Breaking Business Silos

Companies seem to naturally gravitate to functional silos. Accounting in one, engineering in another, operations, quality, maintenance and on and on.

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As manufacturing becomes increasingly global and interrelated, there is also a growing recognition of silos outside the company—suppliers, partners, other divisions. Technology evangelists propose a number of ways that technology can help companies break these silos by creating teams across functions, geographies and companies.

There have been many Internet-based communication strategies featuring voice and even video conferences. Despite down economies in which people cut back on travel, these have not taken off in a big way. Various strategies of online lists and chat rooms have likewise found limited use. But companies have a real need to share information and receive feedback quickly.

One decision that must be addressed is how much to share. With some partners or employees, all of the information can be shared, even down to engineering drawing files, for example. In other cases, only partial information should be shared. Sometimes, the team can collaborate on a document with everyone given permission to edit, add and delete content. Sometimes, team members must be prohibited from making changes.

Web-based sharing

Adobe Systems Inc. (www.adobe.com), San Jose, Calif., created a document technology that works across computing platforms, yet cannot be changed by the recipient—Adobe Acrobat. The company has expanded its vision to become a document collaboration company—especially for engineering documents. Acrobat 9 offers document security, just like the usual Acrobat document, but this version includes support for 2D and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files. A Web-based document sharing operation, it allows people to develop document files from other sources such as Microsoft Word, CAD programs and the like, and then convert them to PDF (for Portable Document Format) documents and send those documents to preassigned locations.

Adobe LiveCycle Enterprise Suite adds components for rapid development of content-rich applications, automated conversion of 2D and 3D CAD design data to PDF, and new Adobe Solution Accelerators to help customers expedite deployment of enterprise applications. Adobe LiveCycle Content Services ES automates creation and assembly of PDF documents from engineering product data. It integrates Adobe Flex 3 and Adobe AIR (for Adobe Integrated Runtime), leveraging Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader. These products enhance the ability for dispersed teams to collaborate in a secure manner, negating the possibility of sensitive information being appropriated by someone.

Another Web tool growing in popularity is the “wiki.” Mostly known for the popular collaborative Web-based encyclopedia, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), the wiki technology has been appropriated for various business collaboration tools. One such tool is from PBWorks (http://pbworks.com), San Mateo, Calif., whose wiki product is used by Drexel Metals, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of metal roofing. The company was looking for a way to trap information with easy access. Before adopting a wiki, the company used the usual tools, such as e-mailing documents.

The company has three workspaces. One functions as the company intranet. The second is a financial wiki, where all financial statements, analysis and acquisition due diligence documentation are kept. The third is for key customers. Everything that customers could want from the company is kept there. All documentation for the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), sales tools and all training that has been done, including videos, reside in the wiki. Further, SOPs are developed on the wiki. Employees can comment and edit new SOPs when put out for feedback before they are locked in.

Before putting all your trust in technology, though, be mindful of a comment from General Mills’ Technical Director of Control and Information Systems Jim Wetzel, “Technology alone doesn’t break down silos. The alignment of purposes across the silos breaks them down.”

Gary Mintchell, gmintchell@automationworld.com, is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

Adobe Systems Inc.
www.adobe.com

Wikipedia
www.wikipedia.org

PBWorks
http://pbworks.com

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