Image: r2hox; data.path Ryoji.Ikeda – 4

EDI has been for many years the work-horse for any sizable company that wants to efficiently conduct business with its trading partners (suppliers and customers).  But EDI has one annoying tendency: message failures; that is, a message (purchase order, invoice) that failed to reach its intended receiver.  No message, no PO, no invoice, no transaction, no sale, no cash.

EDI works a lot like the tasks that contestants have to perform on The Amazing Race: something has to be rendered in precisely the way prescribed, or contestants do not advance.  When the contestants fail, they do not know why, which is also generally the case with EDI failures – and an investigation of the failed message is required.

EDI messages have many segments that, arranged in a particular way, constitute the “map” for the message.  The segments are populated with data, such as customer number, product number, gross price, and net price.  Trading partners agree on a standard map for each type of transaction and therefore on the segments and the data structure within the map.  Any deviation from standard results in message failure.

These deviations stem from the every-day mundane workflow: a product number is changed on the sending or receiving end, data is entered incorrectly, new product master data isn’t uploaded into someone’s system, a suffix or prefix is added to a value in one of the segments, a trading partner changes part of the map and fails to communicate the change, or a required field is blank.  Adding to the complexity are increasing demands for more data on the EDI message itself, some of which, such as warranty information, is nearly impossible to integrate into an EDI map.

For the master data portion, data synchronization tools exist and are important in an EDI environment.  Methods to keep these records in sync range from emails to spreadsheet uploads to third party services.  It’s not exciting work, which is why it’s so easy to give it little attention.

There are at least three ways to align data between trading partners.  One is to employ electronic synchronization through standard EDI messages.  In this scenario, the systems used by your trading partners are immediately updated for changes in your master data.  Another is to use a third party data management service such as 1 World Sync, and another is to incorporate your data synchronization with your EDI services company.  SPS Commerce is one EDI services firm that has developed item data maintenance as part of its offerings, and it offers user portals to identify and display messaging errors and message tracking in human-readable formats.

I believe EDI is something that should be outsourced, and so for me incorporating data synchronization through an EDI services company is the best option.  The electronic and third-party data synchronization solutions also potentially leave out many data elements that are critical for uninterrupted EDI messaging, such as DUNs numbers, banking information, item cross-referencing, and special codes.

Having said that, nothing is foolproof.  Human mistakes can’t be avoided.  Until someone invents the next generation of e-commerce we are stuck with traditional EDI and its weaknesses; being aware of those weaknesses is the first step to overcoming them.