A Theoretic Approach to Counter Interface Issues in Micro-, Small-
and Medium-sized Enterprises
Peter Burnickl and Josef Basl
Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, University of West Bohemia
Univerzitní 8, 30614 Pilsen, Czech Republic
Keywords: Enterprise information system, Business process management, Subcontractor, Interface, Information
exchange, Data management.
Abstract: Modern companies face quickly changing demands of customers, selling conditions, and a high fluctuation
of employees because of global competition. Frequently, firms recruit subcontractors and freelancers to
handle short-term bottlenecks and to acquire know-how. Because of various interfaces and internal
structures and a complex mesh of responsibilities between all participating teams, the exchange of
information and data is highly sophisticated. This paper describes the current situation of most small and
medium enterprises that co-operate with subcontractors and, hence, face empirical problems. Key features
and demands for a possible approach are shown to solve these issues with a minimum effort on existing
systems and processes.
Modern companies need differentiation against
competitors. Customization of products and
increased flexibility is essential in order to survive
on the market. Because of quickly changing
situations, firms have to act and react expeditiously.
Because of short-term commitments, bottlenecks
in in-house capacities are generated. It is often
necessary to access external expertise and
knowledge or a geographical area with growth
prospects. Additionally the overall process is slowed
down by financial issues (e.g. cost-cutting strategies)
or the need of specialized equipmend and skills to
manufacture either finished products or unique
components (Berry, 1997).
Companies frequently adress these issues by
recruiting subcontractors. These sucontractors are
mostly freelancers, micro-, small- or medium-sized
enterprises, which are directly connected to the
companies’ processes and interact with various
departments simultaneously.
That causes a lot of problems according to the
overwhelming amount of information and digitally
stored data that has to be managed within those
This paper describes the current situation of most
SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) that co-
operate with subcontractors to adress empirical
problems. A possible approach is presented to solve
these issues with a minimum effort on existing
systems and processes.
Currently, modern SMEs mostly spread information
via proprietary EIS (Enterprise Information
Systems). They spend a huge amount of money and
time for customization of the processes that are
tailored to the overall management tool. The
problem is that the subcontractors usually do not
have an EIS from the same vendor, which means
that they have to customize an interface between the
different systems. Because the bottlenecks and
commitments are short-term, it usually makes no
sense to work on this problem; they simply transfer
the needed data and information via FTP-Servers
(File Transfer Protocol) or regular e-mails.
Generally, even if an EIS is used, data is stored
on local computers or on centralized servers as these
modern tools are not always strictly used. Often, no
Burnickl P. and Basl J..
Counter Interface Issues in Micro-, Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises.
DOI: 10.5220/0003508000950099
In Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Software and Database Technologies (ICSOFT-2011), pages 95-99
ISBN: 978-989-8425-76-8
2011 SCITEPRESS (Science and Technology Publications, Lda.)
data management software is used at all and
users spend a significant amount of their working
hours to search and share information.
Of course, if the mesh of participating team
members becomes more complex, this problem
becomes more significant to the overall processes
and the end results.
The possibility of saving time and money by
developing an adequate solution is generally ignored
because the current way of data and information
exchange does—surprisingly—work. The managers
often only realize the tremendous impact of this
problem when it is too late.
The fear of managers to implement a
sophisticated EIS is grounded in the idea that the
outcome of the entire process may not be worth it.
Their fears are justified as 44% of projects are late,
over budget, or partially successful. Sometimes the
results are any combination of these three elements,
but data shows that 24% of all implementations fail
(Standish, 2009).
2.1 Mesh of Subcontractors
OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) often
involve their subcontractors into their supply chain
by creating a subcontracting chain as part of the
overall manufacturing process on a long-term basis
(Lehtinen, 2001). In this case, the subcontractor is
highly involved in the contractors’ processes. If the
subcontractor fulfils a vital part of the supply chain
in production, then the EIS for both the
subcontractor and the contractor is usually the same.
Hence, there are generally no interface issues.
A Mesh of Subcontractors is created when
various companies are involved in the same project
or alliance, as shown in Figure 1. In this case, every
company is involved in one overall process but
utilizing a different EIS. The small arrows show the
connections between the different users. The users’
responsibilities can vary during the on-going
process. For example, a project leader of the
contracting company can be a subordinate team
member of the subcontractor’s firm for a certain part
of a process. As those alliances are usually based on
short-term commitments, no expensive interfaces
and customizations can be designed.
The subcontractors’ position is hard to define as
they can be involved in various processes and
projects simultaneously. They can act as go-
betweens for users and SMEs. One subcontractor
can be responsible for a certain task which is bonded
to another subcontractor’s and user’s task at the
same time.
Figure 1: Mesh of Subcontractors.
Every user in Figure 1 can be a contractor and
subcontractor simultaneously. Hence, a mesh of
subcontracting parties is created. Often, this
situation has to be addressed by complex processes
were a continuous exchange of data and information
is required.
