In my last blog post, I wrote about multi-cloud scenarios for enterprise applications focusing on enterprise applications of one company distributed over several different cloud providers. This blog post will be about enterprise applications connecting data, processes and the organization of different companies within business networks. Particularly complex scenarios with a high competition and margins, such as third party logistics (3PL) require a sophisticated approach ensuring and extending competitive advantages. We will see challenges when applying reference models, such as EDIFACT, ASC X12 or SCOR. Nevertheless, I see reference models – or more particularly their combination – as key success factors for business networks, since they represent best practices, common understanding and can significantly improve on-boarding as well as continuous education of new business network members. Hence, I will discuss how enterprise architecture and portfolio management can support the application and combination of different reference models in business networks. Finally, I present how the emerging concept of virtual software containers can support this approach from a technology perspective.
Types of Business Networks
One interesting question is what constitutes a business network . Of course, it can be predefined and agreed upon, but there are a lot of business networks, where there are undefined and informal relations between two companies that have also (in-)dependent relations with other companies. The whole network of relations is called a business network. This is very similar to social networks where there are two related human beings that have independent relations to other human beings. However, all types of business networks have different forms of implicit or explicit governance, i.e. decision-making structures. Implicit governance refers to the fact that the chosen governance model has not been defined or agreed on by all involved parties in a business network. Explicit governance refers to an awareness and definition of governance arrangements by all parties in a business network.
The following generic modes of governance can exist in a business network (see next figure):
One inherits most / all types of decision-making roles and the others have merely an execution role
A group inherits most / all types of decision-making roles and a majority has only a execution role
Several large groups with decision-making roles related to different aspects and a majority has only execution role
Everybody has every role
Additionally, business networks may expose a different degree of awareness and intensity of relations. On the one hand you may have a very structured business network, such as supply chains and on the other hand there is the free market where two parties directly interact without considering other parties in their interaction. Both extremes are unlikely and we will find companies on the whole spectrum. For instance, within a larger supply chain, one company may know only the direct predecessor and the direct successor company. It may just agree on the specification of the product to be delivered, but may not include any data or impose any processes on how the product should be manufactured. This means there is a limited degree of awareness and the intensity is less strong, because they do not really know how something is achieved by the other organizations in a business network.
It can be observed that business networks become more complex, because new types of business networks emerge, such as contract logistics or third party logistics, where your business partners directly integrate dynamically in your manufacturing plant or point of sale as well as corresponding business processes. Hence, you need to work out best practices and stay ahead of the competition. An example can be seen in the previous figure, where the third party logistics provider has a packaging business process deployed at „Manufacturing Plant A“. This business process leverages applications and other resources within the sphere of „Manufacturing Plant A“. Besides delivery, the third party logistics provider integrates similarly in „Manufacturing Plant B“, where it does pre-assembly of the delivered parts from „Manufacturing Plant A“.
Applying Reference Models for Business Networks
Reference models exist since several decades in the area of business information systems, management and software engineering. Some are driven by academia and others are driven by industry. Usually both have been validated scientifically and in practice.
Reference models represent best industry practices for business processes derived from experts and organizations. They can cover the process, organization/governance, product, data and/or IT application perspective within a given business domain. Hence, they can also be viewed as standards. Examples for reference models are EDIFACT, SCOR, Prince2 or TOGAF. These are rather generic models, but there are also industry specific ones, such as the one existing for humanitarian supply chain operations  or retailing .
