Taking B2B to the Next Level:
The Brick-n-Paper Challenge
Chief Technical Officer
The complexity of doing business has grown leaps and bounds in the last century. No longer self-sufficient verticals of industrial might, today’s commercial enterprises are
more specialized, automated, and interconnected with each other than ever before. Driven by technology, business interactions have grown to the point that the pace of business-to-business (B2B) commerce has far outstripped business-to-consumer growth.
Even as technology has flourished, much of today’s commerce tasks remain stubbornly beyond the capabilities of commerce systems. The vast majority of our effort to integrate is at the nuts-and-bolts level and fails to capture many significant details in business interactions. Consequently, the discipline of B2B integration for eCommerce must embrace new criteria for ensuring success.
The new criteria involve:
? Reusable architecture and technology
? Agile and flexible standards and practices
? Community and collaboration
Towards Brick-n-Paper eCommerce
To take B2B eCommerce to the next level requires meeting not only the needs of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and existing eCommerce systems, but also the challenge of matching the complexity of brick-n-paper? commerce. Traditional
commerce between brick-n-mortar companies uses paper documents to transfer
information between people and organizations. Humans synchronize processes and supply and extract the information necessary to exchange goods and services. In these roles, they tailor transactions and documents to meet their unique needs and
circumstances and those of their customers.
B2B promises to reduce the time and costs relative to traditional processes. Early B2B systems that rely on rigidly defined processes and documents have been successful, 1reporting cost reductions of 75 to over 90 percent . This success has encouraged
companies to expand their eCommerce efforts to more of their commerce processes, especially strategic processes, such as supply chain integration. Accordingly, it only seems natural to attempt to extend the benefits to the processes used to design, build, ship, advertise, sell, bill, support, and receive payment for a product.
Unfortunately, the current B2B approach is most effective when the processes are simple and the products are static and well defined, such as Maintenance, Repair, and Operations (MRO) and commodities. Today’s B2B solutions have technical and business process
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limitations that become inhibitors when dealing with the scale and complexity typical of
most business processes. In addition, these systems are deployed as part of all-or-nothing
strategies instead of as evolving solutions that support incremental deployment. The
result is B2B solutions that cannot scale to meet B2B demands and in some cases,
discourage B2B deployment.
Defining the Technical Challenge
Technical issues are not solely responsible for limiting B2B success. Today it is business
people who provide the agility, flexibility and interoperability required by the myriad of
business demands and practices that have evolved over centuries. It must be these same
people who address the challenge by ensuring:
? The acceptance of machine-to-machine business transactions
? That B2B expectations align with corporate needs and structures.
The technical challenge is to create B2B tools and infrastructures that restore the same
level of agility, flexibility and interoperability that business professionals have in their
And the challenges are considerable—B2B systems will have to be:
? Flexible enough to model complex and changing products.
? Agile enough to accommodate the variety of business practices commonly used
within enterprises and between partners and marketplaces.
? Ever more interoperable to enter into trading agreements quickly and
inexpensively, and to deeply integrate systems for sophisticated synchronization.
In economic terms, the challenge for B2B eCommerce developers is to find a way to
support the myriad of business practices and standards, and at the same time, to avoid the
cost of millions of consultant hours. Failure will result in vast armies of consultants and
business people working to free vital business information that has been stranded on
paper, in fax machines and in applications throughout enterprises.
One solution to getting and keeping the B2B information pipelines flowing lies at the
intersection of three key concepts: reusable architecture, model-driven systems, and
leverage through collaboration across companies.
Reusable Architecture and Technology
The first step in meeting the challenge is to develop and deploy B2B architectures that
allow organizations to concentrate on business level integration instead of the lower-level
technical details. Architectures have emerged in the past decade that can be used to
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design highly flexible and reusable systems that are readily adapted to meet unexpected requirements. These architectures include loose coupling, non-invasive interfaces and standards-based messages.
eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is emerging as a significant element in extensible B2B architectures. XML was designed to express data in documents using terms that describe the information, not how it is to be processed or displayed. The ease with which XML can separate data from business rules and processes increases the interoperability between XML-based systems and makes them more flexible and easier to maintain, even as time changes the way in which companies interoperate.
A large part of the technical requirements for the next generation of B2B is the necessity to exploit opportunities to automate repetitive tasks and processes. These tasks, with their attendant training and labor costs, limit scalability, extensibility and variability. For B2B, systems should automate as much of the process of interconnecting systems and managing processes as is practical. Model-driven technologies, such as Contivo’s auto-
mapping, and standards, such as W3C XML Schemas, will take on increasing importance as the means to directly impact the behavior of systems based on business models. Finally, reuse must include legacy and current line-of-business systems. An architecture that does not leverage the enterprise information and processes already developed will simply have to reinvent them. Because much knowledge about business process within an enterprise is embedded in these systems in a way that is not easily discovered and copied, the reinvention process is highly time consuming. Modeling technologies, like Contivo’s eService?, aggregate and reuse knowledge regarding the documents and processes that fuel commerce. This in turn enables tight integration with existing business systems without giving up flexibility and adaptability.
