Compatibility is step one in partnerships

Partnering has always been one of those thorny business issues that everybody agrees needs to be done to move any business forward. But figuring out who to partner with is relatively easy compared with trying to figure out how to accomplish the manoeuvre.

Partnering has always been one of those thorny business issues that everybody agrees needs to be done to move any business forward. But figuring out who to partner with is relatively easy compared with trying to figure out how to accomplish the maoeuvre.

InfoWorld recently convened its CTO Advisory Council, in San Francisco, to help us sort through the top business and technology issues of the day.

Naturally, the challenges associated with partnering immediately bubbled up to the top of the list.

The problem with partnering is that it is very difficult to ascertain where your core business model is compatible with that of another organisation. And once you figure that out, the next immediate hurdle is to determine whether the two organisations have a common base of technological capabilities.

For instance, a start-up company that relies heavily on web technologies may not find it feasible to partner with a company running the majority of its business logic on a mainframe. Similarly, a company using the web to drive a real-time business model that requires custom responses to individual customers may find a bad fit with a company that has a multilayered distribution model.

Alas, it takes months to sort out these issues - but that may not be a bad thing. Just about everybody in business today frets over time-to-market issues. But a hastily formed partnership can lead to all kinds of problems for the parties involved. It's important for both parties to exercise some due diligence.

There is also good news here, however. Once a decision is taken to enter into a partnership, the actual effort involved on the technology side of the equation is becoming more predictable and regimented.

The good-faith swapping of hostages out of warfare that was common during medieval times has more or less evolved into a modern equivalent in which each company sends developers to each other's respective site to work on integrating IT systems at the core of a partnership.

Typically, this work can take anywhere from six months to two years. Nobody from the business side of the house has the patience to wait that long. Frustrated, the business executives involved turn to system integrators who promise to meet all timetables at two to three times the cost of doing it internally. But no matter, the excess costs can be compensated for by getting to market sooner - or so the bean-counter logic goes.

Fortunately, we are seeing the deployment of new technologies that will help put an end to this little merry-go-round. One of the major benefits of directory technology is that it allows you to essentially create a database in which roles are defined to specify who can access what. For example, rather than define access to a particular file by the name of the CFO, you define access to that file by the title of CFO.

With respect to e-commerce, this concept is now being adopted by US application providers such as Atlas Commerce, which has created its own directory to define the roles of various suppliers, partners and distributors. So if you want to add a new partner to the system, you just define its role in the directory as opposed to sending out developers to hardwire your new partner into your system.

The directory system was built from the ground up with the dynamic nature of partnering in an e-business economy already in mind. It's only a matter of time before just about everybody follows a similar path given the demands of the times we live in. And it's nice to see some folks already are getting their arms around this issue. Supermarket giant Wal-mart, for one, famous for its supply-chain prowess, just last week announced its intention to make use of the Atlas software application.

It all boils down to the fact that partnering is not an event; it's a state of mind. And building a flexible IT infrastructure that takes this into account is what will ultimately separate the winners from the losers in the next iteration of the ever-changing new economy.

Michael Vizard is the editor in chief at InfoWorld. Send email to Michael Vizard.

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