Cyber Potholes

Sep 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

A couple of years ago, when you needed to gather facts and figures to help you choose a warehouse management system, your major sources of information were: (1) peer networking; (2) industry analysis; (3) trade shows; (4) consultants; and (5) Internet searches.

Today, the Internet is probably the first place most people would seek suppliers and information. The Web has an enormous potential informational value, but it also has its potholes and shortcomings. With that in mind, I’d like to devote most of my remarks to this portion of the sourcing spectrum. So let’s run a test.

‘New’ information landscape

An Internet search I conducted a couple of years ago turned up 54 keyword matches, 22 of which could be legitimately categorized as related to WMS applications. In the same sweep were results for everything from property management to public warehouse software to EDI software. A contemporary trade magazine’s annual survey listed more than 80 packages with enough range of functionality to qualify as more than a locator or inventory control system. The best source of general information at that time proved to be an industry-centered database, updated annually, that listed only “supply chain solutions,” and numbered perhaps 1,000 entries.

Today, the surface landscape is vastly different. And more important, the quantity and kinds of information have expanded exponentially, not to mention the channels by which they are accessed.

To test this difference, I ran a similar search using WMS applications as the focal point. The results returned by the successor to the search service I used in the first test returned 24 matches on the first of many pages, including the usual bar code and inventory control applications. This search application no longer tells you how many matches it found. Running the same search on the same Web engine a few minutes later produced a similar but not identical set of results. Using another popular search engine and the same keywords (warehouse management systems), I received 486,000 matches on the first try, and 506,000 matches on the second.

  • There are several explanations for this expansion of information. First, the mix seems to be wider.
  • Another proliferation factor is the practice of listing every module or functional component of an application as a separate listing.
  • A third change in the Internet search process has been the scope — the inclusion of tangential subjects and sources in any given inquiry.

Simply drilling down

Using this new tool and its simple keyword search option, again I searched without filling in any key words. I received 7,393 “solutions” in the following categories:

  1. Warehouse management systems — 82 options
  2. Supply chain management — 189 options
  3. Distribution and warehousing (integrated) — 60 options
  4. Wholesale distribution and warehousing — 49 options
  5. Inventory management — 92 options
  6. Transportation management — 40 options
  7. Requisitioning and procurement — NA
  8. Distribution management — 34 options
  9. Other distribution and warehousing sectors — 16 options
  10. Inventory accounting — NA

Even here, no matter how the net is cast, a wide variety of content will be caught. This same search service offers advanced search functionality, enabling the user to combine up to 105 elements to build an inquiry.

Missing in action

In all of the searches, a couple of patterns emerged. As we have noted, the results have to be cleaned of unrelated or marginal matches. In addition, some solutions tend to appear on the first page in every search summary. In other cases, it’s the same solution regardless of the search tool, and sometimes the frequency of the solution is a function of which tool is being used.

To determine how representative of the Tier One vendors a result would be, I conducted several simple searches, and more patterns emerged. By application name, some of the Tier One vendors were very easy to find (one had 152 matches). Others were scarce (one industry leader has zero). By company name, six of the leading WMS vendors tested could not be located using this search tool.

Advanced search methods produced similar results. Using one leading vendor and solution name that was “missing” in the simple search, I made a number of inquiries using a combination of platform, database, application solution type, and industry specialization, all without success.

On the bias

Harnessing the power of the Internet in identifying software solutions adds an important new dimension to and is an excellent first step in the process of gathering the information you need to make a decision. But it is equally important to understand what it is and is not.

While the evaluation described above is by no means either comprehensive or definitive, it does reveal several important qualities that users need to bear in mind:

  • The Internet sweep of any search tool will not be all-inclusive — not all data in the universe is accessible through the Internet.
  • The position of a particular solution within a search summary is not random — i.e., there is always bias at play.
  • The information provided is largely unqualified, except by the provider, whose intent may or may not align with yours.
  • The age of the information is not always evident and may not be current.

Thus, beneath the surface of this new landscape, the sources for a software search remain essentially the same: (1) peer networking (word of mouth); (2) industry analysis; (3) trade shows (demonstrations, fact-gathering); (4) consultants; and (5) Internet searches — with the latter playing a larger role and changing the nature of the role the other channels play. The older resources will serve you well in validating Internet data, narrowing the search quickly, gaining additional specific detail, and getting close enough to the product to make a skilled assessment and a confident choice of an appropriate software solution.

Ron Hounsell is vice president of software solutions at Tom Zosel Associates, a distribution and logistics consulting firm based in Long Grove, IL. He can be reached by e-mail at rhounsell@tzaconsulting.com, by phone at (847) 540-6543, and by fax at (847) 540-9988. Ray Becker also contributed to this article.