A Sense of Urgency

Sept. 1, 2003
As the deadly heat of Dallas in mid-August raged outside the airport hotel, a heat of a different sort was coming off members of the Industry Data Exchange

As the deadly heat of Dallas in mid-August raged outside the airport hotel, a heat of a different sort was coming off members of the Industry Data Exchange Association (IDEA). Members of the IDEA Technical Advisory Committee, who have made the minutia of the new Industry Data Warehouse (IDW) a labor of love, walked distributor and manufacturer information-technology people through the various parts of the data warehouse and explained what would be required of them to make the system work.

Chief executives of many of the industry's leading manufacturers have thrown their support behind the project. Now the association is letting out the clutch and engaging the information-technology specialists at the individual companies-the point where the concept meets the concrete.

"This is the first day of our mutual education," John Haluska, chief information officer of Thomas & Betts Corp. (T&B), Memphis, Tenn., and co-chairman of the IDEA Technical Advisory Committee, told about 50 IT specialists from electrical manufacturing companies at the Dallas meeting last month. The day before, about 110 distributor IT specialists had heard the same message. Haluska implored attendees to get involved, join committees and help shape the direction of the data warehouse system's development. Most of them looked a little grim at the size of the workload already ahead of them in merely getting their own companies ready by the deadline.

The IDW is scheduled to hit the beta-test stage by Feb. 1, 1999, and to go fully live by April 1. There's a huge amount of work to be done before then by everybody involved. The purpose of the meetings was to let distributors and manufacturers know what would be expected of them between now and the end of March.

Distributor information-technology specialists are facing the daunting task of preparing their systems to retrieve and integrate the data that will be available through the IDW on an ongoing basis. Distributor members of IDEA will be expected have their software systems ready to integrate data from the "primary commerce fields" and to request, receive and process updates from the IDW at least once a day. They must plan to use the electronic catalog information supplied via the IDW, and they must conform to all industry electronic-commerce standards and certifications.

In spite of the job ahead of them, the distributors who attended the meeting remained optimistic that an IDW would help them do their jobs better. "This could revolutionize the distributor's world," said Rich Hamer, vice president, operations, for Steiner Electric Co., Elk Grove Village, Ill. "This will have a very positive impact on all electronic commerce initiatives. Data synchronization (between manufacturer, distributor and customers) is the enabler for electronic commerce. The IDW gives a distributor the opportunity to develop applications and 'hooks' that will bring more knowledge to the desktop."

Manufacturers are expected to coordinate systems within their companies to gather and use the same data sent to the IDW, so that both manufacturer and distributor, as well as anybody else in the chain, are working from the same data. They will be expected to supply daily updates of any changes to their data, and to conform to all industry electronic standards and certifications.

The manufacturers' information-technology people must find ways by the end of March to collect and organize the data required to fill the IDW's 12 primary commerce fields in the proper format from wherever they reside in the company's many systems, if they are in a system at all.

Of the estimated 60 distribution companies represented, roughly two thirds said they usepackaged software systems. So most of the industry's distributors are going to be dependent on their software vendors to provide the links and applications required to retrieve, store and integrate product data from the IDW into the distributor business systems-a critical task.

In spite of the crushing workloads and shortage of programmers they already face due to the Year-2000 problem, the software companies have agreed to step up and do their part, says Haluska. One motivator is market share. "We see no choice but to jump right on it," says Mike Wentz, director of marketing for Trade Service Systems, Blue Bell, Pa. "For companies like ours that are so focused on the electrical distribution market, it's really an opportunity to differentiate ourselves, even if it's just for six months."

The IDW ball is rolling very fast, and the sense of urgency to finish by the appointed deadline is intense. The physical system on which the IDW will run is already under development at the Livermore, Calif., headquarters of CCI-Triad Systems. Manufacturers will have the choice of sending their data to Livermore for inclusion on the system there (all the systems used in the IDW will remain the property of IDEA)or installing an identical "data store" server at their own sites.

Why is the deadline so short? The benefits of synchronizing data industry-wide is considerable, and the savings will come quickly, but another underlying reason has more punch. "Basically, we got our CEOs to sign off on this thing," Haluska says, "and they like to see things happen fast."