Opinion: Dreams of service-oriented B-to-B integration

A project I'm working on reminds me of the packaging of one brand of bagged ice. The name of that ice company escapes me, but my memory of the packaging is crystal clear: "Never touched by human hands!" Back then, I immediately pictured the competition's ice factories, filled with workers loading filthy ice into bags, water dripping on the floor, their thoughtless handling of the ice exceeded only by the general squalor of their surroundings.

So what does ice have to do with IT? In today's IT environments, the handling of the ice is the messy set of business processes, and the ice itself is the data in our supply chains. Many IT organizations are trying to construct a "never touched by human hands" environment by implementing technologies such as Web services.

My current project reminds me of the ice factory because I'm trying to take a data-rich business process with lots of human touch points and deploy systems to minimize unnecessary data handling. During the past several weeks, I've been driving a review of our advertising sales processes, digging deeply into business processes that surround the core of our revenue-producing activities. Of course, I'm dealing with competent and decent folks, not the grubby ice factory workers I imagined in my youth. But I still want them to touch the ice as little as possible.

The business process review is just the beginning of what I hope will be a complete transformation of our online and print publishing supply chain. The idealistic technologist in me wanted to eliminate paper from the process and replace it with pristine XML envelopes arriving from our partners via extranet, each delivering just-in-time data and instructions to Web services running on systems within our organization. In short, I had SOA (service-oriented architecture) on the brain.

The heart and soul of the advertising sales process is the insertion order, commonly referred to as an IO. In a nutshell, the IO is the signed contract for an advertisement to run in a particular medium for a defined time at a specified rate. The IO also represents the front end of our business process where key data enters our systems, so getting clean data at that stage would make moving data through the rest of the process a piece of cake. Currently, nearly all of these IOs come in via fax and FedEx.

If IOs could be represented in a semantically rich XML document and our advertisers could send their orders electronically, my troubles would be over. My initial investigation of existing efforts seemed promising when I found adsML (Advertisements Markup Language) and SPACE/XML (Specifications for Publisher and Agency Communications Exchange/XML). Breathlessly, I ran over to a salesperson's office to ask whether advertisers might be willing to send their IOs in an electronic format. She listened politely and then told me that she was very skeptical that such a fax-driven business could change quickly -- but it would sure be helpful to get those IO faxes via e-mail.

For now, it looks like I'm going to be ordering a fax server. Then I'm going to be spending significant time talking with our advertisers to gain a better understanding of their processes. In an interconnected business environment, envisioning the "never touched by human hands" supply chain is easy, but lots of human contact is required to actually get there.

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