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Agile Computing: Article

An SCM Case Study: Social Networking in the Enterprise

Social Computing and Agile Enterprises

We are in an era where consumer social networking in the form of Facebook and Twitter are a part of everyone's life. There are several uses for these social networking tools in one's personal life; however, not many tools and the associated use cases are seen as effective for social networking in the enterprise, which in a way should be a facilitator for high productivity within the enterprise.

Two Forms of Communications Within the Enterprise
Over a period we have seen that individuals within an enterprise are connected by two contrasting means:

  • The one connected by automated processes and machines: In this scenario even the individuals who sit next to each other are totally driven by binary processing within the servers. Typical example is a workflow or approval cases, whereby a simple approval from a person in next seat has to traverse through a set of complex workflow processes and human interaction take place behind the scenes abstracted by machines.
  • The one connected by personal means: Realizing the importance of social networking, enterprises have implemented an enterprise class messenger platform that enabled employees to chat and share information. However, over the years these communications have become disconnected from the real enterprise and become more like a personal communication tool, not really resulting in the kind of enterprise collaboration that is needed.

However, today's enterprises need social networking which should be a combination of both individual / personal communication that's supported with enterprise class intelligence that is typically enabled by systems and processes. To explain how this kind of social networking will help in enterprise productivity, we can take a typical use case for a manufacturing supply chain and bring the value proposition of social networking in improving the productivity of the players involved.

Manufacturing Supply Chain Scenario
In a typical manufacturing process, the following is the sequence of operations in which the need for parts and supplies from the manufacturing shop floors drive the initiation of purchase orders with the vendors and subsequently the receipt of the parts are matched in various warehouses, which ultimately reach the requested shop floors, thus completing the manufacturing process. For the sake of simplicity this examples does not involve the consumer-side supply chain where the finished goods reach, however, this example can be extended to accommodate that scenario also.

While it is seen as a typical machine-driven process, it is an underlying fact that various human roles are involved in the complete chain of operations as explained below:

  • Pre-Production Operators: These individuals assess the requirements for production and calculate the quantity of parts to be procured based on the parameters like available quantity at hand. These operators directly or through their supervisors raise the purchasing request based on the parts needed.
  • Purchasing Supervisor / Buyer: Based on the approval workflows, the generated purchase orders are validated and approved by these supervisors. Typically the $$ amount of the purchasing and other strategic considerations take place in this human workflow for approval.
  • Suppliers / Vendors: These are external players who received the purchase orders from the enterprise and print them and review for shipment. Typically suppliers validate the details of the purchase order and make arrangements to ship the parts by the desired commitment date as agreed between the buying enterprise and the supplier.
  • Warehouse Personnel: Once the parts are shipped to the respective warehouses, these individuals receive them, validate them against the purchase orders, and place them in respective bins or racks for utilization. Logistics also play a major role if there's a need to move the parts from one warehouse to another based on the needs.
  • Material Inspection Analyst: Shipped parts need to be checked several times for quality like shape, color, appearance and other attributes. These require a specialized inspection much more than typical warehouse personnel can do and hence a specialist material inspection analyst is needed.
  • Accounts Payable Personnel: After the goods have been approved and received into the warehouse, these people validate the invoice against the purchase order and pay the vendors. They take care of other issues like general ledger accounting, foreign currency issues and tax implications.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide of the supply chain process as there are several variations and some of the large manufacturing houses employ a more complex supply chain process; however, the above scenarios represent a fairly generic need for a connected enterprise in terms of people and machine based processes.

The following diagram explains the supply chain process and players.

As mentioned, this does not aim to depict a perfect supply chain diagram, however, it is evident from this diagram that there is a combination of machine processes (depicted in red) and human interactions (depicted in green) that together take care of the entire supply chain process.

Typical Issues Without Enterprise Social Networking
The above process, which has been traditionally followed in many large and medium enterprises, have the following pitfalls.

