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By Dave Robinson Senior Vice President of Sterling Commerce EMEA

A new way of thinking is being widely embraced by the European business community, and that is that technology must be driven by business, not the other way around. It’s no longer productive, effective or expected to impose technological solutions on a business challenge if they’re unnecessary, don’t fit the bill, or involve pulling apart systems that have years of planning and investment behind them.

It’s always been the philosophy of Sterling Commerce to integrate new systems with older ones, rather than advocating a complete replacement of business systems. And Dave Robinson of Sterling Commerce believes this approach will become the rule, rather than the exception, for businesses across Europe in the year ahead.

When B2B commerce first appeared as a commercial concept over three years ago, technology vendors seemed keen to encourage their customers to entirely strip out their existing systems, an approach that with hindsight proved costly.

However, more recently businesses have begun to demand more from their bottom line and focusing on results by making more of their existing B2B systems and integrating them with new channels such as the web in order to maximize their value.

The most important deliverable for B2B commerce is measurable returns on investment for all participating parties; and many of us have learnt the hard way that delivering that ROI is much more challenging than we thought it would be in 1999. We’ve also learnt transactions are the currency of B2B commerce; and if the transaction flow isn’t there, neither is the value.

At the same time, the realities of business have shown us that achieving efficiencies through systems integration is a formidable task – it’s an evolutionary process that must be implemented in steps, and must now incorporate existing technology and business needs, not replace them.

It seems the market is now following our philosophy in this by focusing on integrating new B2B capabilities rather than unnecessarily replacing entire systems. Now that conventional B2B commerce thinking is behind us in this, we’ve all learned some important – and painful – lessons that put the potential of the Internet for B2B into perspective.

For example, EDI will continue to be the driving force behind electronic B2B transactions for the foreseeable future, and the Internet will initially provide a means to extend existing B2B commerce efforts, not replace them. It’s true to say that the value of any B2B commerce system is realised from integration and automation, not simply from just creating new sales channels. It’s no use opening up new web channels for business if the back office is not ready for the new business.

A three-pronged strategic approach to developing B2B commerce capabilities is the first step toward realizing these efficiencies and driving through cost savings. And for most companies, integration is at the foundation of these strategies.

Firstly, strategic integration must take into account all aspects of B2B commerce. Enterprise applications must first be able to share information within an enterprise, then upgraded to perform the same tasks with the suppliers and business partners that are part of an enterprise’s business community.

Secondly, B2B integration must accommodate a range of electronic business standards, such as EDI, ebXML and EDI-INT, as well as web integration, to allow as many business partners to participate as possible, regardless of the technologies they have already deployed.

Finally, data transformation solutions serve as the central interpreter for these multiple incoming formats, using pre-established governing rules to transform data into the format required for use at its destination. Workflow and Rules software can then provide additional intelligence to the integrated infrastructure by establishing a framework through which partners can interact with the trading community and enterprise applications.

Each of these key elements of integration must be addressed strategically for businesses to realize the promise of e-business – reduced cycle times, faster flow of information and more fully automated business processes. And we now understand that automation – replacing time-consuming, paper-heavy and error-laden manual processes with seamless, paperless electronic ones – is the real value proposition of B2B commerce, Internet or otherwise.

Once strategic analysis reveals a company’s B2B commerce needs and goals, modular solutions can be evaluated and slotted into a tactical plan to meet immediate needs while also building toward a fully integrated, extended enterprise.

For the overburdened IT executive, this type of evolutionary strategy offers a realistic, business-focused path – plotted out before execution - for delivering measurable, bottom-line results while working within cost-effective budgets.

In other words, a strategy that starts with the realities of today’s leaner business operations and is designed to systematically meet them.

About Sterling Commerce

Sterling Commerce, a wholly owned subsidiary of SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE:SBC) is one of the world's largest providers of business-to-business commerce solutions. For Global 5000 companies and their customers, suppliers and partners, Sterling Commerce software and services help maximize business performance and improve business metrics through integration of applications, external partner systems and people. With more than 25 years of experience serving tens of thousands of customers in a vast range of industries, Sterling Commerce is a recognized pioneer in business-to-business commerce through its longstanding expertise in EDI. Today, as customers explore new ways to improve business performance via the Internet, Sterling Commerce continues to innovate its software and services to further the global adoption of e-commerce while offering its customers strategic solutions that leverage existing technology.

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For media enquiries please contact:

Linda Clifford

Sterling Commerce

+44 (0)208 867 8239

Jacquelene Hopwell / Claire Smither

Nelson Bostock Communications

Tel: +44 (0)20 7229 4400

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