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Working with others (2) 2 Jul 2013

Posted by Tony Law in Impact of IT, IT is business, ITasITis, Social issues, Tech Watch, Technorati.
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On Thursday (4th July) I’m facilitating a Corporate IT Forum event called Collaborating with Third Parties (the working title, reflected in its URL, was “Beyond the Firewall”). As it happens this is something I have ideas about. I’ll need to work quite hard not to impose them on the group, since it’s the group’s shared learning that’s important.

Quite a long time ago now, a group of us in BP’s long-disbanded IT Research Unit worked with Imperial College, AEA Harwell (as it was), ICL (remember the British computer company?) and, in due course, many others looking at management architectures for widely distributed systems. That’s to say, where components developed by and hosted by different organisations came together to comprise composite systems which did useful work. In the late 1980s this was not a well understood way of doing applications.

In today’s Internet-enabled world, third-party components are everyday reality. Any vendor who accepts credit card transactions over the Internet, for example, may create their own payment system: but they may equally well wedge in a widget from someone else, who understands and has resolved the issues around payment protection and the compliance and standards embodied in PCI. Whoever processes their payments is almost guaranteed to then invoke either Mastercard or Visa’s online verification service. That payment, then, passes through at least two and probably three different systems before the vendor collects their money. No one organisation has responsibility for the overall system. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an organisation the size of Amazon, eBay or Tesco: when you need a card transaction verified, you don’t have a serious say in how this is done. You interface to Verified by Visa, and you do it their way or not at all.

None the less if you’re Amazon or, in the USA, WalMart, you do have a lot of clout. And if you want to do online supply chain stuff with WalMart, again, however big you are as a multinational global supplier, you do it their way.

These kind of interactions are not equal-handed. One party dominates. I wouldn’t, myself, call these interactions collaborative.

Here’s the other model. In the oil industry (back to BP again) joint ventures are commonplace. You set up a joint operating company, quite likely, with its own capital and operating and management structures: but you want to share expertise and experience and decisions even-handedly so the JV needs to draw on both companies’ information. This doesn’t happen if one of the companies puts its arm round its geology information, for example, and refuses to let the other see it.

More subtly, it doesn’t happen if one company insists that data from the JV is stored in my data centre on my servers and access is controlled by my LDAP directory. It may be stored in your data centre on your servers because that’s the best place. But you have at the least to trust your partners to have access as easily as your own people. They must also be able to decide who, from their side, is allowed access: and preferably to just set it up without referring to you.

It’s similar to what Euan Semple says about conversations. He quotes David Weinberger to the effect that “Conversations only happen between equals”; and he elaborates this. “If two people are not prepared to see each other as equal, at least for the duration of their interaction with each other, then what they are having is not a conversation”.

It’s the same for a collaborative relationship. If you want to decide whether a relationship is truly collaborative: I think this is the same as asking whether control is symmetrical. If you were in their place, and they in yours, would you be able to work in the model you’ve set up?

If I’m wrong about this, I’ll find out on Thursday. What do you think?

Links:
• Collaborating with Third Parties, Corporate IT Forum workshop, 4 Jul 2013
• Euan Semple (2012), Organisations don’t Tweet, people do, John Wiley, Chichester. Page 110 ff.
• PCI (Payment Card Industry) Security Standards: the PCI Security Standards Council
Working with others (1): feeling pleased with myself (ITasITis, 1 Jul) was about something quite different!

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