Punch Happy

By Matthew Hicks  |  Posted 2001-11-05 Print this article Print

Punch Happy

In industries where no dominant software platform has emerged, however, e-procurement buyers and sellers are increasingly looking for help managing content. Besides using outsourcers or content management applications, enterprises are giving up on creating custom catalogs and turning toward an approach already built into e-procurement systems. Called PunchOut by Ariba and RoundTrip by Commerce One, this method allows buyers to access suppliers e-commerce Web sites from within e-commerce applications to locate and order products. Then, once a product is ordered, it is recorded within the buyers e-procurement system and follows the internal workflow, such as being recorded into an ERP system.

At Corporate Express, as many as three-quarters of new buyers doing e-procurement are planning on using these punch-out capabilities, Aiello said. Thats a complete reversal from last year when most buyers still were asking for custom electronic catalogs to be integrated into their internal e-procurement systems.

But punch-out capabilities have major limitations, experts say. For one thing, the buying organization loses any control over the content and how it is presented. Each suppliers site would have a different design, organization and way of classifying products, which could cause confusion among users. Search functionality within the e-procurement system also wouldnt work across suppliers Web sites accessed through punch out.

Such limitations are a main reason companies such as Union Bank and Ametek are cautious in their use of punch-out functionality. Both companies are connecting to specific suppliers Web sites primarily for configurable goods, such as computers and commercial printing. Union Bank, for instance, has 10 of its suppliers connected through Aribas punch-out capability, while Ametek accesses two through similar functionality in its Oracle system and through the service with ICG. For most goods bought online, however, both prefer to use custom catalogs.

"[Punch out] is not a silver bullet and not a way to deal with everything," said Union Banks Morrell.

So, with many buyers continuing to prefer custom e-procurement catalogs, suppliers such as Corporate Express have been searching for software to help aggregate and publish electronic catalog data. It chose in March to install the Trigo Enterprise software, which should launch this month, said Bret McInnis, vice president of e-business technologies at Corporate Express. That system will be used not only to support buying customers e-procurement systems but also to manage the product catalog appearing on Corporate Express main Web site scheduled for a relaunch by the middle of next year.

Of course, buyers and sellers could be spared a lot of the content management headaches if e-procurement platform vendors would agree on common file formats and XML standards.

Some relief could be on its way around standards. One effort within the XML consortium Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, or OASIS, is seeking to create a common XML business document library called UBL (Universal Business Language) that would allow for some interoperability among various flavors of XML. A UBL technical committee was formed last month, but any standard is likely to be at least a year off, said David Burdett, product manager of xCBL and XML standards at Commerce One.

Wise suppliers such as Corporate Express and buyers such as Union Bank know, though, that they had better not wait for, or even count on, new standards. Theyve got to attack the problem now rather than wait.

"Two things help you achieve ROI [return on investment]," Union Banks Morrell said. "Its having meaningful content and then having compliance by the end user. Without both of those, youre not going to achieve your ROI goals."

Matthew Hicks As an online reporter for eWEEK.com, Matt Hicks covers the fast-changing developments in Internet technologies. His coverage includes the growing field of Web conferencing software and services. With eight years as a business and technology journalist, Matt has gained insight into the market strategies of IT vendors as well as the needs of enterprise IT managers. He joined Ziff Davis in 1999 as a staff writer for the former Strategies section of eWEEK, where he wrote in-depth features about corporate strategies for e-business and enterprise software. In 2002, he moved to the News department at the magazine as a senior writer specializing in coverage of database software and enterprise networking. Later that year Matt started a yearlong fellowship in Washington, DC, after being awarded an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellowship for Journalist. As a fellow, he spent nine months working on policy issues, including technology policy, in for a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He rejoined Ziff Davis in August 2003 as a reporter dedicated to online coverage for eWEEK.com. Along with Web conferencing, he follows search engines, Web browsers, speech technology and the Internet domain-naming system.

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