Interoperability: Play Nice With Others

  |  October 28, 2004   |  Comments

An isolationist mentality hurts you in the long term. At some point, you have to play nice with others.

CRM initiatives are difficult enough when all customer-facing systems are within your company and use one platform. Things get extremely complicated (and frustrating for users) when you use many different systems or must provide a unified user experience across multiple vendors. Interoperability is the buzzword that refers to this. Simply put, it's enabling disparate systems to share data in a meaningful way.

Several Internet standards enable varying degrees of interoperability. The Dublin Core Initiative, which is behind one such standard for representing data, held its annual conference in China two weeks ago. Discussions were mainly technical, but there's a clear business need for standards such as these. Ironically, my personal interoperability experience occurred during the return trip to New York.

My flight itinerary (yes, it's time to skewer another airline) was as follows: Beijing to Shanghai, China, to Seoul, Korea, to New York. Air China, responsible for the Beijing/Shanghai leg, failed to put my luggage on the plane. At the Shanghai airport, I filed a missing luggage complaint before catching the next flight on a different airline.

Interoperability is at the core of understanding why things went wrong. It's how airlines talk to each other and share flight information. Metadata standards like these also enable ATMs to give you money from any bank and enable travel sites to link to central flight databases.

Similarly, a baggage database is shared by all airlines worldwide. This makes around-the-world baggage tracking possible. Unfortunately, at least two or three systems have been used by various airlines at various times. There's no interoperability between these systems.

Therein lies the problem. On the way back from an interoperability conference on metadata standards, I was caught in a prime example of why such systems are important. Air China uses a different system from most of the other carriers I spoke with (that's what it said; I don't know enough about the industry to verify that). Because my bags were "delayed" on a flight within China, the report was entered only into the local system, rather than flagged in the global system, although the airline knew I was continuing to New York. No airline in North America has access to the information in Air China's database.

This led to a horrendous user experience: three days on the phone with various offices in China (which don't share data with one another); Air China's New York offices (which don't share the data with the Chinese office, or know its phone numbers); and various U.S.-based airlines.

Because the data can't talk to each other, no one person from one company was able to help. I had to stitch together various thoughts and tips from each office to begin figuring out where my luggage might be.

Interoperability may seem technical, but the business implications are huge. Almost all the standards you're probably aware of use some underlying metadata standard. RSS (define) is based on Dublin Core, as is the file data Adobe uses in its Creative Suite.

The other side of interoperability isn't technical at all. It's the business-rule side. Even when systems technically can talk to each other, people using the systems must all do things the same way. Air China didn't put my luggage claim into the global database because it didn't occur to the airline I'd be in New York trying to find my luggage. Had the data been entered into the global database, someone in North America would have been able to access it. Without strict usage guidelines and business rules about how data are created and used, the best technology fails.

Do you offer CRM (define) to your customers, using different vendors for various business lines or channels? Does your call center seamlessly share data with the marketing database? Does your data warehouse feed data to and accept data from your point-of-sale systems, online transaction database, and email marketing database, whether they're in house or outsourced? Does your industry use standards for interoperability that you've ignored?

An isolationist mentality hurts you in the long term. At some point, you have to play nice with others.

Until next time...


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Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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