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Make Collaboration Part of Your BPX Skill Set

by Swen Conrad | SAPinsider

January 1, 2007

by Swen Conrad, SAP SAPinsider - 2007 (Volume 8), January (Issue 1)
 

IT departments and business process experts (BPXs) must respond quickly to dramatic changes in business strategy, such as the outsourcing of supply chains, functional departments, or entire divisions. This drives high-priority process changes in related business applications — without allowing for the lead times traditionally required under current implementation methodologies.

When addressing business change, IT project teams are challenged by:

  • Business process scope — Increased change and complexity due to process extension beyond system and enterprise boundaries

  • Schedules — Need for immediate response to business mandates to achieve required ROI

  • Resource, skill, and knowledge management — Distribution of experts, who are often outsourced, around the globe, resulting in communication deficiencies caused by time zone and culture differences

  • Classic methodology — The tendency to take a sequential, waterfall approach and follow a functional, Tayloristic method

These demands are the very reasons why projects need business process experts! As the integrator of end-to-end processes, a BPX not only understands his organization, implementation tools, and processes, but he is also the bridge between multiple, diverse stakeholders. One skill that is often overlooked, though, is collaboration — a necessary strength for an effective BPX.

Collaboration — More Than a "Nice-to-Have" Soft Skill

Successful collaboration can drive on-time projects, quicker integration of partners, or significant process improvement, and therefore translates directly to the bottom line. Consider the different levels at which companies can foster collaboration — even with competitors — to achieve business value:

  • Within a company — This is the place to start; be open about what you are working on and how it may benefit others with similar tasks.

  • Within your industry — It is counterintuitive to share knowledge with your competitors. But by jointly growing the overall market or cutting costs, competitors can mutually benefit.1 On a practical level, you'll find that the automotive industry uses collaboration extensively; engines or entire chassis are shared among competitors.

  • Across industries — Collaboration can yield significant results, even between two companies that are not in competition but that share similar practices or challenges. A classic example of this is the copy machine manufacturer that benchmarked its shipping processes against a mail-order company that produced kayaks.2

While collaboration is relevant for process design today, it will gain further importance for process implementation with IT organizations moving to enterprise service-oriented architecture (enterprise SOA). Despite the general focus on this architecture's technical aspects, sharing, reuse, and ultimately collaboration are prerequisites for its success. This is only possible if an enterprise generates environments where collaboration, even among competitors, is fostered and rewarded.

So What Does This Mean for the Day-to-Day Work of a BPX?

To put collaboration into practice in your projects, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. There is already a well-developed paradigm for collaborative engineering in the automotive industry — a paradigm that is now being adopted in the software world (see sidebar above). Also, collaboration and frequent communication are part of the so-called extreme or agile software methodologies (see "Additional Resources" for more on these methods). Let's have a quick look at the key characteristics of collaborative engineering:

  • Cooperation — Foster co-located teams with members from all stakeholder groups and with end-to-end ownership

  • Simultaneous engineering — Follow parallel work streams and integrate teams beyond functions

  • Working method — Discuss ideas and options early; use feedback loops and accept errors

  • Decision making — Make timely decisions to keep the process moving; decisions can always be revised later

  • Quality gates — Establish predefined milestones to assess progress; emphasize testing interfaces

  • Software tools — Use Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) tools

While these are fairly simple, common-sense characteristics, they are not always part of the reality of complex IT projects. The automotive industry's success in using collaborative engineering to build increasingly sophisticated cars that are tailored to niche markets is a strong proof point that these characteristics are relevant. The challenge of designing and building a car lies mostly in how to integrate components that come from many different vendors — much like building software applications.

A Quick History of Collaborative Engineering

In the 1990s, Japan's success with automotives in western markets led US and European carmakers to benchmark their Asian counterparts. Consequently, they adjusted production and engineering processes to include best practices. One of these practices — collaborative engineering — proved to be a huge success. After training 10,000 employees on this engineering paradigm, one of the "Big 3" US automotive companies was able to realize savings of $1.2 billion per year, or $700 per vehicle.3

While commonplace in the automotive industry for years, the collaborative engineering approach is only now gaining speed in software. Agile methodologies including Extreme Programming or Scrum are being more widely deployed, and discussion around collaborative software engineering is lively on the Web.

