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November 16, 2000

The sun never sets on the extranet

  • Borderless engineering transcends geographic, communication boundaries.
    Harris Group

    It’s sunset in Seattle, and at computer stations throughout Harris Group’s office, engineers and designers are checking documents and drawings back into a Web-based extranet, dedicated to a project involving the design of a paper mill in Russia, before they head home.

    On the other side of the world, it’s sunrise in St. Petersburg. Engineers and designers are logging on to the same extranet and beginning their work day. The project continues without a missed beat.

    In Colorado, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin, managers, contractors, vendors and field personnel can log on at any hour and catch up on the latest project news, or add input and make revisions to the drawings using the extranet or other collaboration tools like e-mail, NetMeeting, and common program viewers for databases and CAD.

    If this fast-paced, open-24-hours-a-day format reminds you more of convenience stores than engineering, then you haven’t been paying attention to the latest innovations in round-the-clock project collaboration trends: technology tools that reduce or remove barriers between geographic locations and people. Real-time, continuous information-sharing around the world fast-forwards project schedules and delivers exceptional quality. The right people do the work regardless of their physical location.

    Increasingly, industrial customers demand both a fast-track schedule and reduced project costs. Collaboration technology and extranets help meet these challenges by using the best people wherever they are located—as opposed to the best person available at a local office. This reduces the costs associated with interoffice travel—at a time when business travel costs are soaring—and reduces the time it takes to deliver a design.

    Collaboration technology, including extranets, involves tools that give the project owner the ability to incorporate the entire supply chain—stake holders, facility managers, corporate engineers and managers, construction contractors, equipment and material vendors, other engineering firms, field personnel and subcontractors. It enables all these entities to communicate effectively among their multiple offices.

    Implementation of new mediums such as extranets takes time, however, and long-term effects cannot always be predicted or imagined. The rapid evolution and deployment of new technology challenges our intuitive work comfort zones. Think about the first time you used e-mail or a mouse. Those skills, cumbersome then, are second nature now. Eventually the skills needed to take advantage of all the opportunities collaboration technology presents will become second nature to every member of every project team.

    Collaboration technology works because it is available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. People who can’t otherwise meet to problem-solve can do so via the extranet—leaving a record of what transpired—or they can collaborate using e-mail or NetMeeting. In addition to documents and CAD drawings, extranets can also provide contract and purchase order production and support, and allow sharing of digital photos which quickly relay field conditions to remote design teams.

    The key to successful borderless engineering is intuitive structure. Structure tends to minimize communication problems, and the more intuitive the structure, the more efficient the project work. Structure is provided by standards and consistency in execution; for example, when a team has worked together for a long time, team members know their roles and the expectations, and they can carry out their work effectively because they know what the other team members are going to do and how the pieces fit together. Collaboration tools facilitate this same kind of structured interaction, cutting across geographic and communications borders.

    How do you decide whether or not to use collaboration tools? You’re probably already using one or two of them, if you’re using e-mail, multisite conferencing or NetMeeting. It may be extranets that you want to incorporate next.

    First, evaluate the quality of service and software available. Then assess the financial stability of the software manufacturer; do you believe they’ll be there to support you in a year? Two years? Through changes in scope and technology? Finally, think about whether or not the culture of your firm is accepting of electronic business. What is the sophistication of your connection to the server? Do you have adequate bandwidth, security, and reliability?

    Primary inhibitors to the growth of borderless engineering are bandwidth restrictions to the Internet and educating users about the benefits of borderless engineering and project Web sites. Fortunately, both of these inhibitors will be addressed in the coming years with the exponential growth of the Internet.

    The payoffs for firms using collaboration technology are gigantic and may make the difference, in the next few years, between firms that succeed and those that don’t.

    “Extranets enable us to work smarter, moving work and not people, and taking advantage of global availability to allow round-the-clock work,” says Harris Group project manager Elisa Bucklin. “Everybody has the same information at the same time. Virtual teams shorten delivery time of products, use the best-quality people and save administrative costs.”

    Eventually, Bucklin hopes that extranets will also offer password-protected chat rooms for design teams and comprehensive scheduling features. In the interim, small and large companies together can build electronic bridges to reach far beyond their geographic constraints.

    Al McSwain is the chief technology officer at Harris Group Inc. in Seattle. He can be reached by e-mail at al.mcswain@harrisgrp.com.

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