Most changes are incremental in nature. They might generate a little extra work or some minor heartburn, but they won’t cause you to lose sleep. An example would be an update to the ANSI standards. You may fiddle with a few maps, upgrade your software, or buy a new standards book, but it’s not a big deal. On the other hand, big changes will have a significant impact on the way you do things. That’s why it would be good to know which ones are on the horizon.
Why worry about spotting the ‘next big thing’? What if you’re prescient enough to identify one early? The short answer is that it will help you place your bets on the future. Whether that means investments, systems, the skills possessed by the people you hire, what sort of job you personally might want to begin training for, how your organization should be structured, or how you define your processes, the more information you have on where your world is heading, the better the chances you’ll make solid decisions.
So, what’s considered a big change? It really depends on context, on the role you and your team have in the electronic commerce/EDI processes. If you’re with a small manufacturer with a limited number of partners and transactions, or if you’ve outsourced your processes, you may be insulated from the sea changes we’ve seen over last decade. For you, maintaining status quo over a number of years may be possible. However, if you’re part of a larger team in a big company and have been around awhile, your shop probably doesn’t resemble an old-school EDI team from 10 years ago.
It’s sometimes useful to take a look in the rear view mirror to not only get a feel for the scale of big developments that have affected EDI, but to also avoid the types of mistakes that were made in addressing their impact. As an example, it seems like every major change that affected my team over the years cascaded from the maturation of the internet as a business tool and data communications vehicle. Some of what it drove that affected us include:
- Transition from VAN to secure internet communications. This isn’t complete, but most new partners now opt to use the internet to exchange documents.
- The rise of XML. I wrote about this in my article EDI and XML: It's Inevitable. There’s no denying the popularity and effectiveness of XML for many purposes.
- Automation of purchase to pay processes. You can argue whether this was an internet driven phenomena or not (heck, we were automating product selection well before the internet functionality appeared), but the fact of the matter was that it wasn’t scalable until the web came of age. Here are some effects of this development:
- Web-based marketplaces , eprocurement systems, and electronic product information and pricing catalogs
- Real-time processing
- Self-service functionality
- Automation of indirect purchasing
- Automation of small and medium sized business systems
Fortunately, these developments didn’t happen overnight. We made our share of mistakes in trying to keep up, but the end result was our evolution into a team that had the right systems, processes, and people to address the needs of our partners. Had we possessed a crystal ball and unlimited budget, we would’ve made decisions earlier and gained significant top and bottom line advantage. We didn’t , but we did mitigate the risk of making major directional errors by doing our research and staying close to the business and technical issues driving the changes.
How do you spot the next big thing that will affect your program? Research and networking are the keys. Many outside sources are available, whether from research firms like Gartner, academic journals like the Harvard Business Review, business magazines (Business Week, Fast Company, Inc., Wired), and systems journals like Computer World. Many of these sources also have terrific websites with expanded content.
Another important source for information about trends can be your network of contacts on the business side. Although the straight technology plays may not interest them, others that can generate business may be hot and they can help you understand the direction the business may want to take with them. People in your industry and profession can also provide input on what they see on the horizon, so participation in conferences and educational opportunities can be worthwhile.
Some topics I keep running into that intrigue me are related to mobile technology, social networking, healthcare automation, and cloud computing. Now, those subjects may seem entirely unrelated to what you do, but dig deeper and you may find relevance. I’d be surprised if one or more of them didn’t have a profound impact on your work at some point in the future. You should develop your own watchlist, though, and keep up with the news on the topics that interest you.
As a manager, decisions you make on your systems, processes, and people will obviously set the direction for your group for years to come. You need the most accurate possible projections about the future in order to place bets that’ll win. If you’re a non- manager, you definitely want to keep your skills fresh and relevant and you should be aware of what’s coming down the road that might affect your work. Make an investment in the future by spending a little time investigating the hot topics and technologies of today and you’ll earn a nice return. Good luck!