  • Batch Jobs and Latency: Most of the processing in the chain of events are taken care of by the machines and servers through batch jobs that typically involve latency as they run only at certain time; this makes the humans outside of the process wait for the results, even though the desired event would have happened. For example, a purchase order would have been approved by the PO supervisor but the supplier may have to wait one day to see the actual PO.
  • Lack of Visibility Due to System Generated Identification Numbers: The entire process is tied through system-generated numbers like PO numbers, engineering request numbers, warehouse receipt numbers, etc. While it is meant to be remembered by the individuals, sometimes this could hurt the visibility of the flow of events if they are not properly tracked.
  • Lack of Human Touch in Communicating Extraordinary Events: In a typical enterprise scenario where there are preferred vendors and preferred warehouses, it is likely that the same players may serve operations over a period of time. Sometimes there could be extraordinary events outside of system control, for example, a supplier would have shipped the materials from his warehouse and commit on a delivery date to the system; however, there could be some sudden natural disasters like a flood that may delay the proceeding. However, this kind of information may not have been reflected in the system.

Agility Enabled by Enterprise Social Networking
Enterprise class social networking tools bridge the gap between the human and machine processes though the intelligence they gain from understanding the business processes of the underlying systems while providing the much needed human touch to the flow of events, which provides much needed agility and increased productivity to the whole process. Let's look at how the scenario can change if an enterprise class social networking tool is used.

  • Using an enterprise class social networking platform, stakeholders like a pre-production material requestor, a purchase order approver, and a material inspector all can connect with each other using the out-of-the-box search features and standards-based integration with organization LDAP directory. Also these tools provide options to collaborate with external stakeholders like suppliers who are part of the chain of events.
  • Unlike the consumer social networking tools, enterprise social networking tools have a seamless integration with CRM, ERP and other legacy back-end systems. This means virtually any kind of information that's needed for the flow of events can be pulled from the respective systems. For example, a purchase order number can be tagged #PO2329 in a Twitter-like fashion and the social networking platform can obtain more detailed information like shipping address by understanding the intelligence of it.
  • The entire communication is a combination of organizational events like receipt of a goods in a warehouse along with the much-needed personal touch like a particular receipt may be delayed by a day due to traffic issues in the respective region.
  • Advanced features like video and webcast can be utilized to facilitate processes like material inspection that require a visual inspection of the goods. Think how easy it is for the material requestor to view the parts received in a remote warehouse and provide a verbal conformation much before the actual system-related data entry takes place. This will definitely reduce the delays. If, for example, the product is faulty it will not even wait for the inspector to find them; rather things may happen sooner than that.

As evident even from this sample scenario, the enterprises enabled by social networking will be much more agile than the traditional enterprises, and enterprises can consider adopting them to improve their business process efficiency.

Summary
While the advantages of this platform are obvious, one issue may be the lack of proper platforms that understand the enterprise application integration scenarios from the system processes point of view, while providing a human touch to complete enterprise social computing.

However, we find that the tibbr social computing platform for business, which has been created by TIBCO software, has a long and successful history in enterprise application integration and business process enablement for enterprises.

  • The tibbr social computing platform makes it easy to find the right people and information in real time
  • Supports a virtual enterprise with support for mobile platforms and iPad devices
  • Integrates with existing enterprise access managers to make the social interactions more secured
  • Supports collaboration through options like tibCast, tibVoice and tibChat
  • As a tool from a traditional EAI/ESB tool vendor, it integrates relevant data and information across the enterprise
  • To make documents more relevant and accessible, tibbr allows people to share and collaborate on documents that live in their core content management systems, including Microsoft SharePoint.
  • Tibbr is also available as SaaS service model in the Cloud to facilitate enterprises that do not want to invest in the hardware and other resource needs
  • Further information about the vendor can be obtained from their site: http://www.tibbr.com/

As mentioned in several of my articles on SaaS / BpaaS adoption, the aim of the article is to provide a value proposition for the enterprises in incorporating social networking appropriately and one such vendor product that has the required features is also mentioned as a reference. Enterprises are requested to go through their standard evaluation process to pick up the correct products that fit their needs.

More Stories By Srinivasan Sundara Rajan

Srinivasan is passionate about ownership and driving things on his own, with his breadth and depth on Enterprise Technology he could run any aspect of IT Industry and make it a success.

He is a seasoned Enterprise IT Expert, mainly in the areas of Solution, Integration and Architecture, across Structured, Unstructured data sources, especially in manufacturing domain.

He currently works as Technology Head For GAVS Technologies.

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