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Defining the Software Product Category: Intelligent Operations Management September 18, 2007

Posted by Jeff in Business, collaboration, Technology.
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At Serus, we are building systems and tools for operations managers, and a key element in providing a tool for operations is to understand the information management needs of the user community.  By “information management needs”, we mean: what information is required, what information is produced, what information is shared with others, and what is the lifecycle of a change to the information.

Let’s consider a typical example:  one operations manager is looking at a schedule for a production of a product with hundreds of parts in its bill of materials.  Several of those parts are arriving according to another delivery schedule.  The manager would like to change a date in the primary schedule, but this requires a change in the subordinate one.  The other schedule is “owned” by someone else in the supply chain, perhaps across an organizational boundary.

The knowledge is clearly in the combined schedules.  But looking at many organizations shows that those schedules are actually spreadsheets that are located on the desktops of different people.  In turn, those spreadsheets are both the data representation (they hold the dates and part numbers), and the business logic (it is quite common to find huge spreadsheets that are making date or cost calculations in their formulas).

One approach is to e-mail the spreadsheets to each other when there is a change.  But Excel doesn’t have a standard way to indicate what has changed (though Comment flags are used for this purpose), or to automatically merge the change.  It isn’t like Word, for instance.  Another issue is that the second user shouldn’t have to send the entire document just to indicate the change, yet there are limited facilities in Excel for decomposing or reassembling the document, so often huge document transmission is required.

The best way to characterize this problem is to realize that Excel (and most spreadsheets programs) were designed in an era of single-user productivity tools.  These represented the mid-late 1980’s through early 1990’s era.  Think about it:  programs like VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Excel, PageMaker, Word, and most of the drawing packages (MacDraw, Visio, Photoshop) all emerged at that time.  The idea of networked collaboration didn’t become popular until the mid-1990’s.

There are clearly some exceptions to this principle:  particularly the EDA companies, which were running on a networked workstation platform by the late 90’s, have put in facilities to manage collaboration; and the software development platforms have included source code revision management tools that allow hundreds if not thousands of developers to work together. But few of these concepts migrated into tools used in the production, manufacturing, and fulfillment organizations.

So we can identify a number of specific issues that are sources of pain (or “Excel Hell”) that stem from this mismatch of spreadsheet technology with the operational challenges:

  • Difficulty in maintaining data consistency across spreadsheets
  • Difficulty in making/indicating/transferring changes to portions of a spreadsheet
  • Difficulty in validating the increasingly complex business logic that is in the spreadsheets.

In today’s world the situation has become worse, as the requirements for validation have escalated into requirements for audit, and the granularity of audit has gone down to the “every-number” level due to the impact of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.  The world of SOX also requires a level of history to be managed, yet the only level of history within a typical spreadsheet is the ability to Undo changes that you have made but not yet saved.

Intelligent Operations Management software represents a different approach to the problem: at its core, it focuses on the integration of content into a managed data store (typically a collection of databases), and the collaborative processing of business transactions.  It uses structured messages to describe the change that is applied from one content object (such as a schedule in the above example) to another.  It includes the integration of content from the ERP system, and push-back of content into the ERP system.  It also includes the processing of updates from external sources, such as activity reports, work-in-process, status and exception reports, etc.

We feel that Intelligent Operations Management is the leading example of a multi-user productivity tool that deals with quantitative problems typical of manufacturing and scheduling.  The prior set of multi-user productivity tools are represented by Collaborative Content Management Systems such as Lotus Notes, Microsoft SharePoint, less-well known systems such as Groove, or the various Web 2.0 tools built around blogs and wikis

Now that we have positioned Operations Management as a multi-user productivity environment, we can then look to find functions and aspects of user experience that have proven their worth in the single-user case that are to be migrated to the multi-user case:

  • Customizable navigation and workspaces
  • Flexible reporting and presentation of information
  • Notifications and alerts, generated when changes are driven by other users or external sources
  • KPIs and metrics
  • Scenario management, for carrying out “what-ifs”.

The user is therefore given a ‘working environment’ that addresses questions such as “what is happening now?”, “what requires my attention?”, “what issues that require attention are we already working on?”, and “what are my alternatives and their impact?”.

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