Mesh of Subcontractors will be used as a new
definition for this work. Previous studies defined the
relationship between one company and another
company as subcontracting. For this approach, each
single connection between one user and another is
considered subcontracting.
The definition of the connections can vary
during the on-going processes and steps of the
product lifecycle. For example, frequently the
subcontractors’ positions cannot be rigidly defined.
Therefore a flexible process is created.
2.2 Current Problems in SMEs
The following subchapters show current problems
within subcontracting alliances as a basis for a new
approach which were analysed based on previous
surveys and interviews with SMEs that address the
mentioned issues.
2.2.1 No Data-management
Currently, required data is often pushed from one to
another via e-mail or FTP-Servers. There is often no
encryption used as the users have neither the
understanding of the risk to data security nor the
specific knowledge to implement protection.
ICSOFT 2011 - 6th International Conference on Software and Data Technologies
2.2.2 Missing Responsibilities
Every involved company has its own hierarchy. The
diverse responsibilities of integrated subcontractors
are often not obvious and can lead to several
problems. Often, employees without a leading
position can be in charge for a subtask of a certain
area within the process. Hence, non-leading
employees can be contractors in this specific case.
2.2.3 Sophisticated Task-allocation
Because of various niche areas of complex
processes, tasks need to be shifted to subcontractors
in order to obtain solutions and results.
Single subtasks can get lost due to short-term
employment relationships and a mismanagement of
subcontractors. The missing data-management
hampers the task-allocation to the needed experts.
2.2.4 Slow Management Interaction
Due to a lack of time and overview of the on-going
processes, managers often do not have the needed
insight to determine the current state of the project.
Another reason for the lack of management
interaction is the increasing amount of involved
people and data.
For this reason, the supervision of processes is
getting ever more complicated. Subordinate staff
have to deal with situations were improvisation can
lead to a loss of quality.
2.2.5 Data Safety
Large enterprises make extensive efforts to ensure
data safety. These companies purchase expensive
and complex tools with effective encryption
capabilities to protect sensitive data. Employees then
participate in mandatory training on how to use and
apply these tools.
Unfortunately, SMEs frequently disregard this
issue because of extra costs to the company and a
general lack of knowledge about the consequences
of compromised data.
2.2.6 Costs of Tools
The direct comparison of license proposals is
challenging because the models are so different that
it is difficult to distinguish common aspects between
the tools to assist in making an effective comparison
(Adelsberger, 1995); (Zarnekow, 2006).
That frequently leads to license-sharing.
2.2.7 Overall Time Schedule, Management
Time schedules involve a high risk potential. If
milestones in roadmaps are not met, a sub-process
can emerge to a tremendous issue of the overall
process. Subcontractors frequently get short-term
delivery dates, several days in advance of the
milestone to avoid time issues.
The lack of time leads to careless mistakes often
due to poor time management. The worst case
scenario, for example, may be when a one-week
milestone is a one-day job for the last subcontractor,
as the superordinate levels need several steps within
the process to edit the results.
2.2.8 Proprietary Tools and Interfaces
Communication and data exchange via a variety of
proprietary tools is still not easy to handle. Adjusted
solutions, which are often based on out-dated
operating systems and databases, are not designed
for easy communication and interaction with other
As the customization of EIS interfaces seems to
be insuperable for short-term alliances, widespread
files are used to exchange information and to work
on corporate processes associated with the
aforementioned problems.
The analysis is based on previous surveys from
Bramorski (2008), and Al-Hammad (2000), and
publications within the EIS industry about the
corresponding problems on realized projects.
As the focus of previous research was on the
overall EIS and general interfaces among the
companies rather than the single connections on the
spanning mesh, the obtained conclusions had to be
expanded and interpreted from a new perspective,
combined with personal experience adding support
to the interpretation.
The mentioned problems in a Mesh of
Subcontractors were discussed and analysed in a
variety of companies that try to handle those issues
without a big investment on complex EIS.
The key results of the research were analysed to
determine if a deviation would allow for the needed
interfaces to be created for the Mesh of
SUBCONTRACTORS - A Theoretic Approach to Counter Interface Issues in Micro-, Small- and Medium-sized
Subcontractors. In order for such a new tool to serve
the function for which it was created, it must meet
the following criteria to enhance the management of
data exchange and security:
simple and secure,
non-complex communication,
clear responsibilities,
unsophisticated task-allocation, and
quick interaction of management.
4.1 Simple and Secure
Not every employee is an enthusiastic software user.
Because of frequently changing hardware, software,
updates, etc., many users are overwhelmed with the
technical aspects of their job. Data security must be
automated without special software or extra steps.
4.2 Affordable
Because of the overpriced costs of the majority of
EIS, firms frequently use only a single license for
the entire team or company involved in order to save
money. As responsibilities are bonded to various
tasks and datasets, this approach is not possible in a
Mesh of Subcontractors.