The BPX at Work — How Can You Start Applying the Collaborative Engineering Paradigm?

When you consider that the characteristics of collaborative engineering are based on common sense, and that there may not be money in the IT budget for a new methodology or engineering approach, you may wonder what a BPX can do to put some of the concepts in place. Here are some ideas:

Successful information sharing is only possible if an enterprise generates environments where collaboration, even among competitors, is fostered and rewarded.

Tip #1: Start Information Sharing and Collaboration via Centralized Information Hubs

When you analyze information requests of team members in decentralized organizations, you will see a frequent need for some standard information, with 20% of that information being requested 80% of the time.

As a BPX, be proactive and make this crucial 20% of information easily available in a collaboration portal like SAP's collaboration room (see Figure 1). Furthermore, if your work is driven by different software releases or process improvement projects, set up identical collaboration spaces for each one. This will help keep the information well-organized and manageable. Lastly, advertise a directory Web page of all the separate project or process portals as part of your email signature. The resulting time savings will let you focus your energy on real strategic work.

Figure 1
A BPX can use SAP's collaboration rooms to store frequently requested information

Tip #2: Build Dashboards

If you are in a leading BPX role, build your own dashboard and push it out to your stakeholders. A weekly project dashboard can be a simple Microsoft Office file with tables, text, and statistics. For larger projects, and if some of your dashboard-relevant data is part of your business applications, you can look to more sophisticated tools like SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer to help build your weekly project snapshots. The resulting project transparency will again cut down on ad hoc questions and concerns about process/project status and let you focus on getting your job done.

Tip #3: Drive Governance in Enterprise SOA

As a BPX, keep your focus on organizing and facilitating the sharing and reuse of enterprise services as the process building blocks of the future. This part is as important as — or maybe even more important than — the detailed technical workings of enterprise services. Only effective management and governance of enterprise services will enable reuse and, therefore, achieve the desired ROI. As a BPX, you can help by defining the governance framework or by documenting and classifying individual services.

An example of collaborating to define and document enterprise services can be found in the ES Packages wiki at www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/wiki?path=/display/ESpackages/Enterprise+Services+Community&. Such a tool can be used for internal as well as external collaboration — that is, within the firewall and across the enterprise.

These tips just scratch the surface of the collaboration activities and tools available to the BPX. See "Additional Resources" for further instruction and advice.

Summary

To learn more about collaborative principles — such as collaborative engineering and agile design — as well as the technologies and tools to support collaboration, you can start with the SAP Developer Network (SDN) and the newly launched Business Process Expert Community. These forums give you not only resources, but also a platform to put collaboration into practice, with opportunities for benchmarking and networking with peers and SAP experts, both in the technical and business process-oriented realms.


1 You can find a famous theoretical discussion of this concept in the book Co-opetition by Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry J. Nalebuff.

2 See Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices That Lead to Superior Performance by Robert C. Camp for more information.

3 See Simplicity Wins, a report from McKinsey & Company, Inc., for more information.


Additional Resources

BPX Community on SDN: www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/bpx

Collaboration forums on SDN: www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/collaboration

SDN's wiki, itself a collaboration tool: www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/wiki

Information on agile development, a form of software engineering with strong collaboration: http://agilemanifesto.org/principles.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development

SAP NetWeaver Visual Composer for building dashboards: www.sdn.sap.com/irj/sdn/visualcomposer

Example of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) in mySAP PLM's cProject Suite: www8.sap.com/businessmaps/972641255F7944648353B8E628F34B88.htm

Swen Conrad has been working with SAP applications since 1995. After starting his functional consulting career with IDS Scheer in Germany, he moved to the United States, where he gained a wealth of experience in numerous worldwide SAP implementation projects. Before joining SAP, Swen worked at Hewlett-Packard as a Senior Program Manager and managed a global virtual team for the deployment of HP's strategic Professional Services Automation solution. Swen is Product Manager for SAP NetWeaver Process Integration. He can be reached at swen.conrad@sap.com.

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