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Catalog management: content management’s flagship application

“Catalog management is what I believe is blocking the growth of Internet commerce today. Until businesses can easily produce and manage online catalogs, I don ’t think we’ll see any of the dramatic growth forecasted by the compound growth algorithms embedded in industry pundits’ spreadsheets.” --Geoffrey Moore, author of “Crossing the Chasm,” Red Herring, February 1999

Nowadays, it is commonly accepted among Web analysts and industry experts that the amount of business data each year grows at a rate that very nearly approximates that of Moore’s Law (Gordon Moore, not Geoffrey). Among other things, that means that the grand total of Web-based, e-business content doubles roughly every 12 to 15 months.

Even as the Internet drives the exponential growth of e-commerce, it has created its own set of dilemmas. Faulty management of Web content can create complex problems that, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, inevitably tend to exert leverage against a company in direct proportion to the growth of the sales of its competitors.

Multiple suppliers, fluctuating inventory levels and shifting prices mean that vendors and buying groups all struggle daily to present accurate catalog data to their customers and/or members. Compounding the issue is the business mandate that companies must present Web content with a consistent "look and feel" to a growing and diverse set of customers and site visitors. When Web content changes cannot keep up with the speed of business, a company’s productivity and growth inevitably suffer. Then everyone involved in the content delivery process--from content owners and designers to IT professionals--has to work harder to overcome the Web site's shortcomings. Of course, failure to adequately maintain a Web site with an up-to-date product catalog more often than not results in lost sales and a high volume of returned products, not to mention bloated administrative costs.

For these reasons, ensuring the timely distribution of relevant content to a company's knowledge workers--as well as to the members of its supply chain--has proven to be one of the toughest problems facing Web architects. Ever-increasing Web site complexity and the need for speed have heightened the demand for automated ways to effectively manage Web content, particularly with respect to online Web catalogs.

Content management anatomy and the catalog management life cycle Content management has replaced knowledge management as the latest industry buzz phrase. Logically prior to knowledge management and no less inclusive, generic "content" includes everything on a Web site that is delivered to the customer's browser, as well as all of the software processes that directly or indirectly support the delivery of content to the user, that resides within the corporate intranet and enterprise desktops. Content management software operates a complex array of data management processes that would ordinarily entail a diverse team of knowledge workers to carry out. It enables a small, core group of information managers and/or content providers to digest and reformat mountains of data into presentable and often reusable content.

The traditional EDM vendors--such as Documentum, FileNet, Tower Technology, PC DOCS, and IBM--started out by building mechanisms to extract content as a new Web site after they controlled the authoring process. Then they added "Web portals," which were actually Web utilities and tool sets that enabled Webmasters to access traditional documents from Web pages.

Vendors with origins in Internet and e-commerce applications--such as Interwoven Interwoven, Vignette, and NCompass Labs --have focused more on issues such as integrating databases and indexing pages on multiple Web sites, as well as in providing the equivalent of a higher-level scripting tool to build intelligent pages.

It is within the context of e-commerce that content management becomes more specifically limited to the management of data within a supplier catalog. Management responsibilities typically include structuring the data within the catalog, populating the data into an e-procurement application, and then maintaining and updating the data. Along these lines, industry analysts classify catalog management content according to four data categories:

(1) enterprise data, (2) Web site data, (3) transactional e-business data and (4) shared data.

Enterprise data includes intranet-based management of all internally used data and documents. Web site data is created by publishing catalog data and other information to the Web. Transactional, e-business data is compiled by capturing business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) transactional content for auditing, personalization and analysis. Shared data is the content of non-transactional, collaborative data exchange, i.e., e-mail, reports, etc. When applied to managing an online catalog, content management software enables the design, authoring, review, approval, conversion, storage, testing and publishing of those four data groups. Once deployed, the catalog management life cycle requires that published material be serviced, tracked, upgraded and eventually removed from the Web site and archived. Complete life cycle management also involves the use of sophisticated reporting and analysis modules, plus clearly defined roles and workflow procedures for all varieties of content. Those include data validation, review and approval processes, as well as explicitly defined interdepartmental hand-offs.