The main benefits of reference models with respect to business networks are:
Support your Enterprise Architecture Management (e.g. by reduced modeling efforts, transparency or common language)
Benchmark against industry
Evaluation of applications for enabling business networks
Business network integration by integrating available applications in a business network
There some issues involved when using reference models:
They are “just” models. Having them is like having a book on a shelf – pretty useless
Some of them are very generic applying to any business case/network and others are very specific
Some focus on business processes (e.g. SCOR), some on business data (e.g. EDIFACT, ASC X12), nearly none on organizational/governance aspects, others on material or money flows and others combine only some of the aspects (e.g. ARIS)
Some do provide key performance indicators for benchmarking your performance against the reference model, but most do not
It is unclear how different reference models can be combined and tailored to enable business networks
Tools supporting definition, viewing, visualizing, expertise provisioning, publishing or adaptation of these models are not standardized and a wide variety exists
Tools supporting monitoring the implementation of reference models in information systems consisting of technology and humans do not really exist
There exist already reference models for business networks, such as EDIFACT, and they are used successfully in practice. However, in order to gain benefit from reference models in a business network, you will need to have an integrated approach addressing the aforementioned issues as I will present in the next section.
Enterprise Architecture Management in Business Networks
Reference models are needed for superior business performance to deal with the increasing complexity of business networks. You will never have a perfect world by using only one reference model. Hence, you will need an enterprise architecture management approach for business networks to efficiently and effectively address the issues of one single reference model by combining several reference models (see next figure). Traditionally, enterprise architecture management focused only on the single enterprise and not business networks, but given the growing complexity of business networks and disrupting societal changes, it is mandatory to consider the business network dimension.
Establishing an enterprise architecture management approach depends on the type of business network as I have explained before. For example, you may have one organization selecting and managing your reference model portfolio and application landscape for the whole business network. You may have also no one responsible, but you need to align and be aware of each other’s portfolio. For instance, you can create a steering board for this. Additionally, you will need to establish key performance indicators and benchmarking processes with respect to the business network’s reference model portfolio.
Once you have your enterprise architecture management approach leveraging combined and tailored reference models, you will have to address the aforementioned dynamics as well as tight integration between business partners in the business network’s information systems. Traditional ERP, CRM and SCM software packages will face difficulties, because even if all partners would use the same systems, there would be a huge variety of configurations to reflect the different internal business processes of members of a business network. Additionally, you will have to manage access and provisioning over the Internet.
Cloud-based solutions address these challenges already partially. They help you to understand how to manage access, governance and provide clearly defined interfaces via the emerging concept of API Management. However, these approaches do not reach far enough. You cannot move dynamically business processes and corresponding applications and data between organizations as a package to integrate it at your business partners‘ premise. Furthermore, business processes may change quickly and you want to reuse as well as leverage the change in many different organizations using corresponding applications. This may facilitate a lot of scenarios, such as “bring your own digital business process” in third party logistics. Hence, there is still a need for further technology innovation and research.
Conclusion: Software Containers for “Bring your own Digital Business Process”
We have seen that new complex scenarios in business networks, such as third party logistics, as well as the high competition, tight network integration and dynamics impose new challenges. Instant business network adaptation as well as tight integration between business partners will be a key differentiator between business networks and ultimately decide about their success. Reference models representing industry best practice need to be combined and tailored on the business network level to achieve its future goals. However, no silver bullet exists, so you will also need to enable enterprise architecture management at the business network level. Finally, you need tools to enable dynamic movement of business processes as well as applications between different organizations in a business network. A coherent and reusable approach should be used.
Unfortunately, these tools do not exist at the moment, but there are some first approaches, which you should investigate in this context. Docker can create containers consisting of digital business process artifacts, applications, databases and many more. These containers can be sent over the business network and easily be integrated with containers existing in other organizations. Hence, the vision of instant dynamic business network adaption might not be as far-fetched as we think. The next figure illustrates this idea: The third party logistics provider sends the containers “Packaging” and “Pre-Assembly” to its business partners. These containers consists of applications supporting the corresponding business process. They are executed in the business partners‘ clouds and they integrate with the existing business processes and applications there (e.g. the ERP system). Employees of the third party logistics provider use them at the side of the business partner. The containers are executed at the business partner side, because the business process takes anyway place there and thus it makes sense to let it also digitally happen there, before we send a lot of data and information to the network back and forth or having a lack of application integration.
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