EDI Enterprise Software Still Evolving After All These Years


We have a categorization taxonomy for our blogging and it has a hundred choices, including what I suppose the powers that be think of as a catch-all, "new technology." So where do you put good old electronic data interchange (EDI)? There's no e-commerce choice, and definitely not a category called "old technology." There's no Web 2.0 in this post, no social computing, no breakthrough nano-anything or virtual tomorrow. The following is just about good old you-can't-run-the-business-without-it EDI.


John Stelzer, Director of Retail Industry Marketing at Sterling Commerce, spoke near Boston in May on the subject "EDI: Dead or Evolving." I had a conflict and couldn't make it to the event, which was sponsored by the New England Electronic Commerce association. So John shared his slides and a few minutes with me to help me catch up on a very apropos subject in this era when many, including me, are calling BPM the new ERP. Perhaps BPM could be called the new EDI as well.


Whether I can carry the analogy that far is not clear, but EDI is certainly evolving from where it began. In 1975, Sterling Commerce began a service to support home goods, pharmaceutical, and medical/surgical supply chains. Of course, no one called them supply chains then. Today, Sterling Commerce is part of AT&T and supports 30,000 companies' supply chain needs. One common characteristic of these chains is that they are usually hybrid, involving both services and products (e.g., medical devices and health care delivery) and they often involve a lot of "C" (i.e., consumers). Initially, EDI was very much aimed at closely constructed supply chains where the participants knew exactly what the other participants wanted in terms of data format, etc.


Of course, in his presentation, John says EDI is not dead and suggests users not only keep such application to application (A2A), business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) business process management out of the application; he even suggests you add another layer. Stelzer says this early-EDI characteristic of one side knowing what the other wanted has led to an interesting problem for today's EDI. Often, because of the unique relationship among the partners, users would put the partner-specific processing in the packaged application. But the Y2K experience and the number of software upgrades that application suppliers provide suggest the way to do it is not to customize what John calls "the foundational applications" but to move the processing of the unique relationship to an EDI translator.


Sterling's product for this is called the Gentran Integration Suite, which is available for license, available in an ASP scenario, and also built into Sterling's hosted collaboration hub called Sterling Collaboration Network. Of course, there are many other such services available from Sterling competitors and this is not meant to be an endorsement, just recognition of a guy who understands how the goods and services move through the economy.


John Stelzer also points out that, today, users have access to specialized applications that can participate in the A2A configuration and bring best business process practices to the equation. Early EDI was just about "electronifying manual processes to avoid re-keying and mail delays, etc." but as electronic trading partner sharing has evolved above the level of exchanging documents, a wide range of industry-specific and other collaboratives have better defined the business processes for their situation. Vendor inventory management, Rosettanet, CFAR and scan-based trading for invoiceless payables are some examples. They involve more than just exchanging documents but are about exchanging business information.


Obviously, his advice is still to keep these applications out of the foundational applications and let the EDI software do the work. EDI is still evolving after 30 years.