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If you sell stuff in your and your partners’ stores and via e-commerce, you have probably heard today’s buzzword -- “omnichannel” -- meaning that your customers should be able to use any part of your commerce chain as if it were a single entity: find and buy anywhere, pick up anywhere, return anywhere, all of this working seamlessly for the customer and integrated so that transactions anywhere are recorded and available everywhere.

You’re being told that your customers want and will soon demand this kind of transparency, and that if you aren't there now, you had better get cracking. You’re also hearing that getting there will take time, a lot of it -- Macy’s started in 2008 and is just now beginning to reap the benefits -- and will be a complex, expensive and “significant technology integration challenge.” By this time, you may be feeling that rush of panic as you contemplate how you can possibly keep up with this brave new world of real and virtual commerce.

You’re not alone.

It All Depends on Where You Start

If you’ve already automated your supply and commerce chains through integrated systems from one vendor, you’re in pretty good shape. You are among the few for which fielding a seamless omnichannel experience should be, if not simple, at least manageable.

But what if you’re a part of that majority with automation at the channel, division or even operating system level: some from vendor A, some from vendor B with band-aid patches, some home-built and some not yet automated at all? If that’s you, then you certainly have reason to be concerned. So just what are you facing?

We Have Seen the Enemies … and Some of Them Are Us

First, there’s the technology you are using: vendors like to build systems that integrate with each other but not someone else’s, erecting barriers to competition that, while perfectly legal, can create all kinds of difficulties in a world obsessed with doing things “seamlessly.” If your commerce chain uses different vendors, you are facing the need to get them working together, something they probably don’t want to do.

You probably also face problems that are organizational, even human, in nature: each of your divisions or groups or whatever, loathes giving up its approach to technology in order to integrate with its peers. In some cases, the mantra actually becomes: “sure we’ll integrate … as long as everyone else uses our approach and infrastructure.

If you’re facing the need to offer an omnichannel customer experience, Macy’s experience -- five years from start to reward -- may seem virtually forever. Likewise, Walgreens Pharmacy’s experience, hailed as successful but at the cost of “investing heavily” in its omnichannel strategy, can seem pretty daunting if, unlike Walgreens, you aren’t in the Fortune 50.

So What’s the Answer?

Nevertheless, if you want to grow, or even keep your market, you must move toward omnichannel capability, and getting all the various technological solutions you have in place working together is probably not going to be your path to success.

If you can’t easily make all the disparate parts of your supply and fulfillment technology work directly with one another, and experience suggests that you may not, then how can you offer your customers and vendors a unified and seamless experience?

No matter the difficulties, doing nothing is not an option so what should you do? Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

Demand for Omnichannel - Says Who?

Keep in mind that most of your customers will never use the seamless channels you are trying to provide, and many who notice their lack will stay with you even if your system isn’t the perfect example of convenience. So when your IT group presents its plan for omnichannel implementation, along with an activation schedule in years and its astronomical cost estimates, remember this: if you are doing a good job of satisfying the bulk of your customers, you will get credit for any improvement you make even if it doesn’t qualify as full omnichannel, and if you aren’t, no amount of omnichannel elegance will save you.

Content to the Rescue?

The answer, or at least part of it, may be an approach that few technologists would consider out of the box but that has a long record of success achieving integration in disparate technological situations. That approach is to achieve integration at the “content” level, allowing the core technology to remain largely the same but asking each player to provide a gateway from its software to a common content “hub” where records of transactions, inventory and customers reside.

The idea of integration at the content level isn’t new. The Defense Intelligence Agency, for example, integrated major functions across its 15 semi-autonomous units by aiming at standardization at the content level, its director saying “We must move toward a common data framework and set of standards that will allow interoperability at the data, not system, level.” While DIA may be a special case, the principle stands. If you can’t hope to get your technology all marching to the same tune, turn to your content for interoperability.

It is usually much easier to create and leverage gateways between software and a “content hub” than to get all the software tools to integrate directly.

The Best of a Real Challenge

While it’s true that nothing -- including a content focus -- will make your task beanbag, turning to content will at least allow you to move forward in small steps where direct technology integration simply will not take you. Most systems of the type found in the retail, e-commerce, inventory management and related areas use a commercial database management system to store and provide their content as transactions come over the transom. Even those that use their own DBMS may expose their contents via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), sometimes using Structured Query Language or SQL, and published for outside use even if they don’t. This provides the basis for software tools to interrogate the stored data, structure it and export it when it is needed by another tool. On the other side, most systems will allow use of an API to put finished data back into their DBMS.

At this point, you may be saying: “why would I want to start messing around with underlying data when I could just buy the systems I need and let them do the job?” If you are just starting, you may be able to do just that. But most firms aren’t just starting and have already bought systems that fight integration at every turn. For these, looking at content as the integrating tool makes sense even if it can’t make the task simple or easy.

Here are some prescriptions for moving forward:

First: if you have multiple systems, each doing part of what should be an omnichannel environment, look at each one carefully, talk to the vendor or developer and determine the level of integration capability you can get with each one. Where a threshold level of capability exists, get the help you need and build the links to allow the functional integration your customers want.

Second: if you have multiple systems and some or all just won’t integrate outside their own boundaries, look at them to see if their stored content can be queried, exported and formatted for inclusion in a shared content hub -- some vendors are actually beginning to field open systems using the content hub approach -- where you can develop the necessary query, export and formatting tools to support the system’s participation a hub repository.

Third: -- worst case --  if all else fails, you may have to start over with new, open software or services to field the level of omnichannel support you seek. This is unlikely and it may be impractical for you, but it deserves mention here if only to underscore the value of approaches that allow you to avoid having to face it.

Take an Incremental Approach

Remember, your customers aren’t spending hours at their computers trying to score just how close to full omnichannel support you are. They want to buy stuff, hopefully from you, and if they like the products, prices and ways you can sell and deliver, they aren’t likely to leave you just because you don’t qualify for this year’s omnichannel award. So look hard at your environment, identify those things you can change the easiest, and change them … for the better. This will run counter to much project management best practices that dictate a comprehensive approach to minimize rework and duplication, but when the barbarians are at the gate, you may not have the time or money to be purist.

Of course, if you have good people who can plan globally while they implement locally, you can see the big picture while you are putting just a few puzzle pieces in place, but even if you don’t, incrementalism is an effective guide forward.

Stay Focused on the Basics

As many industry sages have written, if you provide good products at good prices with an effective means of finding, ordering, buying and returning, your customers will tend to stay with you. So keep your focus on those basics, and work hard to make dealing with you easy and rewarding as possible even if you don’t get to omnichannel support for a while. Only the “geeks” among them will much care, and they may leave you anyway just to stay at the forefront of technology.

And whatever you do, don’t let an obsession with omnichannel functionality interfere with what you do well today. For that, your customers won’t forgive you.

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