Friday Rant: Collaborative Commerce — It Takes More Than a Dummy…

Ariba's latest marketing tomb, Collaborative Commerce for Dummies is either a stroke of genius or a potentially dangerous over-simplification of a hodge-podge of important topics (also see Jon Hansen's take here). I'm not the target audience, so don't look to me to tell you which it is. Let's have the market, and each reader, judge for themselves. As a demand generation tool, I'm sure the new e-book will be successful, given that garnering downloads was certainly one of the primary intents behind it and the fact that lead generation has become one of Ariba's core competencies. I happen to think the e-book itself is a fun and quick read (it took me about 20 minutes for a somewhat detailed scan), but I take issue with a number of the assumptions about the simplicity of the topic. Consider the following example.

The authors suggests that "cloud solutions" can lead to breakthroughs in this type of situation: "A company wants to start manufacturing a new type of product that requires a special polymer that none of its current suppliers can provide. It's time for a vendor search: the Engineering team conducts customer focus groups to determine the requirements for the product and then develops specs ... the Procurement team does a vendor search ... suppliers outline their capabilities and bid on the project."

In this scenario, the text suggests that in a linear manner, it would be easier, for example, if "engineering could engage customers in an ongoing discussion through an online community and quickly and cost-effectively consult experts in the field of polymers to determine the exact type that's right for the job." Yet the problem with this jump/assumption is the belief that unstructured collaboration alone occuring with "experts" somewhere in the cloud is what's needed above everything else.

It's not. Such capabilities may very well be nice to have. But what's needed first is something far more basic -- a means to collaborate with suppliers on engineering specifications in a secure manner, request/gather design alternatives and specifications, gather and share engineering details (and production alternatives/details), incorporate directly into an RFQ, etc. This is precisely the type of functionality that a new breed of vendors can enable and legacy providers cannot, at least not on the parametric/design level. If, by the book, the authors are implying you can move what still amounts to a still largely offline process and bring 20% of it into the cloud -- but still leave the sharing and design collaboration details offline or based in Excel or proprietary PLM/design tools -- and achieve collaborative commerce nirvana, then we're all dummies for believing it.

The reality is that the collaborative world isn't just a bit more complicated than the writers present -- it's 99x more complicated. So much so that being led down a path to thinking what the book terms "collaborative commerce" is potentially a career-limiting move for those who follow it without asking domain-specific questions and filling in the many blanks we're left with. Still, there's nothing wrong with trying to explain the basics, on a very high level, of connecting all aspects of a buying organization (e.g., procurement, HR, IT, engineering, finance/treasury/controllers/A/P Directors) with suppliers. I also like the checklists and questions in the e-book, which might prove a useful place to start for both buy- and sell-side team members.

In these specific efforts, the authors have done about the best job as they could in the first three chapters of a Cliff Notes-style book covering a topic that can't be compressed as such without losing nearly all of the context and depth required for true understanding. By comparison, think about reading Moby Dick in a condensed summary and seeing how much you take away relative to devouring the actual book itself.

Up until this point, maybe a Cliff Notes approach really will be enough for some readers to grab their attention. But in chapter four, things really start to fall apart. Here, the text reads like a mish-mash of cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus clouds crammed together to fill space. At this point, the prose begins to offer a mixed set of ideas without any depth to tell you how to even begin to pull the trigger on it. For example, "reduce bottom line costs [by] being part of an active online buyer and seller community that shares a common IT platform can dramatically lower the costs of inter-enterprise commerce."

Aye, aye, Ahab. You harpooned that one. Now try bringing her in...

Jason Busch

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