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dot com, KM’s inroads on e-commerce

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

While knowledge management-related systems software typically provides Web site users with access to information stored in a variety of databases, KM’s role in e-commerce extends far beyond that. Many companies are using workflow and other collaborative tools to manage the process of developing and maintaining their Web sites.

And KM’s contributions to e-commerce are not limited to the business-to-consumer side of operations. As more companies conduct business with their suppliers over the Web, the integration of KM tools becomes even more crucial. Business partners, as well as consumers, need accurate information about pricing and availability of product. Often, that information has to be obtained from several different databases, so robust software is key to providing consistent, accurate information.

“When a manufacturer needs one of our products, it is typically an emergency situation. They need to know the location of the closest distributor that has what they need so that they can get the product right away,” says Scott Whitsitt, manager of Internet business for Mitsubishi Electric Automation MEAU, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Electric Corp. MEAU supplies automation products, including robots and industrial sewing machines, for a broad range of factory automation applications.

"As many companies look to extend their enterprise, they need an automated way to update their e-commerce sites to develop a community with the value chain of partners, suppliers and customers," says Joe Forgione, senior VP and general manager of content management and web services for Divine Divine. MEAU uses several products to manage its e-commerce efforts, including technology from Divine and SAP SAP.

"Users are presented with pricing information and product descriptions based on the query," Whitsitt says. "If a price or product description has changed, it only needs to be changed once and that change is reflected in every aspect of our business." Now, more than 20,000 manuals, white papers and other documents can be searched from the Web site.

Prior to installing the Participant Server system from Divine, the IT department was involved in content changes on the Web site, Whitsitt says. The one programmer who could write HTML code was the only person able to make updates.

"This has provided us with the ability to push the content creation process down to content expert," Whitsitt says. "People who are making updates to Web content don't have to be Web experts. They can focus on the products they are responsible for handling."

Like Mitsubishi, OSRAM Sylvania was also struggling with how to manage Web content for its business-to-business e-commerce effort. The company manufactures and markets a wide range of lighting and other products for consumers and for corporate customers in the automotive, computer and aerospace industries. Some products have as many as 35 documents associated with them, including specification sheets, schematic drawings, photographs, material safety data sheets and other critical information.

"We needed a mechanism to allow us to organize and publish product information on the Web site," says Jeffrey Ruck, manager of Web design and development for OSRAM Sylvania. "We needed a solution to get information to the site quickly to support online ordering of our products."

The company chose FileNet to manage the content on its B2B Web site. Launched in October 2000, the site enables Sylvania partners and customers to purchase products, browse a catalog, check product availability and obtain order status online. Knowledge management tools are being employed to provide enhanced search capabilities for visitors.

"What is really crucial to managing knowledge and providing a superior customer experience on a Web site is the ability to understand relationships between various words and concepts," says Yaron Dycian, director of product management for Mercado. It’s also important to be able to provide search results from various databases, he adds.

Petco's e-commerce site, petco.com, provides an example of how online users can perform an intuitive search. Using Mercado's IntuiFind, Petco's online customers can search for products while also retrieving relevant articles and information related to their inquiry.

For example, a customer can type the words "birds" and "food" in the search field, and the results page will present information on relevant bird food products, articles on bird care and services. That type of search involves understanding the relationship between key words and the ability to retrieve information from multiple databases.

"Our online customers get relevant results as they search through one of the most complete selections of pet-related products online," says Mike Woodard, a spokesperson for Petco.

Knowledge management tools help customers organize their searches. "Macys.com, for example, has about 70,000 items on its site," says Mercado's Dycian. "While it is important to provide rich content on your Web site . . . the more information you have, the more difficult it is to retrieve the appropriate results."

"The search results page is the most popular location on our site after the home page. This makes search a key element in our customer experience," says Gary Beberman, director of technical research at Macys.com. It is not necessary to associate key words as new products are added to the site, as with other search engines, so productivity increases.

As a next step, Macys.com wants to implement the ability to drill down by product category or attribute. If a customer keys in "woman's red sweater," for example, a search will be performed across multiple databases to find relevant items.

While it is always difficult to quantify results, Dycian claims that one company that implemented Mercado's search capabilities reported that search usage increased 400%, site abandonment decreased 20%, conversion rate increased 150% and online orders were up 200%. "What they were finding is that customers were searching more and abandoning much less," he says.

KM also allows for dynamic browsing, Dycian explains, which enables search results to be categorized by a number of criteria, including price, features or other characteristics. Often when users perform a search on a common product, such as a printer or a ring, they are presented with an overwhelming number of choices. "They need to be able to break this information down to get the results to a manageable level," Dycian says.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com

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