Make Your B2B Enablement All Business

Enablement is the bottleneck that is preventing companies from flowing into B2B e-commerce. Although XML helps ease the electronic flow of data and business documents among trading partners, it has nothing to do with enablement.

[From iSource Business, April 2001] As the initial euphoria around the promise of B2B e-commerce gives way to more practical matters  namely, "How do we do it?"  it's evident that many companies embracing B2B underestimate the importance of enablement, which is the necessary set of processes and relationships that a company and its trading partners must establish to ready their B2B community for transactions and growth management.

In fact, enablement is a major obstacle in companies' move to B2B e-commerce. In a recent Edifecs survey of nearly 350 e-commerce professionals, enablement is identified as a bottleneck of some magnitude by 90 percent of participants who have at least considered the issue. Furthermore, the study reveals that the average company takes more than three months to ramp up just one process with one trading partner, and six months to lay the initial groundwork for B2B  largely because most enablement activities are still completed manually.

Many people believe that XML (eXtensible Markup Language) will finally make widespread B2B e-commerce a reality. But, though XML can help ease the electronic flow of data and business documents among trading partners, it has nothing to do with enablement. Indeed, most companies participating in the study that have used XML said the technology did not help them ramp up for B2B.

What Is Enablement?

To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider all that must be done as part of enablement. The enablement process consists of nine principal steps that are grouped into three distinct phases: B2B Preparation, B2B Ramp-up and Community Extension.

B2B Preparation relates to the one-time, basic accommodations any company must make when deciding to embrace B2B e-commerce. This includes Internal Program Definition, which involves developing a business case for B2B and understanding how well the company's existing business processes and information systems can accommodate e-commerce; and External Collaborative Program Definition, which focuses on the identification of trading partners that should be included in the B2B initiative and in the creation of the B2B implementation plan.

B2B Ramp-up incorporates five major steps, each of which must be performed for every single process being conducted electronically between two companies (such as purchasing or accounts payable):

  • Trading Partner Agreement Definition  defines the myriad of operational details that govern the relationship, including the business processes and documents involved.

  • Internal Set-up  configures the respective trading partners' information systems to accept and transmit information.

  • Specification Development  creates the specifications, such as operational "maps" and Web forms, necessary for conducting electronic trading.

  • Testing  ensures that the business processes of each company can operate together effectively.

  • Production  makes the transition to executing business transactions online.

The final phase, Community Extension, involves supporting the B2B partners through the active management of the community and the analysis of how effectively partners are conducting their electronic processes and transactions.

The Problem: Lack of Automation

Enablement has become such a bottleneck because companies try to attack a clearly onerous process with very few, if any, automated tools. In almost all organizations, enablement is performed manually. It involves a lot of human interaction such as faxing, telephoning, e-mailing, and visually checking and re-checking details. This lack of automation makes it difficult for companies to not only complete activities quickly and efficiently, but also to leverage work products and lessons learned from past efforts. Most importantly, it limits the number of trading partners with which a company can work on an e-business initiative to one or two at one time.

By automating enablement, however, companies can move the series of laborious, linear and largely manual exercises onto a manageable technical platform that is rapidly extensible and repeatable. They can significantly reduce the redundancies inherent in ramping up similar processes and leverage best practices in future efforts. And they can facilitate full electronic collaboration by 100 percent of their trading communities, which, after all, is one of the basic tenets of B2B e-commerce.

With this approach, companies can stop handling various paper files and forms that contain contact information for trading partners and employ standard, Web-based files that capture all the "vital statistics" on each customer or supplier in the trading community. Rather than testing each electronic transaction manually, they can take advantage of simple software applications that automate the testing process. And, instead of having their e-commerce team write every trading specification and guideline from scratch, a company can leverage commercially available productivity tools that streamline the writing of these critical documents.

By basing enablement activities on an open technical platform, companies will be able to ensure consistency and repeatability in their enablement efforts instead of "reinventing the wheel" each time a new trading relationship is established. Such a platform will simplify trading-partner communication, as critical information on the community can be distributed and shared via the platform in real-time (thus eliminating "telephone tag" and "musical forms"). As a repository for all of the enablement templates, forms and databases that trading partners can tap into on their own (without human intervention from another partner), the platform can create a "self-perpetuating" trading community that can grow organically. As a result, companies can move from enabling trading partners on a one-to-one, consecutive basis (which is commonly the case today) to an environment that facilitates the parallel enablement of hundreds or thousands of trading partners, thus significantly boosting the scalability of companies' B2B initiatives. In hard numbers, the Edifecs study shows that these benefits can translate into a reduction in enablement costs and time by 55 to 65 percent.

The dream of B2B  where trillions of dollars in transactions are being conducted by companies all around the world  is achievable. But with today's enablement practices, it's impossible for companies to rapidly enable, deploy, manage, extend and analyze B2B trading networks and trading exchanges that comprise hundreds of participants, let alone the thousands that everyone is hoping for. Companies that are serious about accelerating the growth of their B2B initiatives must automate their enablement process and begin reaping the benefits of the new B2B revolution that is rapidly redefining competition in the 21st century.