The thrill of Integrated data

Well who doesn’t like a challenge? Yes, I’m taking on one of the dullest subjects in the world, because it is actually REALLY INTERESTING, and has huge benefits and vital importance – as well as a few possible pitfalls, just to spice things up a bit. So bear with me for a couple of paragraphs, and if you’re still not convinced, then at least you’ll have an alternative to counting sheep when insomnia strikes.

I bet you can write out an order on an order pad quicker than you can enter the same order on a computer system. OK, that’s pretty much a given, but most of you would be forced to admit that it’s quicker on a computer to convert that order into a despatch and then an invoice than to write it all out three times. Plus, while processing that order, you want to check stock levels, see current prices and make sure the customer isn’t blowing past his credit limit. That’s integrated data – the system is pulling information from all the different corners of the database to give an instant view. That data has been built from everyone in the business putting information in – you can’t get accurate stock levels if someone isn’t recording receipts and despatches, pricing won’t be us to date if someone isn’t updating supplier costs or recording a customer’s special agreements. If there’s a missing link in the chain, something is going to show up wrong.

Knowledge is a powerful thing. Instantly knowing stock levels might help secure a deal, or more importantly it might bring a customer back to the next order as well. Also, integrated data is shared data – whoever a customer speaks to in your team, they can all access the same information, so the customer gets seamless service no matter who’s off sick or in a meeting. Quotes, customer history, stock levels, repeat orders – all that information is at everyone’s fingertips. And finally what is the cost of a mistake? We can all misread 6s and 4s, 1s and 7s, let alone names and addresses. (My surname is Oldrey, which I automatically launch into spelling for people “Oldrey… O..L..D..” and I am on hundreds of official forms as Aud Oldry. OK, not quite as cool as “Bond, James Bond”, but maybe that all started because he too had troubles booking a car from Avis…) The point is once I have a customer account with my name in it properly all my contact with that business will be more positive and show they care a bit more. People may not notice you getting the basics right, but they’re sure to notice if you get them wrong.

Hopefully if you already use UniTrade 360 (or, begrudgingly, a similar system) you have already brought into the benefits of integrating data within your business – but what about integrating data from outside it? Admittedly this has its challenges, but the payback can be even greater. We are getting a lot of requests now to bring in orders from Web Shops, and importing and exporting documents via EDI and XML have been available for a while now. In the future, what might the value be on predicting stock demand by bringing in data about weather forecasts or approved planning applications?
Being part of a supply chain integrating data with customers and suppliers is a powerful move forward. Achieving that integration has a big challenge – does what your system says match what my system understands? As people we are skilled at interpreting what others mean, because we have context, experience and (in most cases anyway) common sense. A computer, which relies on pure logic, can therefore be confused by simple differences. A customer will call asking for ‘a dozen sheets of 18 mil marine ply’ and you will know they want 12 x P18MARINE 18mm Marine Plywood 1220 x 2440. A computer, however, needs a code that is common to both systems to know what product they are talking about. And even with that in place there can be other challenges: quantity can be expressed in different ways, some systems calculate VAT on a line, whilst others on the order total. But don’t let these challenges stand in the way of the speed, accuracy and depth of knowledge that comes from Integrated Data.

Ian Oldrey