The single most prevalent factor in business across sectors is the increasing speed of knowledge and information processes. The difference between organizations 10 years ago and today is the ability to consume and produce information and transact business faster, more efficiently and effectively. You could say that we’ve increased the “clock speed” of innovation by speeding up the “information metabolism” of the enterprise and of society as a whole.
We can learn a lot about successful strategies for leveraging information architecture for business results by looking closely at how various industries identify opportunities, especially where there are overlaps in business processes. For example, Retailers and Manufacturers face many of the same information management challenges. They need to process large amounts of information around products or components that are being ingested into their internal systems and processed through multiple applications as they move through the value chain. They are also partners in a supply chain with some retailers extending their supply chains back into the manufacturing process and some manufacturers extending forward into the retail and e commerce customer facing channels.
Retailers must onboard products from manufacturers and manufacturers must ingest components from their suppliers. Manufacturing processes and supply chains contain a great deal of complexity for even the simplest products. Many processes, products and services are intermediate outputs in a larger web of interactions. There are multiple information flows associated with each stage of each process.
Manufacturers and retailers have the same fundamental challenges when it comes to the information supply chain – products are moving from supplier to customer through internal processes that add value and change data. As those products move through the value add process, information is translated and integrated. If there are too many inconsistencies across this information ecosystem, that movement of data is slowed down by the friction of manual processes and translations. Or, if the translations are automated, in many cases they are hard coded or the code is brittle – changes in classifications or attribute values will cause downstream applications to break. This makes it more difficult for the organization to evolve and adapt offerings and reduces market agility.
What this means for manufacturers and retailers is that the content, data and information that allows them to transact business needs to move through the information supply chain faster from ingestion through final consumption by users. A consistent set of organizing principles in the form of metadata, controlled vocabularies and taxonomies allows for the hand off of information from one system or process to another. This is less about organizing content in place than it is enabling the flow of information through the supply chain, just as raw materials are processed into intermediate products and those intermediate products become components that are used as inputs for other processes. Intermediate information products are produced in tandem with intermediate physical goods. As those goods are handed off, the information needs to be transmitted as well.
The difference between doing this the “old” way and doing this in newer ways is that we can increase the agility of the organization as new customer needs are discovered. One retailer we worked with took many hours of manual translation processes with cumbersome, error prone excel spreadsheets to make values consistent across suppliers. The attribute of color could contain the term “black”. One supplier abbreviated this as “blk” another “blck”. This type of translation of attribute (in this example blk = blck = black) needed to be applied across hundreds of products and thousands of attributes. Because it was not automated, it needed to be done on a regular basis whenever new products were on boarded. This also bogged the merchandisers down in low value activities rather than spending their time in higher value work understanding marketplace trends and anticipating customer needs.
Motorola is a good example of an organization that has been working on taxonomy and metadata projects for the past several years. They have been harmonizing many of their information flows with consistent metadata throughout their internal value chains and extending into the marketplace with downstream channel partners. Consider the lifecycle of a cell phone. It begins as discrete components that are sourced from multiple suppliers. There are specifications, pricing, identifiers, vendor data, quality metrics and other metadata that need to be tracked at various levels of detail throughout a process lifecycle. The components are assembled into a phone and now that device has a new identity and new identifiers. The sum of the parts becomes a newly named whole with composite specifications and new capabilities that are identified through metadata.
Business always changes faster than IT systems can support. That is the nature of the business environment. But many of these changes can move through systems more quickly by reducing the complexity caused by inconsistency and by deploying internal classification and data standards.
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