“ Product data is inherently variable, and its lack of structure is generally too much for traditional, pattern-based data quality approaches. Product and item data requires a semantic-based approach that can quickly adapt and 'learn' the nuances of each new product category. With this as a foundation, standardization, validation, matching and repurposing are possible.”
~ Andrew White, research VP at Gartner, Inc
This article is a precious part of the hybris Project Patterns series.
Goods that are sold online are virtual representations of real products and services. Therefore, it is in the hands of online merchants to make the “virtual products” attractive enough, and offer them at the right time, to the right audience, in all possible ways. It becomes evident that the online success depends on the quality of the virtual product.
Have you ever wondered where the product information of a commercial website comes from? What makes that information complete, representative, trustworthy, relevant and shareable?
How could we guarantee the harmony in product data?
|Problem||An Enterprise has chosen hybris as a fundamental e-Commerce platform to power up their business and harmonize product-related processes. Frequently, business users and hybris project members are unaware of the real nature of the hybris solution, which is: provide an intelligent platform for managing the core asset of the Business – the Product.|
|Guideline||In its hart, the hybris platform offers an elaborate Product Information Management (PIM) module, therefore, it is imperative that people realize the power they have in their hands and learn to appreciate the potential it delivers for their company. It is the duty of the Consulting party to explain the purpose, the benefits and the rational for having a PIM system in a PIM project.|
|Related patterns||Glossary, Workshop, Virtual Product|
Consumers and Companies purchase online already for a couple of decades. From the dawn of the online market, merchants are striving to engage and entertain customers, using the ever-growing virtual web. With the raising demands of the online Buyer, the e-Commerce solutions need to adapt, employing modern technologies, innovative marketing techniques, even the Social Web.
In practice, PIM establishes global repository for consolidating, referring and managing all product-related information. PIM then publishes or syndicates that information to any user or application that needs it, in formats they require.
As an informational hub, PIM is regarded as the “source of product truth” intermediating between existing corporate systems - which originally create and host product information. PIM ensures consistence and completeness of product content. Therefore, it complements PLM, CMS and ERP applications, which commonly do not handle product attributes and rich marketing descriptions very well.
Due to high complexity, product information requires continuous care, maintenance and enrichment. PIM challenges the existing data structures and organizational readiness for commercial activities. As a result, corporate processes are redefined – with PIM in mind – to harmonize and automate the daily business of an enterprise, embracing a product management challenge.
The product information is of a great worth when it is made available to consumers, dealers, sales reps and so on via channels like printed publications, online content, social networks and interactive devices. PIM enables the publication of the product data to those media. Since the spectrum of channels can be wide, PIM ensures the cross-channel quality and consistence of information, thus earning the satisfaction of the consumers.
Given the poor content of many sites, the lack of good product presentation and the difficulty in maintain commercial channels it is not surprising that we witness encreased attention to PIM solutions.
The PIM Aspects
PIM is the foundation of e-Commerce and Multichannel enablement.
The true value of PIM emerges through aggregating, standardizing, and validating the product data contained in existing data sources. As a platform, PIM offers a central repository that all users can access with confidence. As a set of processes, PIM delivers workflows that connect people and systems to automate main business tasks. With that, comes the ability to serve Consumers better thanks to complete, timely and accurate product information.
In this sense, the hybris solution is no different – the PIM module serves as a platform for consolidating product information, easily accessible by users. At the same time, it offers a rich set of customizable processes, which enable those users to perform their daily work, related to the product data governance.
A comprehensive PIM solution usually considers three important aspects:
- Define a dedicated virtual hub for Product Information
- Enable people and automate processes
- Leverage product information to a wide range of channels
Let us look into the details of each...
Single Version of Product Truth
The hybris platform, as a reliable PIM solution, takes into consideration all sources of product information, including flat files, existing systems, legacy content, corporate data resources, enterprise online services, and so on.
Therefore, the platform offers an elaborate pallet of integration interfaces to facilitate data import from those data sources.
An essential prerequisite for the import process is the design of a data model of the product information. As a result, in a typical PIM project, a serious analysis of the product data is performed before commencing the import process.
Being a single source of product truth, a PIM application complements existing systems, namely, all-purpose content are still kept in the company CMS, product-lifecycle data can remain in PLM systems, and manufacturing data can reside in ERP systems, under the jurisdiction of the original data owners.
Hybris facilitates a strong level of integration with various sources of product data. As a result, the hybris PIM “understands” well the sources that record the data, as well as the relationships of that data. That vision should be made clear to the project team members, because they should be able to understand the role of hybris as a middle-man, when it comes to consolidating product information.
Here, it is worth mentioning that product data does not only come from systems and legacy sources. A valuable input for product content is the Consumer community – the online shoppers themselves – who, via blogs, reviews and personal experience, act as a correcting measure for product quality.
As seen in the pattern Virtual Product – the consumer feedback (the Community) contributes significantly to the overall product information.
A common question we often get is:
The answer is: “Not necessarily”. A PIM system can host data from external sources, but it can also only refer to it, meaning the platform can keep references to the same product information, without physically hosting it.
