The other week we had Ayman Taha, Director of IT for Enterprise Solutions Integration, from Avent in to talk about how he automated the processing of unstructured, non-traditional B2B exchanges with external partners. Avent is a large distributor of electronic components with a diverse ecosystem of customer and suppliers. Their B2B infrastructure reflects the complexity of their environment but, despite a sophisticated and mature EDI infrastructure, they were still manually re-keying invoices and product updates from hundreds of spreadsheets and .PDFs received from partners. This was because many of their smaller customers and partners could not send or receive EDI messages.
In my 12 years running EDI gateways, we rarely dealt with anything but structured data until the last couple of years I ran an operation. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, we got requests from our treasury department, internal marketing group, product and legal teams to exchange files to their external partners through the EDI gateway. Well, it just didn’t do that very well and it took a lot of one-off coding to get it done. To be honest, we initially tried to avoid those projects whenever we could because they took so long to implement and I didn’t have enough resources to dedicate a developer to a project for 3 weeks. We also had concerns about using our main EDI gateway, which was integral to our order-to-cash flow, for some of these secondary data exchanges because we could see the potential for dramatically increasing volumes.
As Ayman spoke, I could totally relate to the problem he was facing and the way he solved it made me think that the simple answer may not be to try to use your EDI gateway for these types of projects but to use another gateway that is optimized to handle everything else that is not EDI. As IT people, a single solution approach is often drilled into us because of costs and resources considerations. Having recently left a traditional B2B solution provider, I can tell you with confidence that not much has changed in that space and those solutions are no more optimized to handle unstructured data than they were 5 years ago. I think this is because they look at the problem from a file exchange perspective not a data integration perspective but that’s a topic for another post. The inability to automate exchanges with all partners regardless of their size has been a long-standing external data integration problem and is often referred to as a small partner enablement problem. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s not like it’s your partner’s fault they are small and, because of size, they struggle to integrate into the solution you have. You’ve probably already discovered forcing them to try only really works for Wal-Mart. What if instead we shift the focus back to the problem you are trying to solve which is to automate exchanges and business processes with partners of all sizes because it will save your business time, money, expand your market opportunity or help you differentiate. The question then quickly becomes… how do I optimize a solution to solve that problem, not kill my limited development resources and achieve ROI? This is what Ayman did and I would bet, like him, you may discover a one platform approach doesn’t make sense. Well, unless the current solution has other issues (yet another post).
A multi-gateway approach might sound counter intuitive to driving down IT costs but Ayman, amongst others, have proven otherwise. Listen to a replay of our session here with Ayman to hear how he automated non-traditional B2B exchanges and the ROI he was able to achieve.