Cottage PIM Industry Gains Traction with Big Enterprise Software Makers

How does a company coordinate information about its products stored in disparate applications in different locations throughout the enterprise? One increasingly common answer is to deploy a product information management (PIM) solution. Not to be confused with that other PIM (personal information managers), these products provide a means of integrating and centrally managing scattered product data. They can also be used to link and sync product-related info internally with existing enterprise systems and externally with business partners.

PIM solutions have been driven into the spotlight recently by some new market drivers and a couple of key vendor acquisitions. IBM’s Dan Druker cites three top drivers in this space: global data synchronization (GDS); new regulatory requirements, such as Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX); and the spread of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, especially in retail and manufacturing.

“This was a cottage industry five years ago,” Druker says. “There were customers who where starting to buy [PIM systems] around e-commerce initiatives, but there weren’t these compelling external drivers. Now it’s exploded around these new industry catalysts.”

Mandates from big retailers—first Wal-Mart, but later companies like Lowe’s and Home Depot—that require suppliers to provide product data electronically have sent IT execs scrambling for solutions.

“People found that there simply was no place in the organization where this kind of information was managed,” says Druker. “It was on spreadsheets and Post-It notes and in people’s brains. And an enormous amount of that information was inaccurate. Companies that wanted to do business with the big retailers were forced to look for something better than human middleware.”

PIMs also caught the attention of IT managers looking to authenticate and validate a company’s internal processes to meet SOX requirements, as well as managers looking for a way to the context for the RFID serial numbers, Druker says.

This sometime cottage industry recently hit the radar screens of the big enterprise software vendors. IBM’s acquisition last year of Trigo Technologies likely triggered some of the accelerated interest in these markets. It also heated the competition between IBM and SAP in this space. Trigo was an SAP partner in that company’s NetWeaver initiative. SAP counter-punched by acquiring PIM provider A2i to improve the Master Data Management (MDM) capabilities of its NetWeaver platform. A2i was a “ready for WebSphere” partner.

Another large enterprise software maker, Oracle Corporation, made a PIM play last year with the announcement of its Product Data Hub. “The largest enterprise software vendors on the planet see this as a pretty hot space,” says Druker. “So people should probably take it seriously.”

Druker came to IBM with the Trigo acquisition. As Big Blue’s director of product information management marketing, he’s something of a PIM evangelist.

“Half of my business is about fixing internal systems, correcting product information internally and helping the supply chain work better,” Druker says. “The other half is about helping manufacturers and retailers deliver better and more accurate product information to consumers. People are buying products today based on information. Before the Internet, people used to do a lot of uninformed buying. Now, how much you know completely changes how you buy products. If the information is inaccurate, incomplete or out of date, it will not only cause customers not to buy, but it will cause them to return more things because they bought the wrong stuff.”

IBM integrated Trigo’s technology into its WebSphere line. The renamed IBM WebSphere Product Center is designed to store parts and components information, and to capture the Excel spreadsheet used to calculate pricing, e-mail exchanges involving potential markets and XML documents and faxes outlining a promotional campaign.

Earlier this month, IBM announced the first upgrade to Product Center since the acquisition. The 5.2 version comes with pre-packaged integration among three WebSphere products: the Product Center, IBM WebSphere Commerce and IBM WebSphere Portal. The company is billing the upgrade as “the industry’s first offering to combine product information management software with out-of-the-box connections to commerce and portal solutions.”

The combination of WebSphere Portal and WebSphere Product Center allows for the display and sharing of specific information, based on the user’s needs, through an intuitive interface. The Product Center and WebSphere Commerce combo is meant to allow users to deliver information to consumers via e-commerce Web sites and traditional brick-and-mortar sales channels.

“Most suppliers (e.g., manufacturers, distributors) being pressed by retailers to implement data synchronization view it as a painful cost of doing business,” analyst Erica Rugullie wrote in a recent Forrester Research report. “A significant minority are making investments in product information management (PIM) solutions, not only to meet customer mandates, but to reduce their own costs. Early innovators are taking it a step further: they are turning to PIM solutions to lay the groundwork for top-line growth and tighter customer relationships.”

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].