With the extranet, dealers are also able to check inventory availability. Prior to the extranet, our dealers would phone the sales department to inquire about product status. The problem with that process is that if a customer is standing in the showroom and the dealer can't get the information the customer wants immediately, the potential to lose that business is very high. Online ordering, however, completes the seamless and cost-effective process.
Return on investment (ROI) was the next sacred cow that fell. When evaluating IT projects, companies have the tendency to use ROI for justification. It can be a useful tool, but it is only a tool, and should never replace good business sense. The move to Internet-based industry exchanges is a good example. A year ago, exchanges were all the rage. Industry pundits wanted to know why traditional brick-and-clicks weren't participating. It was simply because the concept didn't make good business sense and there was no clear advantage. After all, when a company joins an exchange, its products are positioned next to all its competitors' products, and the only possible advantage becomes price. This is not a good situation for a company that uses quality, product range and superior customer service as differentiators. But, as with all new ideas, the exchange concept will evolve and it is wise to keep an eye on new developments.
Finally, there were my convictions about purchased software. I used to believe in off-the-shelf applications for all uses, but my experience developing Belden's collaborative communication system has given me a change of heart. We are using application programming based on our database everywhere to create custom applications. The extranet was built using our existing database and active server pages. As much as I believe in build-your-own add-on applications, I wouldn't suggest this approach for backbone applications, such as our enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. We use MK Manufacturing from interBiz (a division of Computer Associates) and have begun using their BizWorks product. MK Manufacturing gives us strong manufacturing and accounting applications with a database that can support our own development. BizWorks will provide the business rules needed to support our plans for event-driven notification, which is the next step in our collaborative communication plan.
The Bumpy, Profitable Road Ahead
Belden's implementation of e-commerce and collaboration may sound like it was all smooth sailing but, as with all projects, there were setbacks, like skeptical management, customers that weren't ready to embrace a change, and ideas that just didn't work out. All of these issues were overcome, however, by using the evolutionary approach. Smaller-scale, evolutionary projects quickly come online, with benefits realized and skeptics converted in short order. And then when ideas don't work, you aren't stuck saving face and justifying wasted money and time. Instead, you can just back up and move on to the next project. By using readily available, proven tools, your projects are much more attainable.
At Belden, we are continuing to look for ways to evolve. Today, we are able to accept online orders through our extranet. But why should our customers key orders into their systems and then into ours? So we will be looking at using eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to eliminate the redundancy. Again, XML isn't a revolutionary development, it's just another stop along our evolutionary path to e-commerce collaboration.
I firmly believe that, despite the New Economy slogans, the fundamentals haven't changed at all. It's still necessary to identify the demand in your industry, to find ways to create the supply, and then to deliver. Begin your company's implementation with a solid ERP foundation, mix it with the Internet, use liberal doses of specialized software and then apply all these things to your supply chain in a creative and evolutionary fashion. Don't wait for the revolution. Start your own evolution today.