Like many of the companies involved in building the infrastructure for collaborative commerce, ebusiness integration software company Tibco has its own definition of the concept.
According to Fred Meyer, head of strategy for the company, collaborative commerce is "the visualisation, integration and management of multi-party processes, done in a way which respects the autonomy of each collaborator".
But many of the business processes and technology components required to reach that goal are still evolving. "Today, the integration of systems inside the firewall has largely been solved to the extent that it can be," says Meyer. "But this is linear. Tomorrow, we will see the development of collaborative processes, web services, process management, directory services and ubiquitous wireless access."
So how should organisations go about building the infrastructure to support such complex collaboration? Definitions of what constitutes web services – where dispersed software components search for and execute discrete business processes over the web – are numerous, conflicting and clouded by disparate standards.
Furthermore, building and managing the integration of applications and processes within this network of components is far more complicated than linking together internal systems.
Meyer advocates that organisations approach collaboration in stages. First, integrating basic business processes with external partners and then exposing required functions as web services.
Second, advises Meyer, organisations should establish a definition of collaboration jointly with their partners. A crucial next step is to establish security policies – how partners will access which types of services and when. Finally, organisations need to manage the collaboration process both jointly, by building 'collaboration templates' with partners, and individually, by ensuring internal systems have captured and processed data from partners.
Meyer believes one of the most important considerations in building this collaborative architecture is to make it flexible and graphically configurable. "The people that will be designing and managing the business processes will not be programmers. There has to be a way to modify these services on the fly without breaking the whole process," he explains.
Management tools will play an important role here. If a web services architecture is going to scale, it is crucial to have management tools in place so that once a process has been set in motion, it does not fall over. Management tools can also help detect anomalies in how the system is behaving, which is vital for upholding security. "As companies increasingly mix internal and external systems, the greatest peril they face is that they expose data or worse still, business processes, to the outside world," says Meyer.
Above all, concludes Meyer, the processes that make up collaborative commerce will not be linear, so underlying systems need to be able to support this. Meyer describes the ideal model for collaborative commerce as "declarative", where events happen asynchronously and trigger business processes in real time – the precise opposite of the batch processing systems that have been a feature in most organisations for decades.
Finally, organisations should be careful not to underestimate the challenge they will face in building a collaborative commerce infrastructure. "Collaboration will be complex," Meyer concludes. "But the rewards to those who are successful will justify the expended effort."