A conversation with...Raj Jaswa

Automating the Final Mile at “Internet-ized” Companies

In 1987, Raj Jaswa was on the team that developed the compiler language for the new 8086 chip. That’s roughly equivalent to inventing the carburetor for Henry Ford. It was a BIG deal.

So when Jaswa, now president and CEO of Selectica, wants to review the history of the business process automation over the past few years, you listen:

“Different portions of the enterprise have been set up for automation over the last 15, 20 years. The back office of the manufacturing business was set up for automation in the ‘80s and ‘90s through the implementation of ERP systems. The result was a number of standardized processes for dealing with different data types and business processes. These were then automated through Enterprise Resource Planning.

“In the mid-’90s came all the data meta-models in order to figure out how to handle the sales organization, which became, ultimately, a set of standardized data- and application-sets to interact with the customer. That’s how CRM came along. Then, there developed a way for your employees to interact with your organization, and that became ERM.

“So, in the last few years, we’ve seen a whole new area we feel is emerging for automation, based on our interaction with visionary customers, and that’s....”

Wait. We’re getting too far ahead of ourselves. Think for a minute about how businesses, especially goods-manufacturing businesses, have been forced to change in recent years. With the complex adoption of just-in-time logistics and dispersed assembly-and-delivery models, the costs for manufacturers to create a product and get it to your loading dock have been turned upside down.

Adding to the churn, buyers now have developed a different set of expectations when dealing with suppliers, and with the end-products themselves. As though in reaction to the depersonalizing force of global corporate culture, customers now expect a greater level of intimacy and personal service.

In order to rise to increasingly specific and personalized customer requirements, manufacturers have been forced into a nearly “one-to-one” relationship basis with each customer. Multiple product configurations, bundled packages (and their accompanying discounts), all sorts of “favored nation” arrangements between suppliers, vendors and customers have created a complicated 3-D chess game of interrelationships. And they change every day, by the minute, due to changing economic conditions, contract issues, manufacturing restraints, customer-service demands and the multiplication effect of the many suppliers in the chain, each adding their own set of factors.

Whew. It’s just plain harder now. This is not your dad’s Chevrolet.

“This mish-mash of business processes that define what general management of a company is all about is something that is now ready for automation,” insists Jaswa, and with Selectica has “defined and developed, architected, visualized, brainstormed and implemented systems such as these with the Ciscos, Dells and Aetnas of the world.”

“There is data hidden away in silos of an organization, there are also norms of business, eccentricities, uniqueness ... the whole secret sauce of what makes a particular enterprise competitive ... all of that is embedded in the different pieces of the organization that must come together before a particular piece of business is quoted,” continues Jaswa. “This has typically been overcome with a series of processes—fax, e-mail, conversations, whatever. But the visionary companies have focused on that as a whole new area of improvement.”

So in a real sense, Selectica has applied textbook knowledge management practices to one of the key functions of any business—figuring out what to charge for that particular product or service at that particular time.

But a software developer such as Selectica, with such a varied customer list, has business norms to adhere to as well. And one of the staunchest is to “not reinvent the wheel” for each customer. Selectica has to provide a replicable, horizontal platform that can be applied to any and all of its customers, and still serve that “eccentric mish-mash” of business practices that each labors under. It’s a tall order.

“That is definitely the challenge,” concurs Jaswa. “But we have done it. We have, in a sense, over the last few years figured it out.”

Confronting “Internet-ization”

“The consequence of the many Internet strategies that were created in order to win favor with Wall Street was that expectation levels got ahead of reality and the ability of these companies to deliver value,” says Jaswa. But unlike many of the Monday-morning quarterbacks who now dismiss the e-commerce movement, Jaswa is still a believer. He just thinks it was poorly executed in most cases.

“The pendulum swing to the other side was catastrophic,” he says. “Business decisions got frozen, and new decisions to migrate more Internet-based processes totally slowed down to a snail’s pace. And the focus has changed to ‘show-me-the-value’ before I do another project. A more conservative (approach) than what is appropriate is what we’ve been operating under.”

The good news? “Well, there are quite a few companies that raised a substantial amount of funds during the IPO boom and now actually have the wherewithal and resources to handle this downturn, continue delivering value and continue working in an environment where the decision-making is overly conservative,” reminds Jaswa.

“They can’t stay overly conservative for too long. Internet-based systems DO add a lot of cost savings, breadth of reach and the ability to execute a new business model to overcome companies that might be their competitors. Ultimately, business fundamentals will prevail. If you provide a better product at a lower cost, quicker and with better service, you are going to win. Internet-based applications provide companies with that flexibility,” reasons Jaswa.

“We are seeing real examples of that...Dell Computers has moved its entire quoting process to our platform, for instance, and in less than a year has gone to number-one position in the server/storage area network market in the United States. That’s the profitable business that’s carrying that company right now. Competitors will have to implement similar systems to keep in the game, otherwise you have someone who’s a lot more efficient in taking orders, doing cross-selling, upselling...all of those things that become huge competitive advantages.”

Selectica’s Challenge

“This is not the old ‘you have to be in networking because everyone is doing it’” insists Jaswa. “Not at all. In this environment, one of your key competitors will implement more efficient business systems than you. Simple as that.

“The ROI is already there,” he continues. “The error rate without these integrated selling systems is 30%-plus. Using these systems it comes down to less than 0.1%. How do you compete with that? It becomes a question of: are going to save your business, or will you be roadkill?”

Whether today’s current economic conservativism will support such an overwhelmingly vast change in an enterprise is a matter for Selectica’s customers to decide. It’s a brave risk. “We are focused on giving customers a business platform that will transform their very productivity and their very competitiveness. And that takes time. But in reality, putting in these systems is quicker than changing the customers’ behavior.”

That’s Raj Jaswa’s challenge now.

Andy Moore is an editor by profession and temperament, having held senior editorial and publishing positions for more than two decades. As a publication editor, Moore most recently was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of KMWorld (formerly ImagingWorld) magazine. Moore now acts as a contract editorial consultant and conference designer. As KMWorld’s Specialty Publishing Editorial Director, Moore acts as chair for the current series of “Best Practices White Papers,” overseeing editorial content, conducting market research and writing the opening essays for each of the white papers in the series.

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