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Viewpoint -- Taming The 5,000-Pound Gorilla

Successfully managing technical content on the Internet requires precision and careful deliberation, but it's worth the effort.

This is an incredible time to be involved with the Internet. Much of the starry-eyed wonderment -- "Wow! Gosh! It's going to change whole world!" -- has disappeared, and now people are cracking down on putting it to work. For what it's worth, it's my belief that the Golden Age of the Internet is just about to begin. The Internet is fundamentally a communications tool, and as such, it has a lot going for it: 24/7 availability, the capacity for delivering information to multiple senses, and the ability to stimulate rapid and dynamic change. In short, it rolls a whole lot of persuasive goodies into a very cool package that business people can leverage if they're smart. As companies take a hard look at what works and what doesn't work on the Internet, they are rediscovering the fundamental principle that drives all business: What matters most is what the customer wants or needs. Let me repeat that: What matters most is what the customer wants or needs. When it comes to selling or buying technical products via the Internet, or aided by the Internet, that's where the issue of technical content management rears its ugly head. It's the 5,000-pound gorilla hiding in the closet that no one wants to deal with. It's as unique a creature as a duckbill platypus, and it is the reef where many a ship has foundered. But enough of tortured metaphors. If you sell technical products, you absolutely must deal successfully with technical content. To do that, you must step into the customer's shoes. Who are the people who purchase technical products? Mostly engineers and designers who are looking for the components necessary to complete their projects. (In some corporate structures, the purchasing department does the actual buying, but it is the designers and engineers who specify what to buy.) What do they want? The information to determine whether your product will meet their performance requirements. Unlike consumer products, where one might argue that Coke is roughly as suitable to the task as Pepsi, or that a blue sweater will serve as well as a green one (so long as it fits), technical products must meet the customer's performance criteria precisely. So, for an engineer searching for an accelerometer with a particular sensitivity, a specific range, and a specified level of accuracy, only an accelerometer that meets all of those criteria will do. If you manufacture such a product, and he's looking for what you make, the smartest thing you could possibly do is make it easy for him to discover that you can fully meet his needs. It may seem that I am belaboring the point, but I've heard horror story after horror story from designers and engineers who spent hours searching the Internet trying to find a company (or companies) that makes the required product. When they finally reach the company's Web site, there is not enough information (technical content) available there to determine if the product will do the job. This necessitates a phone call or email to the company to try to unearth the missing information. This continues through company after company, Web site after Web site, and the process becomes such an agony that the only recourse becomes reverting to the old way of doing things -- searching through paper catalogs. Any organization that wants to wrestle with the gorilla and manage technical content for the Internet had better be cognizant of another crucial fact: technical content is specific. As a result, the performance criteria and drop-down boxes that you might pop-up for accelerometers is entirely different than what you would display for, say, pneumatic control components. So unlike clothing, where style, color, and size pretty much cover everything, the Web template that you develop for one category of technical products almost assuredly will not work for another. What else do would-be buyers of technical products want from technical content? They want easy side-by-side comparison among similar products. For those who would provide comparative technical content over the Internet, that means you have to be smart enough to penetrate the lingo used by different manufacturers of similar products and compare apples with apples, even though one company may insist that its apples are oranges. In short, you have to "talk technical," and you can't just hire a cracker jack staff of software developers and fake it. Manufacturers, on the other hand, want the opportunity to differentiate their products in the eyes of potential buyers. It isn't surprising, therefore, that manufacturers would prefer that Web sites which offer comparative product information also provide direct links to the manufacturer's own site. And, of course once a designer or engineer has arrived at a manufacturer's site, that person needs to be seduced into exploring the product offerings through brilliantly managed technical content and superb search capabilities. An analogy springs to mind: A manufacturer of technical products whose Web site fails to deliver the technical content that the prospective buyer needs or wants is like a retailer who spends serious money on a great storefront, but once the shopper steps inside, the sales staff is totally clueless. It's important not to drop the ball at the last moment and fail to deliver the technical content that will turn a prospect into a customer. So what do we have so far? Buyers want good, accurate, appropriate technical content presented in the precise language of their industry. Sellers, if they are smart, want to manage and present technical content to meet the needs of potential buyers. So far, so good. But buyers and sellers aren't the only groups who have a powerful need to get their arms around technical content management -- anyone who wants to provide a solution to buyers or sellers will also need to deal with this issue. Perfect examples are the companies that provide product data management (PDM) or product life cycle management (PLM) software systems. In a world where high-speed connectivity and increased bandwidth are making it commonplace to carry on collaborative design and engineering projects that straddle continents, PDMs and PLMs make it easy for far-flung team members to work together. Finding the right components to get the job done remains a problem that won't go away. As a result, PDM and PLM makers want, and need, to make it incredibly easy to perform fast, easy component searches on the Web and "suck" technical content into their systems. Smart manufacturers of these systems will make Internet product sourcing an integral part of their software. John Schneiter is president of GlobalSpec Inc., a Web-based, centralized engineering design gateway that connects engineers and technical buyers with the products and manufacturers they seek based on engineering specifications. The company is based in Troy, N.Y.

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