The Risk of Collaborating

Dec. 11, 2007
Collaboration is becoming more prevalent in manufacturing, whether it’s team-to-team, plant-to-plant or manufacturer-to-suppliers and partners.

The problem is, much of that collaboration is going across e-mail, FTP (file transfer protocol), instant messages and Internet facsimilie.

Security has become a major issue. A recent survey from software powerhouse Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., finds that 78 percent of business decision makers in the high-technology industry use at least one non-secure communication tool to collaborate with partners. For technology decision makers, the number soars to 85 percent. Only 27 percent of business decision makers and 37 percent of technology decision makers use tools considered to be “definitely” secure.

E-mail was named as the primary tool for collaboration by 99 percent of technical people. That collaboration involves internal departments, business partners, vendors and suppliers. “We all live our lives by e-mail,” says Drew Gude, industry solutions director, high tech manufacturing, at Microsoft. “But it isn’t just e-mail. It’s also FTP, internet faxing and instant messaging.” He notes that the non-secure collaboration includes sensitive product planning and product development documents.

The survey reveals a great interest in collaboration among high-tech companies. These companies were some of the early adopters of collaboration, because they were also among the first companies to outsource manufacturing to China. As that manufacturing shifted overseas, documents containing product information had to be shared quickly. “The survey illustrates that where there’s a will, there’s a way to collaborate,” says Tyler Bryson, Microsoft general manager, U.S. manufacturing industry. “When people need to get the job done, they will find the tool that gets the product document to the contract manufacturer.”

Game collaboration

 The desire to collaborate will just grow with time. “The main push for collaboration comes from engineering,” says Bryson. “These are brilliant people who want to get the job done. What Microsoft wants to do is create some visibility to this and take an industry approach to put collaboration together with security.” He notes that a new generation is coming to the workforce with experience in collaboration through video games. “Young people have figured out how to collaborate through software games, and they’re expecting to work for companies that have figured it out,” says Bryson.

Many manufacturers turn to FTP to share files. “We recently met with 12 chief executive officers of high-tech companies and they told us the reason FTP is very prevalent is because e-mail has a limitation on document size,” says Bryson. “The files they’re sharing include tens of megabytes.” Yet most of the files sent through FTP are not fully secure. “The use of non-secure communication tools is staggering,” says Bryson. “High-tech firms are struggling to find ways to communicate with partners more quickly and effectively without compromising IP (intellectual property) and other sensitive data.”

The collaboration goes in many directions, internally and externally. The risk is mostly with the external file sharing. Collaboration between high-tech companies and their contract manufacturers has become particularly popular in recent years. “The most prevalent collaboration is [between] the company [and] its contractor,” says Bryson. “High-tech companies are globally distributed, and they’re under pressure to move quickly to get their products manufactured.”
While team-to-team and plant-to-plant collaboration can be conducted within secure firewalls, the collaboration that goes outside the company is often non-secure. “The risks associated with IP problems are not as prevalent inside the company,” says Gude. “They’re more controlled internally.”

So who has the responsibility for security? “It’s IT’s throat to choke,” says Gude. “The IT (information technology) department is oftentimes viewed as the organization the enables the freedom of collaboration, so it’s also seen as the organization that’s accountable for it.”

Bryson notes that many of the tools needed to end the risk of losing IP through non-secure file sharing already exists in Microsoft’s Windows operating system. “You likely have the ways to mitigate risk already on your desktop,” says Bryson. The capacity (for securing data exchange) is there, but it takes behavior change.”

Eliminate one-offs

 That behavior change requires a set of procedures for sharing information safely. “For every project, every relationship, they have to figure out the boundaries of the security all over again,” says Gude. “High-tech companies have to create a framework where collaboration is not something that is a one-off every time you develop a new product line.”

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