Leveraging Collaboration and Mobility in Heterogeneous IT Environments

By S Sridharan | Published: March 2012

Ensuring timely, accurate and cost-effective supply of materials, equipment and resources is essential to the success of any project – especially those with a large geographical footprint. Project engineering companies know that suppliers tend to provide a higher level of service to customers who provide repeat business, when compared to those placing a one-off project order. On top of that, globalization brings the challenge of unforeseen changes in availability of components, shipping channels, currency exchange rates etc. Insufficient attention to alignment between project engineering companies and their suppliers could therefore result in serious project delays and cost-escalations. The key to success lies in finding the right vendors for each project who not only have the right product/equipment, but also have the ability to work closely with them to ensure safe and timely delivery – even when personnel are on the move.

Indian project engineering industry has always excelled at catering to the price sensitive domestic market through frugal engineering and supply-chain practices. In recent times, the industry has also improved its ability to compete globally by realizing that projects tend to be on time and on budget when companies align with capable vendors, and collaborate with them to manage processes and materials flows.

Two key trends are rapidly changing how this industry gears up to meet the emerging challenges of responsiveness and costeffectiveness:

Collaboration and Mobility. Companies have begun to leverage these trends to create real-time data visibility across the supply-chain, and to build the ability to quickly adjust operational plans accordingly. Many companies, especially those that have grown inorganically, often find themselves using different ERP systems at different locations. A heterogeneous Enterprise IT environment of this kind poses a greater challenge for standardizing business processes across the organization, and for leveraging mobility for efficiency. In addition, diverse IT environments at the suppliers’ end make collaboration and orchestration of business processes across organizations even more difficult. Companies therefore have to choose the right solution approach for their business while rolling-out initiatives to embrace these two trends.

MULTI-ENTERPRISE COLLABORATION

In an effort to squeeze inefficiency out of their supply chains, companies are looking to adopt more strategic relationships with suppliers. The focus is on making suppliers and 3PLs work closely with enterprise procurement departments on assessing and fulfilling future demand. Companies are now working towards having open lines of communication with suppliers by providing the tools to manage shared processes for demand collaboration, procure-to-pay automation, sub-contracting, vendor managed inventory, quality collaboration (deviations), and returns management.

Table 1 provides a comparison of conventional approaches that companies usually consider for addressing the need for multienterprise collaboration.

Table 1: Comparing Alternative Solution Approaches for Collaboration

Some companies have even tried a hybrid approach using EAI and portals together with marginal success. They have realized that more the ‘moving parts’ in the system, greater is the complexity of maintenance, and risk of failure.

While these conventional approaches have allowed companies to break the barriers for collaboration, supplier base coverage remains an issue. Success stories frequently report coverage of 30-40% of suppliers in the first few years. The figures are far lesser in case of companies with heterogeneous IT environments. CIOs soon realize that the law of marginal returns on investments kicks-in. The industry is in search of more efficient solution options.

ENTERPRISE MOBILITY

Many engineering companies today rely on their enterprise systems to help them make the smartest use of effort and resources, but the process of manually entering information into the appropriate forms can be a drain on productivity. Instead, shop floor and field personnel now use mobile and handheld devices, read barcodes to collect/access information, and complete business transactions on the spot. The functional scope of these solutions could span production, inventory, warehouse, sales, installation and customer service operations.

Adoption of smartphones and tablets by business users in India has caught up, and is increasing faster than ever. CIOs are excited about the ability to empower the mobile workforce by delivering more capabilities via the devices they use. The fragmented mobile device/smartphone market is offering several platform options like Blackberry, Android, Windows Mobile and iOS. With the ‘bring-yourown- device’ phenomenon catching up and employees using their own smartphones, tablets and even netbooks for business purposes, enterprises are facing stiffer challenges.

Table 2 provides a comparison of conventional approaches that companies usually consider for addressing the need for enabling mobile operations and empowering their personnel.

Table 2: Comparing Alternative Solution Approaches for Mobility

While off-the-shelf solutions facilitate swift rollouts, the inability to orchestrate business processes across diverse technology platforms is a serious dampener to their adoption. As a result, the industry is once again looking for more efficient solution options.

ENGINEERING SUPPLY CHAIN PERFORMANCE USING A UNIFIED APPROACH

Smarter companies are recognizing that collaboration and mobility are two faces of the same coin. It pays to consider solutions that take a unified approach to address the challenges of operating in heterogeneous IT environments. Approaches of this kind are characterized by use of a single framework to drive processes across multiple enterprise applications and mobility platforms – making the solution platform and device ambivalent. More advanced frameworks come with real-time business process configuration capabilities, execution engines and integrated development environments as well. A typical solution implementation in the engineering industry is shown below.

Table 3: Unified Approach for Mobility and Collaboration

UNIFIED APPROACH AT WORK IN THE PROJECT ENGINEERING INDUSTRY

Here is how the unified approach to collaboration and mobility would simplify purchase-to-receipt operations in an engineering enterprise with a diverse supplier base, and having different ERPs running in their plants. The purchase officer places a purchase order (PO) for precision-engineered components on two different suppliers. This approach allows both the suppliers to view and acknowledge the orders in their respective ERP systems (say, Supplier A on SAP, and Supplier B on Oracle e-Biz). Suppliers who have not invested in ERP systems have the flexibility to participate in the collaborative process on the unified platform. The same process would be followed for creating Advance Shipment Notifications (ASNs), Package Tracking Notes (PTNs), etc. Supplier will also be able to design and print shipment labels on the platform, as well as print them remotely at their shipping locations before dispatch. The status of the PO is updated in the corresponding ERP systems based on these transactions – buyers, shop floor engineers and other designated field personnel are notified of updates to the PO fulfillment status via their desktops as well as personal mobile devices.

On-site personnel at the receiving locations use their hand-held devices to track status of shipment, and once the shipment hits the location they flip POs / ASNs, read barcode labels on shipments/packages, and process receipts to generate a good receipt note (GRN) in the ERP. The GRN would also automatically update the status of POs in suppliers’ systems as well.

Similarly, field personnel could track and process business transactions related to inter-location transfer of equipment and tools as well. In addition, they also get access to BI and analytics capabilities, via their mobile devices, to assess the performance of vendors/partners. This generates complete visibility of the process to all stakeholders, and allows orchestration of business processes without being constrained by the diversity of application platforms in-house and at the suppliers’ end. Simultaneously, this allows mobile users to pick personal mobile devices of their preference, and companies to re-deploy industrial devices across locations swiftly without being constrained by the mobility platform they use. In addition, the ability to re-configure globalization and localization settings makes global rollouts to new locations easier.

CONCLUSION

Holistic strategy, availability, security, maintenance, and integration are significant issues when companies rollout solutions for collaboration and mobility. Adopting a unified approach not only allows businesses to efficiently address the supply chain challenges, but also provide the agility for embracing changes to evolve with the markets. Successful deployment requires in-depth understanding of the costs associated with their ownership, and return on investments they bring during their lifecycle. Business can greatly benefit from partnering with specialized solution providers to ensure successful implementation.

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