My Turn: Don't Join The Revolution

Amidst the e-business buzz, it can be easy for a company to get caught in the momentum. But slowing down and taking an evolutionary, not revolutionary, approach to collaboration is the smartest way to set the pace.


[From iSource Business, November 2001] Industry analysts warn that you should embrace technologies and manufacturing techniques like Internet auctions and supply chain event management, lest your company lose its competitive edge or even its very life. To the uninitiated, the risks of such endeavors seem huge and the challenges look frightening, but the reality is not so ominous.


In my 15 years in information technology at Belden Brick Co., a 115-year-old brick manufacturer based in Canton, Ohio, I have learned a simple truth - one that is especially important to remember in this post-dot-com-implosion environment: joining the revolution is a fool's game. The real path to business success is evolution. And not only is evolution the right path, it is also the necessary path, since standing on the sidelines is every bit as risky as jumping onto the latest-passing technology bandwagon.


In such an age-old business as brick -- making, high-tech is probably the last description to come to mind. But in order to keep up as the industry and the business world continues to rapidly change, e-commerce and collaboration are two areas in which Belden has proven that the evolutionary approach to new technologies is the best approach. And we have been able to address these issues at a comfortable pace and in a cost-effective manner through several initiatives.


Collaboration Foundation


One such initiative was the development of our in-house extranet. Due to the nature of Belden's raw materials, an extranet for suppliers is not needed. So, by organizing a small development team to lead the project, we were able to create an effective collaborative communication system that supports our dealers and addresses their needs.


The new extranet now allows dealers to log in and view the details of their account, locate current product specials, view product photos, look up employees, order literature, download or upload CAD drawings, and join in discussion groups.


One particularly useful feature is the BEL, the Belden Electronic ListServer. Brick is a long lead-time product, and we've found that if customers don't order enough brick to complete a job and the style they are using is not on our current production schedule, they have to find the needed brick from another source. Prior to the extranet, this meant customers had to call us, as well as the other dealers they knew. Now our dealers use the BEL, which allows them to send out a request to every one of our dealers to find someone who has the needed style. Dealers that were used to the old phone tree process view this as nothing short of revolutionary. But it isn't; it's just a good use of a simple, inexpensive and readily available technology.


We have also instituted an e-mail service that alerts a dealer with a bill of lading attachment when a shipment leaves our dock. This simple technology means that the dealer no longer has to call and ask about delivery status and, in turn, Belden saves money.


While none of these activities or technologies could be called earth-shattering, the extranet has proven to be an invaluable tool and the foundation for numerous e-commerce and collaboration functions with Belden's dealers.


Myths De-mystified


The misconception that there was a need for a collaboration revolution was not the only myth that fell - while working on Belden's collaboration projects I re-evaluated some other long-standing beliefs to which I had previously clung.


The first belief is that collaboration needs to be expensive. Belden's project cost very little to implement, and it continues to save the company money, especially since our administrative and sales staff no longer have to spend time tracking down invoice copies or shipping dates because our dealers have 24-hour access to that information themselves. In addition, our customers are saving time because they aren't being placed on hold or left waiting for a return phone call or the mailed invoice copy.

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