Opinion: What, price lettuce?

What has IT got to do with the price of lettuce in China? I'll give you a hint.

At the end of the day, a single shipment of lettuce might have as many as 476 attributes. This could include regulations about lettuce, descriptive data (such as the type of lettuce), at what temperature it should be kept, and what happens if the temperature is higher or lower than expected.

Each shipment also has accompanying business transaction data: Who owns the lettuce; who wants to buy it; details of purchase orders, price, contractual terms; which company will ship it; and advance ship notices.

Finally, each shipment also has track-and-trace data, such as the shipment's point of origin, its current location, and how long it has been there.

Having access to all of this product information and the ability to create higher value services on top of it is important, no matter what industry you're in -- be it consumer packaged goods, automotive, pharmaceuticals, or telecom.

For example, when I realize that my shipment of lettuce has been sitting on the docks at the port of Tianjin, China for two days at a less-than-ideal temperature, I might cancel its shipment to Japan and auction it off locally instead. Companies in other industries might want to know about stolen goods, counterfeit goods, damaged goods, out-of-compliance goods, and so forth.

So maybe now you're seeing the handwriting on the wall. If you recognize the importance of tracking all of this data, then you probably also realize that, on a good day, a company might only have 15 of those 476 attributes for a shipment of lettuce in its ERP system. The question is, where are the other 461 data points? Relevant data might also exist in supply chain and warehouse management systems, but certainly not all of it.

Faced with this challenge, the job of IT is to assess whether or not a company's current infrastructure can successfully aggregate all of this data into an environment that makes it usable. Also, does IT have the workflow tools that employees will need to develop this information? The answer is probably no.

Companies such as IBM and SAP recognized the importance of product data three years ago. The result was a new category of software called product information management. Big Blue has its WebSphere Product Center and WebSphere Commerce; SAP has its Master Data Management and Event Management applications. (There are others, of course.) These products create a single data repository against which companies can leverage decision-support applications.

Before you can deploy such a system, however, IT must to assess the breadth of information out there in the company about products: Where it is and who owns it currently. It's around. It exists in spreadsheets, marketing, and merchandising applications, to name a few, on the good old C: drive.

Dan Druker, IBM's director of product information management, says most product data is obtained from "human middleware." In which case, how do you even know when the data set is complete?

Among the many decisions IT must make is whether or not to create a homegrown solution. Some might think it can be done by modifying their ERP system. I don't know the answer to that one. But I do know that product information is of growing importance, and now is the time to start building technology solutions that address it. Do it yourself or get somebody to do it for you, but just do it.

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