Nine months. That\u2019s how long it typically took Agere Systems\u2019 IT staff to set up an electronic trading connection to a major supplier or customer. Nine months for each and every one. "We did every bit of integration ourselves, and every supplier\u2019s connection had to be different," says Chris Morris, the director of IT infrastructure and operations at the semiconductor maker. Worse, those connections\u2014whether via e-mail, the Web or more complex linkages like electronic data interchange (EDI) or the high-tech industry\u2019s own electronic lingua franca, RosettaNet\u2014were all supported by different and ultimately inefficient processes inside Agere. Procurement staffers had to chase down orders via phone, fax or e-mail, and manually key in EDI data into Agere\u2019s Oracle ERP system. And Oracle could do little to help. Morris says Oracle\u2019s supply chain tool had neither the external-facing, automated service capabilities nor the reporting, metrics and error-handling features that Agere wanted and Morris felt the company needed. There had to be a better way to make the connections. There was. The Trail of Broken Links Morris, of course, isn\u2019t alone. Plenty of today\u2019s supply chains are slowed and even crippled by entrenched manual processes and disconnected enterprise systems. Right now, says Noha Tohamy, a supply chain and pricing solutions analyst at Forrester Research, "there\u2019s no significant integration between manufacturers and their suppliers\u2019 and customers\u2019 enterprise systems." Supporting her claim, more than 60 percent of companies responding to an April 2006 Aberdeen Group survey described their current supply chain processes as manual, spreadsheet-intensive, only partially automated and dependent upon different software systems within their own companies. In short, the current state of the supply chain is not too good. The reasons for the disconnects with supply chain partners are many, beginning with the fact that CIOs are still struggling to integrate their own ERP applications with their own supply chains, never mind connecting to and integrating with their partners\u2019. Indeed, 60 percent of the respondents to a 2005 Aberdeen Group survey said complete internal integration would give them a competitive advantage \u2014if only they could manage to do it. The back-office enterprise systems in most companies weren\u2019t designed to support the multiapplication, external-facing services that real-time supply chains require. They\u2019re too inflexible. "When you want to make a change [to your legacy ERP or SCM system], it\u2019s basically like ripping up concrete," says Beth Enslow, senior VP of enterprise research at Aberdeen Group. But whether they realize it or not, the era is over of CIOs thinking that they can connect multiple, external systems, that they\u2019ll have the money and staff expertise to do it, and that communications protocols like EDI and RosettaNet will somehow magically integrate their supply chain information for them. Done. Finished. Why? Because that thinking has rarely produced any value for the enterprise. In one Forrester report, nearly 60 percent of the companies surveyed said they did not achieve the expected ROI from their supply chain management technology solutions. "Traditional electronic data interchange, value-added networks are dead," says Benoit Lheureux, a research director in Gartner\u2019s application development, integration and Web technologies group. For many CIOs, this is very bad news indeed. A New Way to Integrate Fortunately, hope for supply chain information integration did not die with those old, kludgy networks. As Agere and many other companies have discovered, there\u2019s an emerging category of third-party, hosted options that successfully blend traditional value-added network (VAN) capabilities with on-demand hosted supply chain software and back-office integration services. Companies in this evolving market, such as E2open, GXS, Inovis and Sterling Commerce, offer a single point of data exchange\u2014whether using EDI, RosettaNet or XML standards\u2014that acts as a gateway for partner-to-partner, enterprise system integration and collaboration. For companies like Agere, it\u2019s now possible to make a single electronic connection to all customers and suppliers if they use E2open. Even better, that task can be taken care of by a third party. Indeed, Lheureux claims that over the past few years this new strategy has so transformed the possibilities in supply chain networking that companies and CIOs that haven\u2019t investigated the new services "have an understanding of the market that is obsolete." The Long Wait for Integration According to a July 2006 IDC survey (IDC is a sister company of CIO) that asked companies to describe how they collaborated with their supply chain partners, the most cited method was e-mail (88 percent). Also making the list: fax (73 percent), telephone (62 percent) and snail mail (59 percent). These tools, which depend on employees\u2019 fingertips, have prevented many companies from capitalizing on real-time B2B collaboration. In a September 2005 Aberdeen Group study, 75 percent of survey respondents with annual revenue of more than $1 billion report that their supply chain applications limit\u2014not enhance\u2014the services they can offer customers. A root cause of this, according to analysts, is "a huge underinvestment in technology to support global supply chain processes," says