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Collaboration in Practice: Part One - More Than a Buzzword

Collaboration means many different things to many different people. Here's a framework with concrete definitions and examples. Here in Part One we focus on collaboration in product conception and design.

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Collaboration—Just a Marketing Buzzword?

To many of us, ‘collaboration’ seems like the marketing buzzword that just won’t die. But there is a reason that it persists within the vocabulary of supply chain improvement discourses (as well as in almost every supply chain software vendor’s marketing spiel). That is because the evolution of business models and supply chain structure has, in general, been towards ever-increasing specialization. This has resulted in the fragmentation of the supply chain and the ‘virtual enterprise’ into ever more tiers, involving ever increasing numbers of players. What was once done by a single firm is now executed by many dozens or even hundreds of firms coordinating their activities together.

Figure 1 – Enablers of Extreme Virtual Business Models
(Extreme Specialization and Tiering of Supply Chains)

This radical change in business structure has been made possible by advances in technology, infrastructure, standards, and trade policies. For example, consider the humble shipping container. It was an innovation in technology, infrastructure, and standards that was responsible for a huge reduction in the cost of loading and unloading ships, as well as enabling multi-modal handoffs. Without it, the globalization of commerce that we’ve seen would not have been possible. And without advances in integrating different enterprises’ IT infrastructure (such as web services), it would not be possible to coordinate so many different players, locations, and dispersed activities.

This change in the structure of business and supply chains has made collaboration and tight integration with trading partners an imperative, required for enterprises to remain competitive. In a word, collaboration is a must.

So, What Exactly is This Thing Called Collaboration?

One big challenge in the dialog is that everyone has a different definition of collaboration. It is not surprising, given the broad sweep of types of collaboration between enterprises, and the different perspectives and agendas of various supply chain participants, service providers, and solution providers. In this series, I provide an outline for understanding the various types of collaboration and give some concrete examples. For another insightful angle, see Collaboration Frameworks 2011—On Creating a Global Workspace.

Collaboration Across the Product and Customer Lifecycles

As shown in Figure 2, collaboration occurs across all the phases of a product’s lifecycle (conception through end-of-life), as well as throughout the customer lifecycle (learning about, acquiring, serving, and retaining the customer).

Figure 2 – Types of Collaboration

Product Roadmap/Product Concept

More than ever, brand and OEM companies depend on innovations in components and materials from their suppliers. This means that the roadmaps of the supplier and the OEM need to be synchronized. For example, chipmakers like Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and others meet regularly with key computer manufacturers, such as HP, Dell, and others, to discuss and align product roadmaps several generations out. These discussions incorporate insights into customer preference gathered by the OEM and attempt to align them with the technology possibilities being researched and developed by component or material suppliers.

The same thing happens between Intel and the makers of complex semiconductor manufacturing equipment, such as Applied Materials, KLA-Tencor, and ASML. As chips move to ever smaller geometries, chipmakers and the equipment makers jointly commit to specific chemistries, architectures, and production processes (for more see Trans-enterprises: The Emerging Business Model of the 21st Century).

Product Design

The process of product design has clearly also become a multi-enterprise effort, in most cases. Once a product concept and high level design have been agreed upon, the focus of collaboration shifts to defining the components and specifying the interfaces and design boundaries between the various elements of the whole product. Engineers from multiple firms need to make their components fit and reliably function together, while working on their own piece of the design, sometimes continents apart.

Standards are certainly part of the answer. The standard form factor and interface for hard disk drives enabled their use across many different OEMs’ systems. But there are many more instances in which a component is custom designed or at least customized for the specific application.

Design collaboration is normally an iterative process. Whether two engineers are sitting in a room together or teams of engineers are working continents apart, they will go back and forth to find the best solution. When they work for different companies, the process and agreements are usually more formalized, but the interaction is still the same.

Technology Solutions for Design Collaboration

Technology can help enable design collaboration. For example, CAD systems and simulation tools enable teams of engineers to check the form, fit, and structural integrity of their pieces together as a whole before building physical prototypes. 3D visualization tools enable marketing personnel to get a glimpse at what the product will look like. Project management and remote collaboration help organize these distributed teams.

Collaborative Sourcing

Using Outcome Sourcing, companies can leverage the creativity of their suppliers during the bidding process by specifying the desired outcome, rather than being overly prescriptive about the component, device, or service being provided. This gives suppliers more freedom in meeting needs. Furthermore, modern sourcing platforms allow expressive bidding and iterative bidding cycles. Thus, the suppliers are able to feed ideas or suggestions back to the buyer during the sourcing event, not unlike the iterative design process happening between engineers.

In Part Two of this series, we look at ‘operational collaboration’—during testing and manufacturing rollout and ramp up, and then during the delivery and fulfillment of products and services to customers.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.


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