It is a common misconception that a Product Information Management (PIM) system is simply a central repository of data, enabling companies to aggregate and disseminate product information. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, if a PIM system is truly to be called a “system”, it must not only incorporate data from across the enterprise, but it must also incorporate features that add value to that data, and then enable this enriched data to be shared internally and externally. This internal and external sharing of information is referred to as “synchronization”.

True data synchronization requires a look at the internal requirements to harmonize data, as well as the external requirements to syndicate (i.e., publish) data.

Internal Harmonization

The best PIM systems have flexible and robust interface tools that enable and expedite the flow of information from and to internal business systems. And, the best of the best have full audit capabilities that allow the tracking of changes while and maintain a full history of those changes. This makes it easier for companies to communicate product changes while maintaining cross references and history of superseded parts to support both internal Customer Service departments and the publishing of catalogs and other information required by customers. And, part history is not the only element a good PIM system tracks – the best ones also harmonize information across products, sales, customers, and prices to provide analytic and reporting tools to improve business decision making processes.

Rather than risk replication of processes and creating duplicate data by simply maintaining a central repository, the best PIM systems facilitate the harmonization of data across the enterprise by using interfaces to interchange data between business systems. This means that certain data continues to be ‘mastered’ in the appropriate system (i.e. new part creation in an ERP system), but other processes incorporated in the PIM system allow data to be manipulated and formatted to enrich the base data (i.e. Pricing Information, Service Information, etc.) and feed it back to business and transactional systems.

External Syndication

The rapid dissemination of information to selling and distribution channels has long been recognized as a critical element to competitive success. What’s new is that it’s not just speed that matters, but also the quality, accuracy and form of the data. Just as there is a Quality Assurance (QA) process in the release of products, a QA process is required to ensure the quality of product information getting to the sales channel. This has been a big problem in virtually every industry, with incomplete and incorrect data proliferating in catalogs and point of sale systems.

Industry associations have looked at the problem, and have attempted to help their respective sectors by creating standards for the conveyance of product information between trading partners.

In the automotive aftermarket in the NAFTA region, the industry standard is called PIES (Product Information Exchange Standard). The hope is that by providing a data structure in which to convey the information, fewer resources will be required by everyone involved to manage inbound and outbound data. And, while standards are good and necessary, standards vary among industries, as well as across vertical segments. For example, a tire manufacturer likely has to support at least four standards for these four markets: automotive original equipment and the aftermarket, plus aerospace and industrial equipment.

The best PIM systems make producing product information in multiple and varying standards a relatively simple and straightforward process while incorporating robust QA processes to ensure valid product information is being published and sent to the selling chain. The process is known as Data Validation.

Data Validation and Compliance

In PIM-speak, Data Validation is simply the adoption of business rules by which to audit and validate that a particular data file meets the specification for the Standard being used, while the commercial content of the data file meets the specification that the trading partners have agreed upon. Data Validation seeks to ensure that a) no mandatory data is missing; b) that certain content meets the requirements of the standard (i.e. common terminology for Units of Measure); c) the correct pricing and other commercial information is being provided to the correct trading partner for whom the file is being produced; and d) whatever additional specifications related to the particular trading partner are being followed (i.e. the appropriate product lines, image types, etc.).

The best PIM systems can take this one step further – ensuring total external synchronization – by ‘version controlling’ the data file created and also by facilitating data matching between trading partners.

Data Compliance is simply system reporting that all data validation steps are complete – and a system check has been performed against the business rules – thus providing a system report that the data file complies with the business and trading partner rules in force.

Summary

Having a PIM system in place in an organization reaps a number of benefits. These range from reduced costs to manage product information and lower production costs for product-related publications and support materials, to increased sales revenue due to higher quality product information making its way faster into the sales and distribution chain. The key to this, and where PIM systems differ, is in their ability to provide surety that both internal and external data is synchronized, valid, and complies with both internal and external business rules. In this way only can you ensure the availability of high-quality, harmonized product information within the company, and the rapid dissemination of accurate, complete product information to the outside world.