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Covisint: Beyond Auctions

What's it take to use Covisint, the automotive industry's Internet-based trading exchange? Well, besides a computer, here are some other things to consider.

The issue here is simple. Maximizing your use of Covisint. Simply stated, whether you're an "originator" (the buying side) or a "responder" (the selling side), you get maximum benefits by integrating Covisint to your enterprise systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), purchasing, quality management, and electronic data interchange (EDI). But that's not so simple. Integration involves more than just pecking away at a browser-based computer; it involves business process reengineering (BPR) and enterprise application integration (EAI). And Covisint, general perceptions notwithstanding, is about a whole lot more than auctions.

Consequently, you need to ask yourself what needs are you trying to address. For example, say you're closing plants and need to sell off assets. Covisint's Asset Marketplace might be the best place to start an e-enabled environment. Have lots of quotes in queue? You might start with Covisint's auction tools. Or are you launching a new project? You would probably start with the Covisint Collaboration Manager for its ability to communicate across multiple time zones.

Next determine what e-sourcing, e-procurement, and e-business in general means to your company in terms of current and future business processes in an electronic environment. (Consider both internal and external factors. That is, not only must your enterprise be e-enabled, so too must your partners/suppliers.) For example, analyze your request for quotation (RFQ) process. Today, this typically takes from 8 to 12 weeks or more. This involves deciding whom to send a quote to, preparing the RFQ, sending it out, and so on. On the bidder side, there's evaluating the RFQ, preparing a response, making the necessary copies, and getting it back to your company. Add to that the time to manually assess and compare the received bids. Now look at the e-sourcing environment. The Covisint Quote Manager tool does many of these administrative tasks "automagically."

Along with business process reengineering (BPR), determine your Covisint deployment strategy. Some companies start with a pilot project; others implement Covisint access as an enterprise effort. Covisint encourages its customers to implement Covisint applications in waves. "Otherwise it can be overwhelming," says Dori Bennett, Covisint's Senior Vice President for Global Deployment & Customer Service. "The change piece of the environment is more difficult than the actual use of the tools. It's all about the people—their buy-in, their understanding of why the changes are taking place, and how it's going to make life simpler for them." Here's a quick example. If you deploy too quickly internally and the suppliers you're communicating with aren't ready, then you'll be the belle of the ball—with no partner to dance with. That disappointment will reflect badly on the new technology and its new business processes.

 

THE MINIMALIST APPROACH

Depending on how you plan to use the Covisint environment, most of the site's applications need only a Web browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.x and above; Netscape Communicator 4.7x and above). "We pride ourselves on the fact that we're simple, easy to use, and easy to navigate," says Bennett. Merely surf over to www.Covisint.com and register. Once approved, Covisint will activate your account. A single sign-on lets you use the various applications you signed up for, as well as to communicate to Covisint's customers. After that, all you need to do is click the Covisint bookmark, sign in, and off you go.

"We don't send you a CD; you have access to the applications from your desktop," explains Bennett. You also have access to several automotive-specific templates, such as for RFQs. These templates are free of charge. (Covisint can create customer-specific templates for an additional cost.)

Using any software effectively, whether on the PC or on the Web, requires training. The applications on Covisint's Web site are no different. Covisint provides various types of application training. The Covisint Quote Manager, for example, has several self-paced training modules for downloading. A responder might need two hours to learn the application in detail. Alternatively, a downloadable quick-reference guide might take 20 minutes to review. With the Covisint Buyer Auction, Covisint provides bidders a trial auction to practice on. For originators, Covisint has a 4-hour on-site training session covering the whys and hows of using Auctions.

 

PARTNER COMMUNICATIONS

The people issues in any BPR, and for that matter EAI, project are everything. In setting up its supplier portal for sharing and managing quality information with its suppliers, Delphi Automotive (Troy, MI) had to prepare both itself and its partners. While Covisint hosted the portal infrastructure, Delphi put in an infrastructure to manage its users within that environment. This infrastructure included a help desk to administer and support all of the security issues associated with getting Delphi users connected. Delphi also spoke to its suppliers about its new portal strategy. First, the suppliers were told that this portal, specifically through the Covisint quality application called "Problem Solver," was how Delphi was going to communicate with them. "It's a requirement for doing business with Delphi," points out Dan Holland, Delphi's Technical Director for e-Business Program Office.

Second, the suppliers were told they needed to register with Covisint to connect, ultimately, to Delphi and Delphi quality management applications. Delphi also explained the various roles of the players. For instance, Covisint generally handles the registration process, application training, and, if so desired, technology consulting. For suppliers working with Delphi, no data is shared, nor is any other software needed. Suppliers manually enter data in PRRs (Problem Reporting and Resolution notification) as required. Whatever workflow exists with that PRR has been defined in Covisint's Problem Solver by Delphi. This includes such parameters as the addresses of the people to review the PRRs, supplier and Delphi response times, and what alerts are to be issued.

 

ENTERPRISE INTEGRATION

The fact is, integrating Covisint to a company's business system is not required. However, the more a company integrates its existing system with Covisint, the more value the company will derive from the Covisint trading exchange. "It depends on how far you want to go with the integration," says Bennett. Some customers have legacy ERP systems with all kinds of hooks to "external" information systems. Others run their businesses from PC-based spreadsheets, databases, or both. Either customer can integrate its business applications to Covisint. The complexity of the integration is a function of how deep you want Covisint to get into your legacy systems. And no, not all Covisint customers integrate their systems to Covisint.

According to webMethods (Fairfax, VA), an EAI software vendor, integrating applications in and outside an e-enabled environment involves a variety of steps. First is process and data mapping; that is, determining the flow of information across people, partners, and applications across the extended enterprise. Next, these maps and business process models need to be translated into software, either as integration adapters to reuse legacy and enterprise applications and data or as new applications. Covisint helps in the former category providing XML messaging. Third-party consultants and products can help in the latter category. For instance, Delphi uses SAP's Business Connector, an OEM version of webMethods' integration server, to integrate the company's ERP system to Covisint. Using custom SAP Business Application Programming Interfaces (BAPI) and Java programming, Business Connector provides native connectivity to SAP applications, greatly simplifying the EAI effort. Among other things, this bridge extracts contract information with suppliers from SAP.

Delphi also has a large supplier database that it shares with Covisint. This database contains part number-supplier number (DUNS) relationships, and it's necessary for issuing PRRs. (Any supplier wanting to use Covisint's Problem Solver to issue PRRs would need to share a similar database with Covisint.) For that integration, Delphi installed an architecture that consists of EAI software from CrossWorlds Software Inc. (Burlingame, CA; acquired by IBM in January 2002 and now part of IBM's WebSphere e-business infrastructure software). CrossWorlds' software was already a part of Delphi's SAP deployment. CrossWorlds extracts the data and delivers it to the Covisint site server, which acts as a webMethods connector. The connector pulls the data out in ebXML for Covisint's applications.

EAI also involves software testing. If the results are acceptable, launch the software across the enterprise. Then manage and monitor the status of processes throughout your enterprise, provide ongoing maintenance to backend information systems, and perform ongoing application development as the enterprise grows.