Extranet Hangups

Friday Apr 16th 2004 by Drew Robb
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It looks like a great idea -- using extranets, or collaboration portals, to dissolve the boundaries between businesses or organizations. So how come the concept hasn't completely fulfilled all those expectations?

It looks like a great idea -- using extranets, or collaboration portals, to dissolve the boundaries between businesses or organizations, enabling greater knowledge sharing and collaboration. But the concept hasn't completely fulfilled all those expectations.

"If you are talking about a large IP-based network to share with partners and customers, the full potential of extranets hasn't been realized yet," says Ray Lopez, Ph.D., Director of Strategic Development for Q2Learning LLC in Falls Church, Va.

Andreas Antonopoulos, a principal analyst for Nemertes Research LLC in New York City, is in the midst of a survey (due out later this spring) of how firms are using their extranets. Early findings indicated that most companies had deployed at least one extranet, but they were still in a fairly rudimentary form.

"Most of the extranets we see are 'shallow' involving external users accessing internal systems," he explains. "We see few system-to-system extranets."

Interestingly enough, the issues are not technological. XML and other technologies make it easier than ever before to link disparate systems. The primary barriers, it seems, are process and culture. Seventy-five percent of the IT executives surveyed said that 'people issues' were more important than technology in determining the success or failure of an extranet.

"The most important problems companies experience when deploying extranets are related to the changes required in the business process, and the user acceptance of those changes," Antonopoulos continues. "Some companies have experienced cultural resistance to the changes that are perceived as disruptive by the user population."

Strategy First

Creating an extranet that people will actually use begins with an essential first step -- obtaining broad agreement from all interested parties on its purpose and the strategy to be followed to achieve that purpose. This must involve both a reason for the sponsors to set up the portal, as well as a benefit for the users to participate in it. It is not enough to assume that the purpose is so obvious that it doesn't need to be stated.

"Everything needs to start with a purpose; you need to know why you are doing it and the outcomes you are looking for," says Dr. Bill Bruck, Q2Learning's founder and chief architect. "Yet in every project I have seen, people assume that they know what the purpose is and that everyone else has the same idea."

Thus buy-in is critical: from IT, finance and operations of all the organizations or business units involved. Once you have that initial agreement from all parties, actually setting up a collaborative portal requires three elements -- people, process and technology.

"We find that people tend to think of this as a tech-only problem so they throw technology at it without taking the other two into account," Bruck says.

That's why there must be someone with overall responsibility for the project. This job goes beyond setting up the portal. To be successful, it requires care and attention on an ongoing basis. According to Bruck, there is a more than 80 percent failure rate for "self-organizing" communities -- ones without a moderator or host.

A common error is to assign the task to someone who is the manager over the area, but who is already overloaded and doesn't have the time required to provide proper oversight. So, in setting up a portal community manager or moderator, be sure that this person has time assigned to perform these group functions in addition to his or her usual job duties.

Another frequent mistake is to assign a community leader and then not give that person the skills needed to adequately perform the tasks.

"Companies put someone in charge of the portal, but they never ask, 'Have you ever organized an online community before? Can you name the five things a facilitator should do during the launch process?'" says Bruck.

Once people are in place and trained, process comes into play. Both the community leaders and members need to understand how to use the set of tools that they have at their disposal and the procedures for setting up online meetings, gaining approval for actions and posting or modifying documents. It also requires establishing rules for how often members need to log in to get updates or participate in sharing of information; the types of communications that are acceptable and procedures for mentoring new group members.

"If you want to increase the probability of success you should try to capture the end-user requirements accurately," says Antonopoulos. "Also, by working closely with the end-user community, you can get valuable contributions during the design that will make user acceptance of any process changes much easier."

Next comes the technology to implement the process. The most popular features are not the high-level ones like video-conferencing and live collaboration for document creation. Rather, they are teleconferencing and a shared document repository.

Whatever technology is used, however, it must not only be robust enough to provide the right level of collaboration, but also intuitive enough for end users. This involves such basic actions as setting up a single sign-on for users. If the system is too difficult, though, many users will abandon the extranet and go back to their old ways of doing business.

Security, also, should be worked out to achieve the right balance. Since 9/11, most companies have beefed up their security perimeters and have been more reluctant to grant easy and deep access to those outside their own organization. But without this access the process of establishing an effective extranet can fail.

"If someone really needs to use the extranet, they will hang in there until any problems are solved," says Jessica Lipnack, CEO of NetAge Inc. and author of the book Virtual Teams. "But if its use is optional, they will give up."

Despite the many pitfalls encountered in setting up and getting people to use extranets, however, they are gaining in popularity, particularly in areas such as technology, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications and energy. Whatever the headaches, the bottom line is that there is no better way to easily bring together a large group of people in order to execute major projects.

"Any complex project of any size now is using people from more than one company," says Lipnack. "The brain power needed is rarely resident all in one company so the ability to create these collaborative zones is critical."

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