) software to provide functions such as printing, storage and rendering. Philips' ability to quickly deploy innovations into products is "a key discriminator in terms of which products a hospital chooses to buy," says Jan Broekhuizen, Philips Medical program manager for the medical imaging platform.

About five years ago, engineering teams at Philips Medical facilities worldwide began using a collaborative software development platform from CollabNet Inc. to develop the medical-imaging platform software. To improve its MIP development, the Philips software group subsequently decided it needed more direct involvement from the product groups.

Using CollabNet, Broekhuizen's team works with more than two-dozen software engineering groups across 10 different Philips product groups. The system lets the product teams give the medical-imaging platform group specific feedback about what they want and need. While the product teams don't develop the MIP software, they have a clear and strategic role to play in defining the software's requirements.

Through CollabNet, product groups communicate transparently with the medical-imaging platform teams about the software embedded in their products. Previously, the medical-imaging platform group provided product teams only with so-called software binaries, similar to a packaged software application. Now the Philips Medical product teams have read-only access to all the detailed functions of the MIP software, which helps them decide which functions are most relevant to their products, and how best to exploit them. Third-party engineers also do some of the development work. They access selected portions of the MIP software over the Internet with an official account and designated access rights through a managed environment, but without having to install CollabNet themselves.

CollabNet has also helped Philips bring out new innovations more quickly. "The moment some new functionality is developed for one group, we can quickly bring it to other groups," Broekhuizen says.

Ask your software-development head:
• Does our development platform sufficiently support collaboration with outside development partners and internal business partners?
Tell your CFO:
• Funding new collaboration capabilities must be included in business unit and IT budgets.



To reliably support everyday collaboration activities, enterprises need a cohesive platform that may include a combination of hosted services and on-premise infrastructure and tools.

Many CIOs are consolidating disjointed office productivity, collaboration, content and portal assets into a single, unified software platform, based on a service-oriented architecture, that will benefit a range of workers and roles throughout their organizations. Forrester Research Inc. refers to this nirvana state as the information workplace. One mainstay of the vision is unified voice and data communications—which is more feasible given the rise of Voice over IP—but Forrester analyst Erica Driver says most enterprises remain unconvinced it makes financial sense to swap out existing voice systems.

Vendors of enterprise collaboration platforms are making slow progress toward unifying their real-time and asynchronous tools, while collaboration across platforms (you speak Lotus SameTime, I speak Microsoft Live Communications Server) remains difficult due to a lack of standards. And the list of options that support inter-enterprise collaboration is considerably shorter, though platform vendors are addressing the gap. For instance, Sharepoint, Microsoft's popular online workspace product, is largely limited to supporting collaboration inside the corporate firewall, so Microsoft acquired a competing product from Groove Networks in large part because it was designed to support inter-enterprise collaboration. Microsoft offers Groove in some editions of Vista.

Hosted services offer CIOs a good way to pare down their collaboration portfolios while providing their users with the latest features. Hosted options range from well-established Web-conferencing services such as WebEx to newer Web 2.0-based wikis, blogs and vertical-specific products such as Reuters Messaging.

"The trend at the moment is ease of experience over number of features," says Collaborative Strategies' Coleman. That could explain the growing popularity of basic, easy-to-use Web 2.0 tools that aren't overloaded with features, yet. Just when CIOs are intent upon rationalizing the proliferation of collaboration tools, an influx of appealing, easily acquired Web 2.0 tools may generate a new cycle of disjointed buying.

CIOs must stay on top of what's new and how it fits into their organization's collaboration strategy, and provide users with an approved library of manageable, secure tools. CIOs must also keep close tabs on how business processes and work habits are evolving. Even in a flat world, collaboration, like charity, begins at home.

Ask your IT architect:
• Does our current IT architecture support a unified software platform vision?
Ask your business unit heads:
• Which business processes would benefit most from having better embedded collaboration capabilities?