Standardisation of systems is the key to successful e-business

The burgeoning e-business environment is continually hampered by lack of compatibility. A global recognised standard is required, and soon.

Time and again we hear the big boys and government insisting we become web-enabled, or some such other jargon, or else we die. E-commerce could be a wonderful thing, but it is restricted and will not be the way of the world for some time to come until a few simple rules are in place.

What is required is a universal standard for document layout and data fields. Without this, e-commerce will flounder, restricted to a few players with their own standards, or those imposed by corporate giants.

Suppose I wish to order some parts from a large, very efficient industrial mail order company. I can go to its web page, click on the items I want and send off an order. If I do it before 8pm, the parts will be here in the next day’s 7.30am post. What a service!

But the accounts department isn’t happy. Where is the record? How is that integrated into our order system, goods in, stock control and accounts system? Quite simple: it isn’t for most of industry. Now that is a pity.

So how do we do it properly? I open the catalogue, maybe load the CD, or, very rarely, go online. I click ‘faxord’, answer the simple questions and receive an order document correctly headed with address, fax number and a unique reference. The order is logged in the company system under our control, and the PC tells me if the fax got through. Fast, simple and automated…but it does require me to type in part numbers, and prices, which is not efficient.

Time consuming and costly

When we use the late ordering service to get next-day delivery it is done on our terms, not the supplier’s. As a customer I use my system as I want to and it is the vendor who has to do the work transposing my fax onto their system. This is time-consuming and costly and can result in errors. (We once had a container lorry turn up with 100 boxes of overalls instead of 100 resistors!)

Conversely, invoices and delivery notes are generated by the supplier on their system, in their format, and posted. The boot is now on the other foot. The vendor uses his or her own system and causes difficulty for the purchaser who has to re-enter the data into their system.

What the ‘big boys’ want from their part suppliers is that we take orders in their format, process them at our expense and invoice them, again in their format. Speed, efficiency and no effort for them — but cost to us.However, if there were some simple agreed formats for key business documents, such as orders, invoices and delivery notes, the automation, simplification and implementation of e-commerce would be very close at hand.

These documents must not be software specific but must conform to the simplest format possible — for example, a text file with each line designating a particular field, for instance. Any word processor, accounts package or in-house setup could then have a simple add-on module or custom software to handle the data in and out of any system.

This would permit automation of sales and purchasing at both ends, and avoid breaking the rule I set for our system software engineers when we started 11 years ago: ‘I only ever want to type in information or addresses once, and I want to be able to recover any document ever created or logged by this company at any time instantly.’

Signed, sealed, sorted

In the CAD world, DXF almost got that far but unfortunately it is not a fixed-world standard and continues to change. Company document systems are far less complex, so if we want e-commerce we need to agree standards now. We do not want a Microsoft or Ford to impose an impossible standard, or massive committees endlessly debating just a simple, usable published format.

This is, of course, the intention of the XML format, the proposed universal document system that various committees are currently debating. I am informed by my software guys that they have been keeping an eye on the proposals for XML, and that they hold out great hope that this will soon be in place.

Cynically, I do not have that confidence when ‘standards’ and ‘committees’ are grouped in the same sentence. However, as soon as the system is in place, we will be using it.