Michelin North America's e-commerce division has decided that rolling out a uniform business-to-business portal is too big a job to do all at once and that it will require significant customer involvement to do it right.
Tom Hall, manager of e-business development at the Greenville, S.C.-based tire giant, said that every time a Michelin department is added to the business-to-business network, it will create an IT project in which a different database and technical architecture must be assimilated.
"This is not the kind of thing where you throw a switch and everything works," Hall said. "Every [Michelin] customer group has their own way of doing business. The biggest mistake I have seen in this whole world of electronic commerce is we get the cart and the horse turned around, picking technology and then looking for ways to use it."
In 1996, Michelin launched a business-to-business Web portal for its independent dealership customers.
At the end of last year, more than 550 dealerships were connected and using the site to check technical data, turn in claims and purchase products through a Java connector to Michelin's IBM mainframe, which runs Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates International Inc.'s CA-IDMS database.
Now Michelin's challenge is to expand the offering to its national dealers, government accounts and automakers, many of which are using the company's electronic data interchange system. With six customer channels selling products from 17 manufacturing plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Michelin's first step has been to design a system that can add one element at a time to the network.
"We've decided we have to build a solid base from which we can go in any direction," Hall said. "You don't know what your customers are going to want down the road, so you have to maintain flexibility."
Entigo Corp. in Vienna, Va., has been involved in the project since the 1995 start of Michelin's Bib Net, named after the tire company's famous rotund mascot, Bibendum. At first, Entigo had to build a proprietary application server to move the information coming through Bib Net. But Michelin now has a BEA WebLogic application server, allowing Entigo to focus on the connector build-out.
Ken Emory, director of professional services at Entigo, said the work will require Java and Open Database Connectivity interfaces, Java Message Service communications and a fair number of custom adapters.
"This is a real challenge in terms of tying together different systems," Emory said. "If it's out there, Michelin's got it."
Hall said the problem is compounded by complexity on the customer side. "Before we start building too much, we'll pull a group of key users together and target business processes we can work on," Hall said.
He said those users will play a key role in helping Michelin decide what sorts of XML-based trading documents it will create. One of the first things it deployed is the ability to put a catalog into a customer's online procurement system so those customers can take advantage of the technology they've already installed.
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, will be security. Bib Net users must have a virtual private network installed to perform transactions through the portal. "If we were going to run a hotel the way we run a tire company, we'd strip-search you at the door," Hall said.