Buzzing Around

May 1, 2001
Will collaboration be the way to make e-commerce pay?

Buzzing Around

The continuing process of making material handling systems e-ready makes me wonder whether there’s some planned obsolescence going on. Remember when the automotive industry used to build cars and tell us every three years what we wanted and when? The continuing introduction of new pieces necessary for e-commerce strikes me as being similar.

The latest piece called for to make e-commerce really work is collaboration programs. Some even cutely call it c-commerce. When a salesman or analyst uses this term, he tends to combine it with a phrase like re-engineering, as in re-engineering the supply chain to support this new "technology." And if you don’t alter your processes, you’ll face the dire consequences of "low profitability and decreased competitiveness," words guaranteed to strike fear into every CEO’s, CFO’s and CIO’s heart, and make him or her act. Can’t you just hear the ch-ching, ch-ching now?

Well, billions have been spent on e-commerce and what is the result? How many companies have recouped their investment in e-commerce? Oh, it’s too soon to tell because not all the pieces are in place. Once you get the e-commerce part in, we’re being told, you have to put in the c-commerce part because that will make the e-commerce section really work. Got that?

OK, what’s the next part that will have to come in to make the c-commerce part really work?

Should you have any doubts about the importance of all these e, c, and whatever-letter-next buzz words, marketing strategists haul out the competitive boogie man. Act fast, act now before disaster strikes. Outrun, outpace, stay on the bleeding (oops — that’s supposed to be leading) edge of technology.

Ch-ching, ch-ching.

Collaboration is a fancy way of saying communication. "Drilling down," it can also be viewed as a more elaborate version of supply-chain planning, just one that uses the Internet.

We’ve had similar systems before, like EDI, JIT, vendor-managed inventory. But, these systems never gained the critical mass popularity collaboration is now supposedly in line to receive.

One reason some managers are excited about collaboration is their belief that it automates a routine, day-to-day process. Automating this process should eliminate the usual suspects of non-profitability — time, money, steps and people. Nice dream. And it’s totally unrealistic.

First, when have product design and engineering, material ordering, and fulfillment ever been routine? Let’s look at this from another perspective. How well do you know your customers? Have they ever surprised you?

Second, are you willing to give up and throw out your older (legacy) systems in favor of the latest?

Better have a top-notch warehouse management system, too. Collaboration depends on it.

Skepticism aside, collaboration may be just the process you need to increase profits. That’s your decision based on what you know about your business. Just watch the hype — even from the business press.

The best thing a good process can do for you, whether it’s e, c or x, is give you knowledge and flexibility. If the tool you’re being pitched doesn’t offer these, don’t buy it, no matter what the latest buzz.

Leslie Langnau

senior technical editor

[email protected]