Note: While this document refers mainly to the supply side of the data sync equation, there are equivalent challenges and requirements on the buying side. Distributors have a
doubly difficult time since they must act as both a supplier and buyer in the data sync world. This document should prove useful to all parties.
During the past five years the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry and their retail customers have been focusing on a new way to share product information. The Uniform Code Council (www.uc-council.org) established “UCCnet” in order to provide a way to certify product data and to synchronize that data between supplier and retailer
systems. The idea is to make sure that all parties are using the same data – formatted in the same way – in order to decrease the costs that stem from data discrepancies. Those costs include
chargebacks for late or improper shipments, duplicate manual data entry, sending the same data in different formats to different trading partners, stock shortages, and more.
Software and services firms have flooded the market with solutions that allow manufacturers to gather their data and register it with UCCnet so it can be synchronized with their retailers. The
solutions have, more or less, addressed the basic technical aspects of gathering, formatting and transporting the product data. However, these basic solutions only begin to touch on the benefits of
UCCnet and its associated data synchronization. .
The Importance of Meta Data
Note: For the purposes of this article, we use the term meta data to refer to information that describes the state of, or actions taken in regards to, product data.
In the world of UCCnet the product data may actually be less important to some of the participants than the information that is shared about that product data. UCCnet has standardized the process
not only for delivering the data, but also for providing information about the actions various parties have taken regarding the data. This messaging enables forward thinking businesses to automate
much more than just their catalog synchronization. This meta data allows a business to apply metrics to and standardize the way certain aspects of their trading partner relationships are managed.
And this standardization, in turn, provides additional information that can help develop a more agile organization.
Lost in the shuffle of UCCnet and other data sync mandates are two very important groups – the business folks and the data managers. Data sync implementation is often relegated to the EDI
department, in the mistaken belief that it is just another transaction that needs to be automated. Business and data managers either opt out, or are kept out, of the loop. However, these two groups
have perhaps the most to gain from a data sync initiative. Together, though, they can greatly empower a willing organization.
The Standards Process
The flow of data through the data sync pipeline – whether the company uses UCCnet or one of the competing data pools such as WWRE or Transora – involves following specific standards.
The Global Standards Management Process (GSMP) and the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN) have defined the standards that address the formatting of data, the transport of the data, and the
choreography associated with the movement of the data and the associated meta data. When working properly, the main components of the process include:
- Product data gathering, certification, and formatting
- Data registration
- Identifying registration status
- Retailers subscribing to the registered data
- Publishing the registered data to each subscribing retailer
- Receiving validation from UCCnet (or data pool)
- Receiving notices from retailers regarding their action with the data (accept, reject, etc.)
- Responding to notices
This is a very high level overview. However, it should be clear that several functional areas of the business need to be involved on both the manufacturer and retailer sides. For example, the
product manager will need to certify that the data is complete before it is formatted and sent to be registered. If the registration fails, the product manager will need to be notified so errors
can be corrected and the data resubmitted.
If the registration succeeds, one or more staff members with customer responsibilities should be notified. Whether it is an account executive or a customer service representative, someone needs to
approve the timing and required data elements for each subscribing retailer receiving their data.
Retailer action upon the data, and knowledge of that action, is also crucial to the manufacturer. A retailer that fails to synchronize product information that they have requested needs to be
identified quickly and appropriate individuals prompted to take action.
The key to this process is the proper and timely utilization of the information provided during the data flows. A data sync program will fail to produce appropriate value to the organization if the
all the data, not just product data, is not handled appropriately. Today, many companies receive meta data via email and then relegate the review of the emails to lower-level staff who are charged
with searching through the emails, analyzing the information within, and creating and forwarding exception reports. This approach may cripple an organization that doesn’t understand the
important messaging aspects of data synchronization. Unfortunately many software and services companies that are selling solutions today are missing this crucial aspect in their solutions, or are
unable to help their customers to properly take advantage of the messages.
Simple automation of a process usually misses the following key component: The internal stewardship and internal synchronization aspects of an external data sync project are vital to the
project’s real success.
As mentioned above, most purveyors of software solutions for data sync initiatives focus on the formatting and transporting of the product data. Gathering that data is often delegated to an
enterprise application integration (EAI) or other integration tool. Even the companies that offer complete product information management (PIM) solutions often rely on external integration tools.
This means someone has to sift through the corporate data repositories and identify which attributes align with each element in the standards, and then find a way to get those attributes to the
software tool that will format and transport the data.
Often, some product attributes are not found in enterprise data repositories. Others exist in more than one location. Still others reside in different repositories for different product lines. It
quickly becomes clear that success will rely on getting your company’s collective arms around the situation early on in the process. If the aggregation process does not yield accurate and
complete data, all downstream business processes, including ordering, shipping and invoicing, will suffer.
Companies need to make sure they identify all instances of product attributes. A system of record will need to be established for each attribute and each system of record instance will need to be
synchronized internally to all the secondary instances of each attribute. And this doesn’t need to be done just once. It is an ongoing process that must continue for as long as you share
information with your trading partners. For those companies that choose to implement a PIM, the same requirement still exists – synchronizing the data in the PIM with the rest of the
corporate repositories. In fact, the PIM scenario can be seen as incrementing the number of systems that need to be synchronized by one. What we are defining, from a high level, will be, for some
companies, a new set of business / data processes that must be instituted to manage the new data sync environment.
This internal synchronization is necessary since you will need all of your systems to be running off the same information. Some companies manually enter the same attributes into multiple systems.
During the input different keystroke errors occur in the entry into each system, and the data quickly gets out of sync again. When this happens, the order management, invoicing, and logistics
systems might use different information, leading to compliance related chargebacks, decreased sales, increased shipping charges and decreased customer satisfaction.
Once internal data is synchronized, the system of record instance of each attribute must be checked for accuracy. Someone needs to be given the authority and tools to make sure each attribute is
accurate and then be held accountable for doing so. This may be, and usually is, a different person for different groups of attributes. It can’t be stressed enough how important a stewardship
program is to the success of a data sync program.
Any company with large numbers of products or multiple data repositories that undertakes a data sync program without addressing the internal data management and message management aspects is
setting themselves up for failure. While a company may be technically complying with a mandate, neither the supplier nor the retailer is receiving a benefit. Errors will continue and increased
chargebacks will be applied. Data synchronization relies not only on synchronization between the manufacturer and the retailer, but within the manufacturer and the retailer environments as well.
A properly implemented internal stewardship and synchronization program can have far reaching benefits through the elimination of internal inefficiencies. Some early adopters of data sync have
found that their internal ROI was so great it covered the cost of the internal project as well as their UCCnet membership fees and the cost of their external project. All benefits of actually
synchronizing with their retailers are just icing on the cake.