Aberdeen\u2019s Enslow. "Microsoft Excel is still the most popular supply chain planning system. [However], it\u2019s not scalable and it does not promote collaboration\u2014either internally or across trading partners." Agere\u2019s Morris says he had a wake-up call when his staffers started taking a closer look at their supply chain processes during the evaluation of E2open\u2019s services. It was not a pretty sight. "We didn\u2019t realize that this was the way we did things," he recalls glumly. EDI, which Agere relied on, has been a staple of many companies\u2019 systems (63 percent in the IDC study) for a long time. But EDI has limitations. To begin with, the cost of having a VAN provider maintain EDI communications between trading partners has been prohibitive for many small and midsize companies. (For more on this, see "How to Keep the Web from Becoming a Trap," www.cio.com\/050106.) And although EDI facilitates the electronic transfer of information between partners, that data does not flow internally between ERP and CRM systems because different vendors\u2019 applications and systems, which follow different networking and communication standards, can\u2019t interoperate. That forces companies to use manual processes to update ERP and SCM systems, generating inefficiencies and errors. More challenges come with the internationalization of business. CIOs must deal with suppliers from every corner of the globe with varying degrees of technological sophistication, as well as multiprotocol communication mechanisms that all have to hook back into the CIOs\u2019 internal systems. According to Enslow\u2019s research, global supply chains in large enterprises were not nearly as automated as their domestic supply chains. This dependency upon a supplier\u2019s questionable systems, upon their e-mails, faxes, and phone calls, "completely stresses out ERP and spreadsheet systems," Enslow says. Enslow\u2019s research revealed that an astounding 90 percent of enterprises say their global supply chain technology is inadequate to provide their organizations with the timely financial information they require. Inside the Hosted Supply Chain: A Case Study In 2001, Agere was made an offer it couldn\u2019t refuse. One of its biggest customers, disk-drive maker Seagate Technologies, strongly suggested that Agere sign on to E2open because Seagate, IBM and others in the high-tech industry thought E2open\u2019s services represented the supply chain future. (E2open had morphed from its beginnings as a dotcom-era online exchange into a vendor of hosted supply chain software.) By June 2005, Agere had dutifully switched its supply chain front end over to E2open and with it brought along 80 of its primary component suppliers. In a fashion similar to the way Seagate "suggested" that Agere begin using E2open, Agere, according to Morris, "persuaded" its suppliers and customers to use E2open\u2019s services by showing them the value it could return to both parties. ("Of course, some of our suppliers are a lot bigger than us," Morris points out, meaning that he couldn\u2019t simply force a partner to sign on.) Through E2open\u2019s single, Web-enabled connection, Agere (and those of its trading partners that have signed on to use E2open\u2019s hub) now has a more accurate, timely view of demand and order management data than it did previously, when it depended largely on manual processes, including fax, e-mail and phone calls. For example, the buyers in Agere\u2019s procurement group are now able to quickly adjust order amounts to match new (and more accurate) forecasts and then modify supplier shipment data before it becomes a problem (an incorrect amount) in the back-office Oracle 11i system. On the back end, the purchasing group, which tracks the ebb and flow of purchase orders worldwide, is now able to send and receive purchase orders that are now both more up to date and accurate. And many of those manual processes are becoming a memory as supplier data is now able to flow automatically into Agere\u2019s Oracle ERP applications through E2open\u2019s hub. From a business process perspective\u2014as well as from the IT side of the house\u2014the savings are immense. "With one single integration point, E2open shields us from doing the actual integration work ourselves," Morris says. "We don\u2019t see any of those problems anymore. Now [integration work] is E2open\u2019s headache." Currently, Agere uses E2open\u2019s hosted services for forecasting, generating orders, demand and supply synchronization, and logistics visibility. Of Agere\u2019s 80 primary component suppliers hooked into E2open, four are "fully integrated," Morris says. That means that supply chain data "flows directly from their systems through E2open\u2019s and to ours without anybody touching it at all." Agere\u2019s Oracle 11i ERP system, based in its Allentown, Pa., headquarters, receives all the inventory and forecasting updates automatically. If they choose, Agere employees can go into the E2open site to see metrics on how their suppliers\u2019 goods are tracking or to look at forecasts. Those 76 Agere suppliers not yet fully integrated still are able to input their data into an E2open-hosted customized webpage, where they can view all transactions, orders and status. But even when those suppliers add supply chain data to the site manually, Agere\u2019s side of the equation stays electronic, with the data flowing automatically into Agere\u2019s Oracle system. From Morris\u2019s point of