Remember that PIM is a source of truth, but not necessarily the container of all the data.
This discussion often leads to identifying flexible architectural topologies when it comes to representing data from the external sources – by copying or by referencing. Thus, a portion of the product data can be literally stored in the hybris PIM, while other elements, like product media and lifecycle parameters, can be hosted on another platform.
Enable People and Processes
Having a consistent repository of product information is only a prelude towards commercial utilization of the same product information. Product Managers and Marketing personnel have a vested interest in a PIM solution, due to their intent to manage, enrich and publish the product information.
A fundamental principle in implementing a PIM solution is to identify separation of concerns for each party interested in product data, hence define user roles and responsibilities to work with the sensitive product information.
From an enterprise point of view, with a PIM in place, personnel who create, manage, enrich, or publish information about products can be confident they are working with the most current and accurate sources of information.
These users represent product managers, marketeers, compliance personnel, copywriters, catalog and campaign admins, and others inside and outside the enterprise. Because they are working with virtual representations of the data, people can create and manage a variety of hierarchies, ontologies, attributes, and publishing formats to meet specific requirements, without actually modifying the original source data.
In addition, PIM systems used by wholesalers and distributors often include a user interface that allows each of their suppliers to directly upload and manage their own product information. It may also include tools that let Enterprise dealers and retailers access the product information for their particular demands, such as to post their own Web site content or to produce their own local catalogs and flyers.
To support the specific workflows of certain users, hybris provides various User interfaces for data management – the hybris cockpits. The cockpits are dedicated to certain user profiles – like Product managers or Content managers – and streamline the working processes of those profiles, by offering predefined workflows and access to relevant data.
For example, the Product Cockpit is a dedicated front-end environment for corporate Product and Catalog Managers. It allows access to the critical product information and all associated data, like catalogs, classifications, media, prices, restrictions, and so on.
A PIM system can validate the data flowing into the repository and can trigger certain actions or workflows based on defined business rules – for example, to ensure that additions, changes, and deletions are expedited, with no conflict with one another, and are properly reviewed and approved.
In addition to product data and associated information, a PIM system would ideally offer DAM-like capabilities to manage product-related assets such as images, multimedia, documents, and other unstructured data. It will frequently include plug-ins to desktop publishing software so that content from the PIM repository is dynamically linked with the catalog artwork.
Up to date, hybris offers a rich set of model-able workflows to automate key business processes of people and systems, which are engaged with the product information.
It is not a secret that adopting PIM requires opening of new company profiles or re-establishing existing processes. In their search for the right multi-channel strategy, enterprises are increasingly considering the creation of a new profile, that of the "Multi-Channel Manager", for example.
Moreover, organizational processes – like approval flows, user enablement, content creation and translations, publication criteria, and so forth – also need to find their representation in the PIM solution, as well, because those are related to the essential product data and its management.
Leverage Product Information to Channels
Online consumers are more demanding than ever and the next competitor is just a “click-away”. The ultimate goal of each commercial organization is to sell and promote its product assortment at anytime, anywhere, to everyone...
The cross-channel influence is significant. A recent study shows that the modern buyer informs herself;from various offline media, researches on the Web, to finally purchase at a physical store.
PIM leverages product information to various channels, thus making it available for users, partners, sales reps, call center agents, and so on. Consistency of information is an important factor, because it guarantees that all channels expose the same information with equal quality. This, in return, increases the loyalty of the customer base.
The spectrum of channels is vast and a primary duty of a PIM is to enable the cross-channel quality and consistence of information.
While physical stores, print catalogs and fliers, websites and call centers are still critical to success, latest reports reveal that regular sales channels have more than doubled in a short amount of time.
The multi-channel approach is evident in the strategies of companies of all calibers. Moreover, each channel comes with its requirements and specifics, benefits and added value.
In our projects, one of the discussions we carry out with the business team is to identify the channels, which expose product information.
Next step would be to analyze the common and specific workflows for managing and displaying this information to End-Users.
Finally, we stress upon the fact that channels should be inter-consistent, meaning, to expose the same quality of product data. This interconsitency is a basis for the Omni-channel objectives that the Enterprise wants to achieve.
Further strategies like personalization, targeting and marketing campaigns build on top of the multi-channel basis. Therefore, identifying the right pieces of the multi-channel vision, boosts the advancement of the other corporate activities.
PIM complements the existing corporate investments in data systems, by enhancing product information, versioning it and – most importantly, – structuring it.
Investments made in PIM, assume that organizations revise their internal processes and unify their resources in order to nurture reliable product information – commercial or internal. Furthermore, bringing internal awareness of the PIM potentials establishes a solid base for each e-Business strategy and development growth.
Being between the front-facing technologies (such as e-Commerce and mobile front-ends) and the backend platforms (like ERP, CMS and CRM), the PIM is the connecting layer that has the agility to manage all data from the desired sources toward the consumer-facing channels. Moreover, PIM ensures that the product information is equally complete and representative on each commercial channel – online or offline.
This knowledge should be shared with the business team in order to establish proper expectation about hybris, but also to align the understanding about what the hybris PIM really is.
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