Supplier communication: eXpresso SaaS simplifies Excel collaboration in Covisint automotive community

Automotive portal provider Covisint is making its data more accessible by automating certain information-sharing processes using eXpresso’s SaaS-based communication platform.

By William Atkinson, contributing editor March 30, 2009

When it comes to document collaboration between manufacturers and their Tier 1 suppliers, plenty of technology options can keep everyone tied together closely and securely. But when communicating with Tier 2-level suppliers and below, things get a little dicey.

For one thing, technologies don’t often mesh.

“At this level, people start using [ Microsoft ] Excel spreadsheets for manufacturing information, inventory information, and so on,” notes George Langan, CEO of Web-based computing specialist eXpresso Corp . “When you have a very large middle management crew, you can control and manage all of this through brute force.”

But, as Langan points out, when such manpower is not available, challenges result.

Recently, though, many of these issues have been addressed as a result of an agreement between eXpresso and Compuware Corp., extending Compuware’s Covisint collaboration platform and ecosystem to include eXpresso’s subscription-based service—enabling real-time collaboration using Excel.

Joe Barkai, a practice director with IDC Manufacturing Insights , cites the familiarity of Microsoft Excel as a plus that can allow Covisint to expand the reach of its automotive supplier portal.

Covisint, launched about 10 years ago, is the world’s largest on-demand centralized collaboration platform, serving about 45,000 customers in a number of industries—including a communication portal that connects about 350,000 members of the automotive industry.

eXpresso is helping Covisint make its data more accessible by automating certain information-sharing processes. Users will be able to subscribe to the eXpresso service through Covisint and establish relationships with colleagues and vendors to share and collaborate on office documents.

Inviting process

eXpresso says its Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)-based application establishes instant file control and distribution across Web-based computing platforms. eXpresso business communities, which focus on live document collaboration with Microsoft Office applications, use a patented invitation process and are governed by a system of rights and privileges. eXpresso can automatically pull data from Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and store all of the elements in a database consisting of enterprise data. Options for PowerPoint and Word recently were added.

“One of the difficulties facing auto manufacturing—and manufacturing in general—is multiple tiers of suppliers,” notes Langan, reiterating that the top two tiers are tied together with very sophisticated technology. But below that, Excel is the tool of choice. “Only when there are large numbers of people available can this interaction be managed,” says Langan. “But with all of the industry layoffs, these people are disappearing. And you still have to get the work done.

“We provide a very different approach to handling these documents,” Langan continues, pointing out that eXpresso takes all of the elements of a document—the values in every cell, the formulas, the macros, and any graphics—and saves them in a relational database.

Langan says eXpresso lets a Tier 1 supplier have one master spreadsheet that it can share with multiple suppliers, and those suppliers can perform updates to the spreadsheet. With eXpresso technology, the Tier 1 supplier can share the same spreadsheet with 10 suppliers, with each supplier seeing only what is important to them. The suppliers can make updates to their portions of the document, overseen by a person at the Tier 1 supplier who can manage everything.

Changes are documented in real time and eXpresso generates an audit train detailing changes down to the cell level.

eXpresso also has a concept called “alerts and notifications.” When the Tier 1 supplier makes the changes it needs, all of the suppliers can be notified via alerts that they must make changes to their bids. When parts are up for recertification, the eXpresso system automatically sends alerts to all the people who need to know.

The continuity benefit

According to Joe Barkai, a practice director for Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights , Covisint could benefit from a more comprehensive method to expand its reach beyond the portal.

“If eXpresso provides this, allowing collaboration to extend outside the portal, then this is probably not a bad idea, because Excel is a very familiar interface,” he says. But according to Barkai, beyond the IT-related document exchange is the challenge of cementing the information.

“Is there consistency in the way suppliers and OEMs use part numbers?” asks Barkai. “Generally, no. This lack of consistency is the larger challenge. So the question goes beyond,‘Do I have the right workflow with the portal?’ to ‘Do my information structure and governance support collaboration?’ Only when this takes place can suppliers leverage the capabilities that a provider like eXpresso offers,” Barkai concludes.