view, even if all his suppliers never get to the full integration stage, it\u2019s been worth it already because of the efficiencies gained from working with real-time data, the savings that come with reducing manual-entry errors and the greater systems integration achieved by Agere\u2019s suppliers and customers. Implementing E2open\u2019s package only took Agere nine months, which is one of the big selling points of the outsourced, supply chain service providers: faster implementation times with measurable returns on investment. Ron Vance\u2019s investment in E2open was "very modest." "It\u2019s not like we put a couple of million dollars into this thing," the CIO of Tyco Electronics says. "It\u2019s more like a couple of hundred thousand." Ranga Jayaraman, CIO of Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, says that going with E2open\u2019s system versus going with a homegrown one provided his company with a 33 percent reduction in onetime costs. Staff Liberation Through Hosting Along with reducing costs (which all CIOs are under pressure to do) and increasing the accuracy of forecasting and tracking (which all business users depend upon), CIOs also want to expend fewer internal IT resources on customization and troubleshooting in order to free up their staffers to work on more strategic projects, says Aberdeen\u2019s Enslow. At Imperial Sugar, an $800 million sugar processer and refinery, VP and CIO George Muller is running Sterling Commerce\u2019s services for order management and inventory. Since going live with Sterling\u2019s services in 2004, he\u2019s found that his IS staffers are "managing exceptions rather than every transaction. They can," he says, "focus instead on higher-value activities." For example, whereas Muller\u2019s team previously had to find and fix exception transactions that wound up in what Muller calls an "edit and correction bucket," now, because these exceptions are fewer and more easily identified, his team can focus on development and system enhancement requests that "drive business value versus day-to-day maintenance." There\u2019s another advantage of using an outsourced integration service provider: The hosted front end of an enterprise\u2019s supply chain system has the ability to communicate with the different communications protocols found in today\u2019s supply chain. Jayaraman says that E2open\u2019s ability to translate from one language to another is hugely significant for Hitachi. For example, say a company\u2019s systems can communicate only in the "language" of RosettaNet but the company\u2019s partners speak in EDI, XML or SAP\u2019s iDoc. E2open enables the front-end translation from one language to another and updates the back-end systems as well\u2014which is where current enterprise SCM systems really fall down. As Muller says, "If you\u2019re a customer of ours, you can have it your way." Of Course, Nothing is Ever That Simple Gartner\u2019s Lheureux says that right now he\u2019s tracking more than 85 vendors that claim to offer some sort of integration services for all forms of multienterprise integration, including the supply chain. (For a menu of the services available, see "The Hosted Supply Chain Menu," Page 50). Market leaders currently include GXS, Sterling Commerce, Inovis and E2open, and Lheureux estimates the market right now to be worth around $1 billion. The first challenge for these vendors will be overcoming resistance from CIOs. According to an Aberdeen Group survey, CIOs worry about data security, integrating on-demand solutions with internal systems and downtime problems; in addition, they\u2019re concerned that outsourcing their supply chain applications will compromise their ability to tweak these applications for individual customers. "As a CIO, I believe I can do things internally as well as turning the keys over to an outsourcer," says Imperial Sugar\u2019s Muller. But as he investigated what Sterling Commerce offered, Muller was forced to confront his staff\u2019s limitations: "With EDI and VANs, that\u2019s just not something I can do. Just like I wouldn\u2019t go out and build a general ledger system or a data center." Another challenge for the integration vendors is signing on enough enterprises to bring on what analysts call a critical mass of suppliers into each vendor\u2019s systems and trading hubs. Without that critical mass, CIOs wonder what will become of those vendors and, more important, what would become of their clients if they go under. "If [E2open] can\u2019t get that [critical mass], I don\u2019t know how they\u2019re going to remain in business," Agere\u2019s Morris says. Ironically, the flexibility and ease of integration these vendors provide could also be their downfall because the costs of switching between them become much lower than with traditional packaged application vendors. For Tyco Electronics\u2019 Vance, going with E2open wasn\u2019t "a bet the ranch proposition. I wouldn\u2019t be hard-pressed to bring in another tool to do the same kind of process," he says. "It\u2019s a tool; we\u2019re not locked in." While CIOs may not be locked in, many are locking on to this new and more efficient way of doing business with their suppliers and customers. And, given the results so far, no one wants to go back to the bad old days. "It is inconvenient for us to do business in a different way," says Hitachi\u2019s Jayaraman. "If we should start faxing things, [our employees] would quit."We don\u2019t have very many fax machines left."