Companies are seeking to establish electronic relationships with as many business partners as possible to enhance competitiveness, make it easier for important third parties to engage with them, cut time and space out of transaction cycle times and drive down the cost of doing business. As a result of exponential growth in electronic information sharing, it’s no surprise that higher volumes of sensitive and confidential data are being exchanged, and correspondingly, there are many more opportunities for cybercriminals to steal valuable information. Now more than ever, business partners need to make practical, effective data protection part of the DNA of their business-to-business (B2B) communities.
These problems affect any company that communicates electronically with business partners, whether it’s communicating with the bank for payroll processing or sending a purchase order to a trading partner. For example, in the retail industry, volumes of confidential documents facilitating the buying and selling of goods up and down the supply chain between retailers, wholesalers and distributors are sent electronically and need to be protected. In the healthcare industry, patient information is sent between hospitals, clinics and insurance providers, and business documents move between suppliers, business service providers and healthcare facilities. Protecting business documents moving up and down the supply chain in any industry is critical to securing company confidential information.
You can establish and maintain secure electronic relationships with all of your business partners successfully by following these three foolproof tips.
1. Keep Trading Partner Information Up to Date
Because of the importance of data security today, companies are taking a wholesale look at their trading partner community. Most companies trade within large B2B communities that use a plethora of technologies for data exchange. The challenge then becomes how to keep up with changes made by what can be hundreds of partners to things like partner contact information, the type of connectivity allowed and security rights information. This also involves setting up an alerting system to keep partners apprised of changes you make to the community, or when things go wrong.
One of the newer best practices for managing business communities is to give partners control over updating this information themselves, much like individuals use business networking sites such as LinkedIn to keep business associates apprised of changes in their contact information or employment status. Fortunately, technologies such as online self-service B2B business portals now make it easy for companies and their trading partners to update relevant information as it changes and send alerts to all affected parties automatically. This encourages more collaboration and strengthens business relationships while reducing inaccuracies and eliminating the time it takes to update information manually about each trading partner. Empowering your trading partners to update relevant business information simply makes doing business much easier and more efficient.
2. Ensure All Electronic Communication Is Secure
Data exchange connections between trading partners must be secure. The first step to achieving secure e-business is to understand the technological capabilities of each trading partner by conducting an audit.
If your audit identifies the use of an insecure protocol such as FTP or HTTP, the next step is to migrate that connection to a secure protocol that uses SSL or PGP with data encryption such as FTP with PGP, FTPs or HTTPs. You can use one of two models to exchange data with your business partners. You can either encrypt the data before it is transmitted and allow your partner to decrypt it, or you can send unencrypted documents through a secure pipe. Either data transmission approach is secure. The choice of which model to use will depend on the technical capabilities of each trading partner.
Above all, don’t let technology get in the way of doing business. Supporting all types of secure protocols will enable your company to establish communications with any company, and they will appreciate your flexibility. While the largest companies can dictate what protocols their partners must use to exchange data, the best practice for establishing a successful e-business community is to maintain an open policy to accommodate all trading partners, from the largest to the smallest.
Finally, it is also important for you to have visibility into the status of all transactions to ensure that documents were transmitted and received. Some secure protocols such as AS2 apprise the sender of when a document is delivered by sending an acknowledgement; with others it’s up to the administrator to set up a response system manually.
3. Determine the Best Way to Communicate With Each Partner
The reality is manycompanies are doing business with hundreds of business partners, some more than others. You can maintain each relationship directly, outsource the relationship to a third party, or adopt a hybrid approach. There are pros and cons to each method, but all approaches are viable and can be adapted to fit your company’s unique circumstance.
In most supply chains, the 80/20 rule applies. In general, 20 percent of trading partners generate 80 percent of a company’s revenue. If a company trades with 500 suppliers, for example, 100 of those would be responsible for 80 percent of its business. The cost of establishing and maintaining the other 400 connections could be high with little return.
Under a hybrid strategy, you might manage your top-20-percent business partners using AS2, for example, and would outsource the managing of the other 80 percent of your trading partners to a third-party provider. This would allow you to maintain a direct link to your most important business partners, and save money by partnering with a third-party vendor to manage the multitude of smaller trading partners via a portal. To achieve optimal efficiencies and cost savings, your goal should be 100 percent electronic connectivity with your partners.
Implementing a few best practices will make it easier for you to manage your B2B community securely. Establishing a self-service portal enables trading partners to update changes to their technology and business themselves, reducing your company’s administrative responsibility and building stronger business relationships. Adopting an “open” policy by supporting all secure protocols makes it easier to do business with new companies, especially those whose technology resources are limited. Finally, realizing that “one size doesn’t necessary fit all” when it comes to managing partner communications can heighten your data exchange operational efficiencies while reducing costs.
Kyle Parris is director of product management for data protection software vendor nuBridges. Kyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.