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By accessing your suppliers’ stock levels, lead times, order status and other information as if it were your own, you can better manage warehouse inventories or production schedules; and therefore provide a more reliable service to your customers. Being able to make, track and settle orders online will further increase your responsiveness to your marketplace.
Allowing your customers access to similar information and services from your organisation will bring more realistic and timely orders, that your customers know already you will be able to fulfil. Integrating your customers will also enable a much more intelligent analysis of your product line: spot an under-performing product before it impacts your bottom line; increase marketing budget for a product that has potential to go through roof or implement an on-demand (or as near as possible) production process to minimise your exposure through stock levels.
This is not a task to be undertaken lightly, as technical issues involved with integrating different systems that have been implemented by companies in your supply chain are less than trivial. On other hand, trying to persuade same companies to switch from their existing systems to a common platform is likely to be next to impossible. This is where good middleware will come to your rescue.
Why is all this relevant to SME’s? The SME sector is quickly becoming more reliant on technology, and problem of integration has started to filter down to them. Many SME’s are using a few incompatible applications to automate their processes; and have no idea how much integration could benefit them.
So what should I do? If you have only just started, or still have relatively little reliance on your IT systems, a data warehouse style approach may be most applicable. This can work well from a clean slate, although there are some caveats: Bear in mind that to gain cost-efficiency, you must remain locked in to one software vendor, or your integration costs will far outweigh potential gains. This carries with it a certain amount of risk in case vendor withdraws support or even goes bust.
For most SME’s a middle-of-the-road approach is preferable: continue using standard off-the-shelf software such as Microsoft Excel, Access, ACT, Sage etc to store and process information; but use customised middleware on top. This will not only save effort and ensure consistency; it can also be used for reporting, or can incorporate newer, more demanding applications such as predictive software.
Thom is the operations director for Fire Without Smoke Software (FWOSS) ltd