Business-to-business e-commerce may be the current flavour of the month, but there is a problem with it that no one has yet effectively managed to solve.
The problem arises when a company is doing business with a number of different suppliers through the suppliers' Web offering - some call it their Customer Web Centre - and then has to get each order they place into their own back end systems.
The problem has become known as "double order entry", alluding to the fact that they have to place each order twice - once into their own system and once into the supplier's Web site.
One of the traditional solutions, for large companies, has been EDI, but that is getting rather long in the tooth, is expensive, and has therefore only been applicable to larger companies.
But for smaller and medium-sized companies, EDI is really not a cost-effective solution. And XML, which might just do the job, is still not being widely used, and is in danger of fragmenting. Business to business e-commerce leaders such as GE - which has "digitised" its entire organisation to deliver on e-business on the "buy" "make" and "sell" front - is one of the companies that is wrestling with the problem.
This week, a trio of GE e-business specialists - Craig Arnold, president and chief executive of GE Lighting's European operations, IT director Sid Deloatch, and e-commerce operations leader Charlie Coode - said that the US giant wants to resolve the issue and is experimenting with possible solutions. But, like other industries, has yet to find a solution that would bridge the gap between the previously unconnected systems.
Many users do not know the problem as "double-order entry"; they simply see it in simpler terms along the lines of, "If I enter my order via your Web site, why do I have to also enter it into my own system as well? There must be some way to get them into my own back-end systems, otherwise I might as well fax over the order as we do now?"
One of the possible solutions to the problem could come from a tie-up between marketplace specialist Commerce One and GE's Global Exchange Services (GXS) which operates one of the largest B2B e-commerce networks in the world.
The two hope that interoperability between GXS' data transaction and translation technology and services (including EDI) and Commerce One's XML Common Business Library (xCBL) will significantly increase the number of buyers and sellers who can transact business with one another on a global basis.
But that is rather tackling the problem from the marketplace issue, and may not help the medium-sized companies which are not participating in them. To this end, GE is now starting a survey in a range of countries of its customers' technology systems, to see if a pattern might emerge where five or six "legacy standards" might emerge.
Surprising really, that no-one's done it before. In the meantime, the Indiana Jones-like search for the key to double-order entry continues.
E-procurement is providing similar hurdles for suppliers looking to participate in the string of hubs that are springing up.
For example, Corporate Express is being asked to produce up to 60 catalogues on behalf of each of its customers.
Other companies having to gear up and provide electronic versions of their offerings are Dudley Stationery, and office furniture supplier Idem.
Unfortunately, getting their content in the right format for solutions provided by Ariba, Commerce One, and others is a headache. Which is why, because they lack the expertise and skills to do it themselves, they are outsourcing the problem to content specialists like Cataloga who build, host, manage and distribute a product catalogue, then present it in an online catalogue, interoperable with most B2B exchanges.
Suppliers need to get their content online, or e-procurement hubs are going to be way behind schedule in delivering savings. The more suppliers who participate, the more savings there are for the consumer.
Outsourced content management services for suppliers to ease their transition towards e-catalogues is surely an area that is on the way up?