Enterprise 2.0 itself is a popular term that captures the use of lightly structured social environments to collaborate and capture knowledge in a discoverable, reusable way. Typically, these tools are highly social and they’re free-format, so that they can adapt to the problem at hand.
Enterprise 2.0 is generally applied in a business setting between at least one to three types of participants: employees, business partners, and customers. Collaboration has emerged as a key theme in the Enterprise 2.0 story. There have been several exciting developments in this field which have of course leveraged the emerging paradigms of Cloud Computing and SOA.
Social BPM involves allowing the business partners access to the core functions in an operating model that’s collaborative instead of transactional. The core ideas is that managing processes and relationships based on transactions only and within the boundaries of the Enterprise can be significantly enhanced by adopting a less structured, more collaborative approach created around an open community model. In such a model, the business partners are participants in the actual process rather than being consumers or providers to the process. In such a solution, all teams have access to the most up to date information as well as visibility of the process status thus leading to efficient decision cycles and pro-active issue management as opposed to reactive fire-fighting.
Web Services versus Enterprise APIs
In the past, Web Services have been the preferred communication medium for integration between business partners. Such services, exposed on the B2B Gateway are, intrinsically, transactional in nature and involve transfer of discrete request response based communication. The communication is usually stateless and is de-coupled from the underlying business functions on both sides of the gateway. While the mechanism has significant merits in terms of security and performance, there is a significant overhead that needs to be built into the architecture to facilitate, monitor and support these interfaces. Also, web services are usually standardized with some kind of structured message interchange definition for them, meaning they offer very limited flexibility to the consumer systems on how to actually utilize the web service. This is a very desirable feature when there is a multitude of business partners, but can be overkill when the number of partners is limited to a few only.
One of the other options that have been proposed by experts for enabling B2B interactions, especially in scenarios where the number of external business partners is very few, is integration through Enterprise APIs instead of Web Services. This usually involves the applications within the various B2B partners to support a common API specification for their business process management applications. This common API becomes the glue binding the various applications seamlessly and providing a unified view across the platforms. The disparate auditing, logging and error handling frameworks can hook onto this common API to help track and troubleshoot any issues that may come up. The new API shall also allow applications to share information between instances of the similar applications at different companies.
The Benefits and the Challenges
The biggest hurdle to seamless B2B integration has been the lack of visibility across enterprise boundaries leading to additional overheads in terms of communication and coordination for both operations as well as trouble shooting. The common API provides significant benefits in this regard by allowing a single view of information available across the various Enterprises. The API is not restricted by physical platform configuration (On-Premises, Public Cloud, Private Cloud) or access channel (work-stations, hand-helds or custom UXs). It also allows greater flexibility in terms of invoking or accessing the information as compared to the strait-jacketed approach required for Web-Services. Finally, the common API will deliver significant performance improvements due to the usage of custom messaging formats rather than the bulky XML based interactions.
Security has always been a major challenge for any B2B interactions and it continues to be the same for adoption of Enterprise APIs and Social BPM as a whole. However, in scenarios, where the number of parties involved is limited, especially in M&A outcomes, there is a greater control over the entire landscape thus making it easier to establish a trusted network to allow the API level access to be implemented.
In the end, one the biggest challenges in the adoption of this approach, is not technological rather procedural. Business process alignment across B2B partners has remained a bane for all collaborative solutions and this will need to be resolved to allow true collaboration to be established.