Multichannel commerce poses new systems-integration challenges
By Ernie Schell
It wasn't long ago that most directcommerce companies were catalog businesses, with orders coming in by mail and phone. These orders were entered into a comprehensive catalog management system that handled customers, inventory and orders. Fulfillment was driven by the catalog management application.
While this paradigm still applies in some facilities, it's more complicated for most of today's direct-commerce businesses. E-commerce Web sites are the primary source of complication. Kiosks in retail stores are another. A growing number of companies have found that a warehouse management system (WMS) is more effective in handling fulfillment than a catalog management system.
All of these facts pose serious systems-integration challenges.
There is no such thing as plug-and-play in the systems-integration world. Horror stories of integration failures are legion.
Perhaps the biggest disasters among direct-commerce companies have been in trying to integrate order-processing and warehouse management systems. Several years ago, a very large and eminently successful (award-winning) multi-title catalog company, which had experienced a decade of solid growth, implemented a WMS from a reputable third-party software vendor to manage a new and enlarged warehouse facility.
Unfortunately, the business rules the WMS used were inconsistent with the business rules driving the home-grown—and quite massive—order-processing platform. The full extent of the mismatch wasn't evident until tens of thousands of orders went unshipped during the fall holiday season. Only heroic efforts and a faithful customer base kept the company from going under.
If that kind of disaster can happen to a thriving company, it can happen to anyone. In fact, one of the largest catalog companies in the country abandoned a multi-year systems-integration project partly because the difficulty of integrating multiple systems had been grossly underestimated.
Prompting multiple systems to interoperate is difficult, even if they're all written in the same language, run on the same databases and operate on the same platform. Most integration projects don't fit such an artificial best-case scenario. In the real world, the integration challenge often is severe. Connecting multiple systems effectively to create a unified enterprise resource requires near-obsessive planning and careful execution.