VCM Vendors

In my Jan. 12 column, I described the concept of a value chain and briefly discussed some of its attributes. Value chain management (VCM) is becoming increasingly crucial to the success of companies as they move toward a more distributed model of product design, manufacture, distribution, and customer support.

The business benefits of a VCM system include reducing time to market, accelerating inventory turnover, improving product quality, and increasing customer satisfaction. The concept of VCM has been around for a long time, but what’s new is that the Internet and it’s related enabling technologies are allowing widespread adoption of VCM concepts. Perhaps its time your company considered how to take advantage of VCM benefits.

The good news is that there are technologies and products aimed at helping optimize your value chain. The bad news is that the standards are still evolving. Many vendors have a mixed bag of products with varying degrees of completeness. And like other areas of IT, the things I say today about specific vendors will likely be obsolete within six months.

The most important industry standard in this space is XML. There are a lot of good resources on the Web regarding XML -- start with www.xml.org and www.xml.com. Also, check out Microsoft’s BizTalk initiative at www.biztalk.org. Microsoft hopes to play a major role in the evolution of XML through BizTalk, which is publishing the BizTalk framework, a set of guidelines explaining how to publish XML and how to use XML messages to integrate software programs.

The big impact XML will have, in my opinion, is that it provides a lingua franca that allows separate systems to communicate, and provides a level of open, standards-based application integration. In a value chain, XML provides a way for structuring data so it can be shared by otherwise unrelated applications. One thing you will want to look for in an offering is what level of support the vendor provides for XML. Then, as you build your application, you can write XML code with the goal of it being vendor-neutral.

Other features to look for include Web-aware encryption, such as support for secure sockets layer (SSL); HTTP tunneling, to make it easier to securely move data through the corporate firewall; and digital certificates, to make it easier to manage user authentication and authorization.

Space constrains how many vendors I can mention, but the following appear to be some of the more important vendors with VCM solutions as of now.

WebMethods Inc. (www.webmethods.com) has an XML-based engine that deploys its Integration Server between applications on the Web. It is a tool primarily oriented at integrating applications in a supply chain. WebMethods doesn’t sell an application, however. You will have to use their tools to either integrate your enterprise applications, or build one yourself. Another caveat is that the webMethods development environment relies on Web Interface Definition Language (WIDL), which is a non-standard means of integrating the webMethods Integration Server with enterprise applications.

Agile Software Corp. (www.agilesoft.com) is focused on content management for what company officials refer to as "e-supply chains." The Agile Product Definition Server manages a product configuration bill of materials (BOM), and tracks changes to a product's configuration. All members of the e-supply chain have access to the information, which enables companies to collaborate on product definition, design, and change management. This allows a contract manufacturer to, for example, propose a change in a sub-assembly that will affect a downstream customer’s product, and have both parties understand the impact of the proposed change.

VIT (www.vit.com) claims that its SeeChange suite permits managers to monitor supply chain performance across the enterprise. The suite includes modules that can be used to measure the accuracy of demand forecasts, track inventory of raw materials and finished goods, assess production planning accuracy, and measure customer fulfillment metrics.

The above solutions are all relatively new and incomplete. Some, like VIT, focus on replenishment and procurement. Others, including webMethods, are generalized tools useful for creating VCM applications. And finally, there are products like Agile Software’s that provide value by enhancing the product design and change management process. --Robert Craig is vice president of marketing at Viador Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at robert.craig@viador.com.