Second, it helps for there to be a central repository or global registry of information, where all industry participants can publish and access data.
These two preconditions are already in place, thanks to several organizations that have developed public data pools for the CPG industry over the past several years. A single non-profit body, GS1 USA (formerly the Uniform Code Council), Lawrenceville, NJ, certifies and publishes the standards for how the data is to be configured.
Recently, several of the data pools themselves have merged, so there are now just two primary repositories of product data serving the CPG supply chain in the United States. One is 1SYNC, operated by GS1 USA, a new, non-profit enterprise formed by the merger of UCCNet and Transora. The latter was a privately held data exchange originally founded by a group of industry members, primarily large U.S. CPG manufacturers.
The other data bank is operated by World Wide Retail Exchange, Alexandria, VA, a private enterprise originally formed mostly by retailers. WWRE merged last year with GNX, another data exchange company. The new, combined entity's subscribers include a number of U.S. grocery retailers as well as other kinds of retail outlets and overseas companies.
Data in both systems is configured according to the standards published and overseen by GS1 USA, and the two exchanges are designed to be interoperable.
For manufacturers the first project, after joining one of the public data pools, is to organize and "cleanse" their product data internally before formatting it according to the public industry standards established by GS1 USA. This initial clean-up effort is crucial (remember the old adage, "garbage in, garbage out.")
After this, manufacturers can upload their data to the global repository of their choice, making it available to any of their trading partners via the Internet.
The retailers' main job, aside from subscribing to one of the data pools, is to adapt their internal systems to become compatible with the public standards so they can use the data in their day-to-day operations. To do this, they must go through a series of preparatory steps to organize and order their product data, similar to the job that the vendors must undertake.
In both cases, the project typically involves finding all item data wherever it is located in a company's various and often disparate computer systems, so it can be aggregated, cleansed and reworked or translated into the standard formats. Aside from making it possible to synchronize item data with all participating trading partners, this step also provides the benefit of creating within each company a single collection of standardized, accurate descriptions for each SKU handled throughout their operations.
The best and most economical way to accomplish this goal for most companies is not to redo all their applications, but to invest in a type of software program known as a Product Information Management system, or PIM.
"Unless a company wants to go in and replace or update all its legacy applications to use the new synchronized data formats, they need a PIM system," IBM's Licul comments. Its job is to serve as a unified, corporate-wide repository for all product data, helping to insure that all facts and figures about products are synchronized internally across all of an enterprise's applications and locations—as well as externally with trading partners.
Another piece of software companies generally need, adds Karen Romanov, research director with AMR Research, Boston, is an integration tool to move product data from place to place.
"It's basically a set of pipes used to transfer data from the legacy systems into the PIM and then out of the PIM to whatever applications are being fed," she says.
The PIM can also be used by retailers to manage the downloading of data from the public data pools, and to manage data workflows and user security, Licul notes.
While he knows of some companies that have chosen to develop their own product information management systems, Ekstrom says that more are turning to outside sources for solutions, whether off-the-shelf or custom-tailored.