Standards and Practices
XML B2B standards are designed for interoperability. Interoperability is achieved by creating Document Type Definitions (DTDs) that rigidly define the contents of eCommerce documents. XML’s ability to create these definitions plays a significant role
in XML’s popularity, since the areas in which data is interchanged is very clear. 2Indeed, Forrester Research reports in The XML eBusiness Contract that over 75 percent
of the Global 2500 need industry specific standards. But over 50 percent of the Global 2500 believe they will have to support more than two standards. This highlights a limitation with XML standards created using DTDs: they limit or eliminate variability and flexibility in the documents that are exchanged between companies.
Moreover, as more systems based on different standards are added to the overall eCommerce community, each one requires developing unique interfaces. And as processes, products or other relevant details change, the changes must be reflected in each interface. The result is an eCommerce network in which adding new standards and Page 4 of 7 March, 2001
business processes squares the amount of work as those changes must be reflected in all of the interfaces.
Using today’s approach, as the number of trading
partners in a trading environment rises, it becomes
increasing difficult to retain the agility and
adaptability inherent in brick-n-paper, resulting in
an exponentially greater amount of resources
expended for each trading partner added. The
solution is to use model-driven systems to change
the way systems are configured to implement
standards and to create more adaptable standards
using the new W3C XML Schema specification.
Model-driven systems can restore variability and agility to standards-based systems. They change their behavior based on abstract models that describe the information and processes. For example, SQL databases configure the storage system using SQL schemas that describe the information to be stored in the relational tables. Tools and user interfaces used to develop model-based systems can significantly lower development time relative to hard coded systems.
Modeling systems can flatten the exponential curve not only by reducing the amount of time it takes to configure a system, but also by sharing models across the many systems that must be integrated. As all of the various systems involved in performing a business function evolve to use shared models, the exponential curve flattens; that is, the effort to stadd the 101 partner is no more difficult than the first.
The Contivo B2B Thesaurus? is an excellent example of sharing models to reduce the integration effort. When integrating a partner’s system, its interface requirements are
simply loaded into the Thesaurus. The central models in the Thesaurus are used to automatically create the mappings for converting information from one standard to another.
The new XML modeling language, W3C XML Schemas, represents another opportunity to rethink how business communities develop standards. Schemas provide the means to break through the technical limits of DTD-derived standards by giving standards developers better tools to express interoperability while retaining significant amounts of flexibility. Schemas and other new, enabling XML standards provide interoperable models for the structure, syntax, grammar, transport and security of exchanged business data.
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XML Schemas generate significant value to the B2B standards community through three
? Increased precision makes validation of a document against the model meaningful
in a business system.
? Flexibility enables business documents to contain information modeled for
interoperability and preserves regions of documents for private use.
? Abstraction allows standards developers to establish a template for interchanged
data while still providing each of the implementers the flexibility to accommodate
their specific needs.
Community and Collaboration
While advancements in B2B technologies, models, and XML Schemas will ease the
implementation logjam, their value is to enable technology developers to more quickly
design and implement more robust architectures.
The real value—and the real breakthrough—will occur when business communities work
together to share information, techniques and technologies that facilitate interoperation.
Communities will seek solutions, be they standards, technologies, or services, that allow
trading partners to leverage and reuse the results of repetitive tasks and processes.
Services that use centralized business models, such as Contivo’s eService, will enable
B2B trading groups to not just master B2B technology, but also efficiently and
effectively focus on their core business values and compete on their value-propositions
and mission statements.
These groups will ultimately become more successful because their agility will scale the
trading community and accommodate the variability that growing groups and changing
times will demand. In essence, community leaders will find ways to entice, encourage,
and subsidize participation because of enlightened self-interest—confident in the belief
that a successful online trading community is more beneficial to their own bottom line
than a brick-n-paper? counterpart.
As complexity grows, it is important that the trajectory of technological advance
accurately paces the trajectory of the technical roadblocks. As the demand for brick-n-
paper functionality spreads, B2B systems must be designed to accommodate flexibility
and agility, without sacrificing their initial values of interoperability. By employing
reusable architectures, migrating to models and schemas, and fostering community and
collaboration, the next level of B2B is far better positioned to scale and adapt to the ever-
changing demands of eCommerce.
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1 Battle to the Bitter End (-to-End); Edward Robinson; Business 2.0; July 25, 2000;
http://www.business2.com/content/magazine/indepth/2000/07/11/14784?page=3 2 The Forrester Report; The XML eBusiness Contract; September 2000; Frank E. Gillett et. al.
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