Catalog management applications The role of catalog management software can function in different ways, depending on the type of marketing site. For example, in an independent retail market site, an exchange operator can use a catalog management system in conjunction with the relationship management capabilities to function as a "virtual sales representative," personalizing the look and feel of the Web site more and more with each return visit to keep buyers and sellers "stuck" to the site. A catalog that offers product-rich information for buyers and robust product support for resellers and other distributors enables a company to guide its target market toward its supply chain.

When used to create a personalized e-procurement system, large enterprises not only can use online catalogs to make secure buying decisions, but they can also track the catalog data for usage and spending trends to further streamline the costs associated with procurement. Additionally, catalog management systems support the range of B2B buying and selling transactions that enable the automation of complex, supply chain management systems and that furthermore enable the exchange of catalog data with other e-commerce sites.

Automating the process of Web content management allows a company to unlock valuable development resources--resources that can be used to create new or improved Web sites. To the extent that the leveraged development activity ultimately results in additional revenues, catalog management software can create a competitive advantage for a company.

Feature and function checklist To effectively meet the demands of today's dynamic Web catalogs, high-quality content management software provides both a flexible and robust infrastructure and feature set that can be accessed by content providers on an enterprisewide basis. When evaluating vendors, potential buyers should look for the following features and functions:

  • Streamlines the product information creation and management process while building the foundation for the catalog information knowledgebase.;

  • Assigns and supports different roles for different enterprise personnel.;

  • Understands the inherent relationships between different catalog elements, such as products, categories, product sets or kits, SKUs or items, and cross-sell items.;

  • Supplies a single point of entry for modifying multiple products and SKUs, via object-oriented constraint model architecture that eliminates redundant product information.;

  • Facilitates the aggregation and optimization of catalog data originating from different suppliers, thereby enabling online businesses to easily create or import, update and manage a rich variety of product information.;

  • Can create product information from various external sources of information or through its automated interfaces with other sites.;

  • Can transfer catalog information to other systems in a variety of different data formats, including HTML, XML or ASCI.;

  • Supports spreadsheet interfaces and also has the means to create and manage large data repositories.;

  • Gives content creators a full set of functions to help build their electronic catalogs; consolidated contributions can be validated to ensure conformity with current business processes and e-catalog requirements.;

  • Can store products, items or SKUs; categorizes and keeps track of the various relationships that may exist between those objects.;

  • Assigns categories and template definitions to products that characterize a particular type of product, such as its name, description, price and complementary products. ;

  • Can handle input from different non-technical users with different product skills and responsibilities who may need to collaborate to produce the consolidated catalog; each user may be responsible for certain pieces of the product description. ;

  • When each content contributor uses a different tool in a different software environment to create or update his or her piece of the Web puzzle, the catalog manager software provides the open platform that enables collaborative authoring and maintenance.;

From obstacle to growth catalyst The decision to acquire and implement a catalog management software package is primarily a strategic one. Although it will generate hard-dollar benefits by reducing labor and lowering transaction costs straight out of the box, the major benefits come from truncating business cycles, reducing time to market, growing market share, increasing employee productivity and integrating common business processes across the enterprise. By their inherent nature, those benefits take time to surface as measurable results. At the same time, they can transform the behavior of entire organizations and supply the mechanism necessary for determining success over failure. The rapid ascendance of Web-based e-commerce requires companies to continuously manage e-business content in order to compete effectively for the business of the customers who visit their Web sites. Yet, no matter how rapid or how steep the growth curve of e-commerce is, one rule always prevails: Take away the electronic catalog, and e-commerce disappears. Without an e-catalog, buyers cannot place online orders for goods or services.

Geoffrey Moore made his remark about catalog management nearly 18 months ago--the equivalent of nearly six "Internet years"--and a lot has happened since then. Content management has emerged as a new application group, proclaiming catalog management to be its flagship solution. Catalog management applications, when professionally implemented, have demonstrated a substantial impact on product sales. Catalog management is no longer an obstacle to e-business growth; in fact, for many companies and small businesses, it is the mission-critical key to their online success.

Portions of this article soon will appear in the extensive AIIM white paper, "Content Management--Backbone of e-Business" by Arthur Gingrande, partner, IMERGE Consulting, available soon from the AIIM bookstore at www.aiim.org. Gingrande can be reached at 781-258-8181 or e-mail arthur@imergeconsult.com.

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