4.3 Implementable
Hardware and software compatibility may become a
major issue within a Mesh of Subcontractors. Short-
term relationships often need to be established very
quickly when expert knowledge is urgently required.
However, arranging these relationships is difficult as
implementation of EIS and other data management
and exchange tools slows down the overall process.
4.4 Non-complex Communication
No matter which tool is in use, digital firms
generally use quasi-standard e-mail software for any
kind of communicating and exchanging information.
Even the state-of-the-art chat-tools used in some
modern companies cannot replace verbal
communication (Vintean, 2008).
4.5 Clear Responsibilities
Hierarchies within the overall process are not
generally obvious. The development of complex
relationships can change an individual’s
responsibilities in the overall process. Often,
organizational charts are not updated as roles change
To complicate the issue, every involved
company has its own hierarchy as shown in Figure
1. Subcontractors integrated into the company may
have diverse responsibilities that make their role in
the process opaque. Also, it is not unusual for an
employee without a leading position in a company to
spearhead a subtask of a specific area.
4.6 Unsophisticated Task-allocation
Involved team members shift tasks back and forth in
a not-so fluid process to accomplish the overall
goals. Complex processes and products need the
input of various experts in niche areas. Frequently,
the need for a specialist’s advice arises suddenly.
New employees and subcontractors need to be
incorporated quickly when the need for this
specialized knowledge or skill is short-dated.
4.7 Quick Interaction of Management
Frequently, managers and top managers are
smothered with paperwork and obligations so that
their time schedule has no gaps. There is little time
available to troubleshoot big issues and to interact
with project leaders.
Due to a lack of time and understanding of the
on-going processes, managers often do not have the
needed insight on the sub-processes.
Subordinate staff members have to perform in
these situations. At times the pressure to perform
causes users to improvise solutions to the problems
of managing and exchanging data and information.
However, this type of improvisation is prone to
human error, which often leads to a loss of quality.
In order to enhance data exchange and management
supervision in a complex Mesh of Subcontractors, a
new tool needs to be simple and secure. For
example, it has to be self-explaining in its usage and
should not replace regular quasi-standard e-mail
software. A user-friendly copy of e-mails to a web
address could assure the ability to trace the source of
data, information, and errors within the data-
exchange process. This improves and addresses the
issue of quality assurance without affecting the daily
used standard processes.
ICSOFT 2011 - 6th International Conference on Software and Data Technologies
Micro enterprises, small subcontractors, and
freelancers are frequently involved in various
projects by different contractors. The goal is to
include the communication into the new method. If
an extra step, such as to save communications
between users or to disseminate new information to
users, is necessary, then people will soon start to
avoid the tool or use it thriftily. Users need to be
able to use the tool without purposefully using it.
Plug-ins to the standard e-mail software would solve
this issue.
License costs should also be reasonable to
implicitly avoid the sharing of accounts.
To address the compatibility issue stemming
from the various hardware and software in use at the
participating firms, the tool must be independent of
operating systems. Hence, a web-based tool would
be the fastest available solution without any
implementation at all. Interface issues because of
proprietary EIS would become obsolete. The main
contractor could implement the web-based tool into
the used EIS and its databases; the subcontractor
could use the web-based software to manage and
share information and data for a specific project with
the contractor; and files commonly used within a
project could be stored within the web-based
software for easy retrieval by subcontractors who
need access to the information quickly.
Also, overall time schedules need to be
accessible through the new tool without confusing
Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs). Overall, the
responsibility for a task or project needs to be
allocated appropriately and clear at any time. For
example, if a task is created, then it needs to be
assigned to a person, who then is in charge until the
task is complete. In addition, the organizational
chart for each process must always be up-to-date and
clear at any given time.
Tasks, as part of processes always need to be
“owned” by somebody in order to avoid mistakes
(Burnickl, 2010). For this reason, an unsophisticated
task-allocation tool is essential. If a task is processed
by a variety of involved team members, there must
always be the “task-owner” that leads the
management of the single step in the process. This
clarifies a user’s role and responsibility in the
process to all interested parties.
Reports and evaluations are gaining more and
more importance for leading personnel. The current
state of the projects and processes needs to be
present and easy to inspect. Visualized status
reports, such as the traffic light principle or status
bars, can easily indicate the current standing of tasks
and overall projects. This report will support
managers and leaders in their supervisory roles. A
quick intervention is possible when responsibilities
are clear.
As networks are getting more complex and
short-dated through the vicissitude of the market,
this topic provides sufficient reasons for deeper
research. The single connections and interfaces of
team members over an overall Mesh of
Subcontractors need to be considered for future
studies, as many issues arise due to sweeping
We wish to thank Kathryn Fuller for proof-reading
the manuscript.
This paper was supported by Internal Grant
Agency of University of West Bohemia. Project No.
SGS-2010-065 "Multidisciplinary Design Optimi-
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SUBCONTRACTORS - A Theoretic Approach to Counter Interface Issues in Micro-, Small- and Medium-sized