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Some technology vendors and software vendors will have you believe that you’ll need to rip out and replace most of your existing platforms in order to achieve your goals, but we’ve found that this simply isn’t the case. In fact, some of the technology that you already have in place and that you’ve relied on for years is probably still relevant. And even if it’s not, it can be augmented with other tools and platforms to create a complete, effective digital portfolio.
This is important in a business world where everyone is trying to do more with less, and where replacing entire systems with new solutions can take an inordinate amount of time, money and internal resources. If you’re already successfully using spreadsheets to upload orders to your suppliers, electronic digital interchange (EDI) to do business with Uncle Sam, and/or application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate disparate systems, those existing approaches can stay in place.
Because these different protocols still have a lot of applicability, there’s no need to toss them out. They all have value and contribute to an overall suite of digital enablement technologies, which can be built out over time. Here are six technologies that you probably already have in place and that still provide a high level of value to your digital portfolio:
Electronic data interchange (EDI). The computer-to-computer exchange of business documents in a standard electronic format between business partners, EDI has long been used by companies looking to streamline and automate their business transactions. A catalog price file, the EDI 832 is frequently used to electronically request or provide prices and product information for specific goods. If you have EDI and EDI 832 set up, and if your customers are receiving the data that way, there’s no need to change anything. The system is probably working perfectly and as it was intended.
Spreadsheets. It’s not unusual for software automation proponents to talk about the negative impacts of using spreadsheets to move data and information around, but the reality is that companies have become pretty proficient at using this approach over the years. If you have a spreadsheet populated with 500,000 different part numbers—and if your distribution partners and/or customers are able to use that to do business with you—there’s no need to change that approach.
And while using spreadsheets for real-time transactions (i.e., for a purchase order or an RFQ) may not be ideal, using a large spreadsheet or Flatfile to move hundreds of thousands or millions of individual parts is an effective method that doesn’t draw on computing resources.
Application programming interfaces (APIs). APIs allow developers to send and receive instructions and data between two computer systems. They connect internal systems relatively simply, allowing access to data—even when it's buried deep within legacy IT systems—quickly and repeatedly. You may want to use an API where a basic spreadsheet approach no longer works, like when you need to gather prices, stock quantities or lead times for a specific group of products.
In today’s world, these data points are constantly changing, which makes the spreadsheet approach cumbersome. For example, you may share your parts data using a Flatfile and then augment with an API that supports real-time pricing, availability and lead times.
Extract, transform and load (ETL). A process that extracts, transforms and loads data from multiple sources to a data warehouse or other unified data repository, ETL is an older technology that users either seem to love or hate. The reality is, some of the larger component manufacturers produce and sell between 500,000 and one million parts every month. Theoretically, some of these companies can even produce and sell up to tens of millions of different parts within that time frame.
If you’re moving a parts list that’s between one million and 10 million parts, APIs can get pretty expensive. This is where ETL continues to prove its value as a viable technology that can move a lot of data around in a lightweight format that everyone can read and use.
Commerce eXtensible Markup Language (cXML). cXML is a streamlined protocol that supports consistent communication of business documents between procurement applications, ecommerce hubs and suppliers. It’s similar to EDI in that it’s a transactional, asynchronous protocol (i.e., you submit a request and then receive a confirmation at a later point in time). If you’re already conducting business using cXML and/or EDI, there’s no real reason to disrupt those. They’re still very useful transactional protocols.
Online portals. Portals continue to provide a high level of value for the individual who needs to interact with data (e.g., when a customer calls in a customer service rep can log into a portal, get the order status and update the buyer quickly based on that information). And while logging into 12 different supplier sites to place orders across all of them is a task better handled by an API, online portals do serve as a straightforward way to maintain a large database of information that can be readily accessed via the web.
Whether you’re using some or all of these established technologies to run your business, the key thing to know is that you probably already have a well-established digital portfolio that can be augmented and updated without having to rip and replace your existing solutions. All of these technologies can relieve the stress of the current supply chain environment for either a selling or buying organization (or both).
The key is to assess what technology you already have in place, determine whether the solutions are providing incremental value and then leverage what’s already in place to further improve upon your current processes.