Aspiring e-commerce users should not try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to coding their goods, but instead should use the well-established international numbering system whose best known manifestation is the supermarket barcode.
That was the main message of a conference meeting of the Asia-Pacific region of EAN International in Wellington last week. EAN (originally European Article Numbering) has extended its area of operation to Eancom messaging, a set of standard electronic documents to facilitate transactions among companies even where they have disparate IT equipment and software. This assists the move towards collaborative business-to-business e-commerce, acknowledged as one of the major directions of business today. As is necessary today, EAN standards have been combined with XML messaging, so e-commerce participants can take advantage of both. But speakers emphasised that e-commerce collaboration involves human factors as well as standard technology. Incompatible systems and standards are inefficient, since they involve some kind of conversion, says Roger Wilson of consultancy CAP-Gemini Ernst & Young. He sketches a multi-layered scheme of collaborative trading, based on standard message formats and standard numbering, with software for standard tasks like catalogue management and authorisation, and above that various business practices for encouraging and easing collaboration in planning, forecasting, stock replenishment and settlement. The lower levels, he says, can be a nationwide standard, but the upper layers are a matter for a meeting of minds among a particular group of companies that want to collaborate. Setting up an electronic marketplace is not to be confused with achieving true collaboration, Wilson says. “There are personal relationships involved and human trust is important. The e-marketplace is a means to an end, not the end itself.” The companies being invited to collaborate are often competitors in more conventional parts of the market, and there is quite likely to be friction between them. Alan Pearson of Datatorque presented a group of widely differing case studies, from coffee roasters Caffe L’Affare, seeking to attract new customers through a Web site and automatic order forwarding by email, to German and Dutch farms wanting to implement traceability of meat back to the animal — using systematic barcode numbering — to inspire consumer confidence. Some delegates thought the breadth of topics was too wide and tended to fragment into one set for the EAN people and another for the e-commerce people. In spite of the effort to present the one as indispensable to the other, the two were not discussed simultaneously in many sessions.