Doing business in a 24×7 world
By Pulp & Paper Canada
Many of Canada's pulp and paper industry members may be a bit amused about talk in other sectors of the need to become "24 X 7", after all, this industry has been doing business 24 hours a day, seven ...
By Pulp & Paper Canada
Many of Canada’s pulp and paper industry members may be a bit amused about talk in other sectors of the need to become “24 X 7”, after all, this industry has been doing business 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years.
Partly, this comes from the continuous nature of pulp and paper processing, i.e., machines are expensive to shut down. In any case, it makes sense to get maximum possible value out of an investment the size of a pulp digester, by running it continuously. As well, Canada’s pulp and paper industry is one of the most export-oriented in the country, accustomed to dealing with customers in Europe and Asia, where the business day is many time zones different from its own.
However, is there room for improvement in this area, so that industry members can offer more complete services to customers, using current information technology? There is. Consider:
How can a specialty book publisher in Singapore, considering your fine paper for an art book series, learn about the specifications and standards that will make your product suited to her specific needs?
Consider a paper merchant working through a busy morning in Frankfurt; can he check the status of his order on your Web site, to find out when the shipment is due and whether it is complete?
Think of a foreman at a newspaper printing plant, doing the 3:00 a.m. run for tomorrow morning’s edition. If the web breaks repeatedly, can he call your company for technical support on how to fix this problem?
Really, just how 24 X 7 is your business?
We are living in a world that works 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One reason for this is globalization. Many businesses, even small ones, service a worldwide customer base and this means meeting their needs at any time convenient to them. Many Canadian companies are dissatisfied with limiting themselves to the domestic market and have expanded to serve customers in the US and overseas.
The Internet now allows businesses and consumers to access your company virtually at any time, day or night, and increasingly, they want to do more than just find information. They want a full service that includes being able to check your inventory, place an order and receive updates on its status.
Consequently, as a result of this recent conversion to continuous round-the-clock business availability, expectations are rising. A major factor influencing consumers is the automated transformation of our banking system to machines offering cash withdrawals at any time, not to mention the variety of different retail stores and restaurants that are continuously open for business. Today’s consumers are easily disappointed by businesses that do not rise to their expectations, and are relieved to find a business that provides a convenient service.
Opportunity or threat?
What exactly is a 24 X 7 business? It’s one in which the full function of the business is available at any time, any day of the year. A company is completely “alive” and functional to whomever, whenever.
Raised expectations mean that your company is quite likely at a crossroads; either you begin to work towards becoming 24 X 7, or you lose your competitive edge while other companies continue to thrive. This involves a business decision: Do you want to commit your company to making this investment, not only monetarily, but in management time and emotional energy?
Making the decision is a challenge, but technology is increasingly able to help you meet that challenge.
In-house or outsource
As with many decisions in business, how a company chooses to implement 24 X 7 involves a make or buy decision. It can build the information technology (IT) capability internally, or it can try to outsource the problem.
It is much like the decision of whether a company decides to have its own fleet of trucks to deliver its product, or to rely on a third-party logistics firm. By having its own fleet, the company has more control over the process. However, if it outsources the work, it no longer needs to invest capital in the vehicles or deal with hiring and paying drivers, maintenance, depreciation, licensing and other issues.
However, even if it outsources its logistics, the company still has to keep abreast on certain issues. Employees will have to process the waybills, control the delivery times and ensure that the shipment arrives at the other loading dock. The fact remains that few companies have their own trucking fleets anymore, preferring to outsource this aspect of their business and concentrate on their core competencies.
Outsourcing the 24 X 7 problem involves similar trade-offs.
Building a Web site that offers continuous functionality where consumers find products, place orders, have those orders processed, and check on status of their orders may look simple, but the process is tremendously complex. The Web presence must be able to interface with your accounting, inventory and production systems. This includes vital details such as making sure that trade customers cannot exceed their set credit limit. It involves high-availability computing and, although hardware may meet this standard, our experience has been that the application software is not always so robust.
If you want to add a human customer-support interface, challenges grow. You will need a call centre with support staff trained and knowledgeable about the products and services you offer. This staff must be able to work with the computer system to produce results for your customers. Some of those consumers will want support by phone, some by e-mail, and some by conversation-like “chat” through the computer screen.
This may mean that you will want to consider outsourcing your 24 X 7 needs to a third party, an Application Service Provider (ASP).
The ASP invests in the hardware, the software and the upgrades to both, so you don’t have to. It has the skilled staff, the disaster recovery procedures and experience working with companies that have faced issues similar to yours. Most importantly, the ASP takes responsibility for making sure that the whole complex process works smoothly.
The need to retain control
Even if you do contract with an ASP, however, it is important to realize that you cannot wash your hands of the whole IT function. Your ASP cannot be your chief information officer. A third-party logistics company requires you to keep track of the shipping process. Also, logically, you will still need to use the in-house ability to make decisions on IT matters.
Some companies feel that if they outsource to an ASP, all of their worries are over. However, if their problems are business related and have nothing to do with the IT function, there will be no relief in sight.
For example, you may think that by having the ASP install a firewall to protect your internal system from outside attackers, your security problem is taken care of. However, if you have not developed the appropriate procedures indicating which security clearance is for what functions, your firewall will not be effective.
Clearly, going 24 X 7 involves major decisions and a tremendous amount of work. But the results will be worth it. A company can aspire to a whole new level, equipped with the knowledge, method and technology to succeed in today’s highly competitive market.P
Everton Milton is president of Base724, a consulting organization based in Mississauga, ON, supporting organizations in developing 24 X 7 businesses.