One of the most interesting developments in modern work is the increasing reliance on third parties. During the last year "outsourcing" has become an increasingly negative connotation, but in many instances others can perform certain tasks more effectively or less expensively than we can, so why not leverage the best solution possible?
What holds up many of the potential outsourcing relationships is that our mentality, business processes and systems are geared to work within the four walls of our business. Traditionally, sharing data with third parties has been frowned on, and we kept suppliers and distributors at an arm's length. To increase our competitive capability and make the best products and services available, we need to decide what we'll do well (and keep doing internally) and what others can do for us (and outsource that work). Then, we need to ensure our systems, processes and procedures fully support the third parties we are working with to share information.
The initial steps in this direction reflected the conflict inherent in thinking about working with third parties. Many early trading systems required vast amounts of computing skill and put information outside the firewall but did not guarantee a free exchange of ideas and information. Rather they deposited some information in a mailbox and waited for the partner to deliver new "mail". Later, Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) and other middleware systems created business rules and automated data management to speed the data on its way in standardized platforms. In many cases, these applications are overkill for the requirements and don't consider the communication needs of the teams involved.
I think we need to step back and develop tightly integrated, point to point systems with our key business partners. These need to be simple systems that are built from the top down, based on our business processes and the information we need to share with that partner. Too often, the information we need to share and the business processes we need to support take a back seat to consolidation and standardization of information technology resources.
Here's the point - build a simple website or extranet to share information and business processes with your third party vendors, suppliers and business partners. Do something small, learn from your omissions and mistakes, and continually revise the systems, data and processes to improve your productivity. Don't start off with a large enterprise package or one that guarantees full business rule management and enterprise integration. They don't work that well and really aren't that flexible, especially since the business processes and your needs will change frequently. Do decide and implement business policies and procedures that reinforce the information that should be shared and encourage your internal teams to work as closely as possible with your vendors. If you can't or won't work closely with the firms who are taking over parts of your production process, stop what you are doing and bring it all back in house. It's hard enough to share data and work effectively within the four walls - what will business be like if you cannot agree on how to share information with a business partner?