Spreadsheets have become a du jour “standard” for some forms of Business-to-Business integration, offering a data representation that is easy to produce and consume, and is widely supported across industries and geographic boundaries. Spreadsheets are also very portable; they can be emailed, viewed across platforms (Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X, Linux) and are accessible by many software packages (Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice, Google Docs).
Using spreadsheets as an integration medium can be challenging, however, because the layout of data within a spreadsheet can vary. Spreadsheets aren’t always simple grids of rows and columns. Data can be represented in a tabular format, e.g., to transmit raw data from a back-end application, or in a forms-based layout, similar to what we might find in business documents like purchase orders and invoices. That flexibility makes the spreadsheet versatile and attractive as a data-publishing tool, but makes integration of some spreadsheet cases less trivial.
For my inaugural post on this blog, I want to revisit one of those “solved problems” that still dogs many of the companies we talk with, namely, how to handle B2B integration requirements that don’t involve standard EDI. Companies still find it difficult to cope with the full range of B2B connections and content types needed to integrate with large and small trading partners, including:
Standard EDI (and in some cases, EDI that does not fully conform to standards)
“Standard” XML, which ranges from well-developed, horizontal standards like RosettaNet to hundreds of loosely-defined vertical transaction sets
EDI-like flat file standards (most of these are older, vertically-focused cases)
EDI-based web forms
Proprietary, partner-defined flat files
Proprietary, partner-defined spreadsheets
Proprietary, partner-defined web portals
Proprietary, partner-defined documents sent by email or fax
Did I miss any? Probably. But the point is that standard EDI is just one of numerous conventions used for B2B integration. Of course, standard X12 and EDIFACT EDI are still the mainstay of B2B integration. And there is little evidence to suggest that companies are ready to invest in replacing all of their EDI connections with something “better”. In fact, EDI adoption is increasing.