Our latest On The Line interview is with Michael Martz, Director of eBusiness Operations for Grainger. Michael explains how his position and EDI in general work to support Grainger's focus on customer satisfaction.
|Job title||Director, eBusiness Operations|
What is your current job title and for how long have you held it?
Martz: Director, eBusiness Operations, about 3 years.
What was your previous job title?
Martz: Systems Services Manager
Describe how your career has progressed to your current position.
Martz: I've been with Grainger, a Fortune 500 industrial distributor of maintenance, repair and operating supplies, for over 33 years. We have locations across North America. The first half of my career was in our branch (store) operations area, managing branches and a district in Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. It was a great way to learn the business from the ground up. I transferred to our corporate offices onto a service development team in 1989 and helped lead a project that built our industry's first electronic catalog. I later transitioned to the EDI Manager role when it looked like a more challenging position with a larger staff and broader responsibilities.
At what point in your career were you introduced to EDI, and what was your initial perception of the technology?Martz: The EDI team was part of the same department in Grainger as our service development team, so I was familiar with the people but not at all with the process or technology. I had no EDI background, and my initial impression was that it was a very complicated way to get orders into our system. I came to realize it supports not only orders, but also virtually every other conceivable business transaction. The other thing I recall was that it took so long to get things done, I think due to the fact that we were a mainframe shop at the time and that's just the way things worked in those days.
How has EDI changed over the time you have worked with it? Particularly in terms of software, VANs, and protocols.
Martz: We've seen the usability, flexibility, and power of the software improve greatly. We're now using Gentran Integration Suite (Unix), which is much more of a true B-to-B messaging gateway than just an EDI translator. That's pretty important, since the other changes that have occurred with respect to protocols and communications really require that type of tool.
We're doing much more with XML-based transactions from marketplaces and direct connections from enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. On the communication side, most new EDI partners are requesting some form of secure internet-based connections, with a VAN connection being the exception rather than the standard. It seemed we hit a tipping point a couple years or so ago on these things. Grainger is a company that's focused on saving customers time and money in their purchasing process, and helping them automate purchasing steps through EDI and eProcurement processes is a great way to do that. What it means to my team is that we need to support a wide array of transactions, formats, and connectivity types.
We rarely have 'straight' EDI (ANSI X12 data through the VAN) implementations for customers anymore. The most common new project is a mixture of X12 and XML documents exchanged over the internet. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to use a powerful and flexible tool and to also have a solid and creative team that can work through both the business and technical issues that pop up throughout a project. I have a great team that can handle almost anything that's thrown at them.
How much interaction do you have with other people involved in EDI, and what is the typical subject of your conversations?
Martz: I participate in some conferences. Topics for formal and informal discussion are usually things like evolution of standards and the need for flexibility, problems with data integrity on ASNs, and peculiarities associated with staff, bosses, and projects. Everybody has stories about tough projects and partners.
I also get involved in conference calls and meetings with EDI and eProcurement folks from existing partners to talk about opportunities for improvement, operational issues, and new development.
What advice would you give to people interested in pursuing a career with significant EDI involvement?
Martz: I'd recommend just getting some exposure to the processes and technology before jumping in. The thing that's most attractive to me and other members of my team is that our area is a real mix of business and technology, and you need to have a balance of both to understand the value of what we do. The other neat thing is that we support electronic transactions across the business, meaning we deal with suppliers, customers, banks, benefits providers, and virtually every type of business partner of Grainger, as well as many of our internal departments.
Another thing to consider is the type of environment in which you'd like to work. For some companies, EDI is a necessary evil forced upon them by a powerful customer, so the EDI team and tools may be just good enough to satisfy the partner. For others, like Grainger, it's an important customer service tool and is also a key system supporting a lot of critical back-end processes, so you'll see more sophisticated processes and a higher skill level among the employees.
You also should think about how broadly you want to apply your skills. In a small shop, the EDI person may be an IT resource who supports the translator a few hours per week, or may be the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, who does mapping, support, BP development, etc. In a larger shop, you may have people specializing in mapping, project management, technical work, and so on. It's sometimes good to first get involved in a smaller shop where you learn more about all aspects of the work, then if you really want to deepen your skills in an area (like mapping) you should look at larger companies with more specialized roles.
It really isn't for everyone, but if you like being in the middle of things and touching a lot of different parts of an organization, it's a good place to be. EDI will continue to evolve and you need the flexibility to move forward along with it.
How do you see your role and the overall role of EDI changing in the next three years?
Martz: I think there will be more of what we've seen over the past few years: more internet-based communications, more XML.
We need to depend on our software partners to keep us educated on their development path so that we can make the right decisions on the tool to support the business in the changing environment.
I also will need to continue to find opportunities for my team to provide value to the organization. We can't just be reactive and wait for projects, we need to circulate through the business and identify areas we can help improve through automation.
Lastly, we need to make sure we're keeping up with the latest developments in marketplaces, ERP ordering processes, standards, tangential processes like RFID, and all the other things that make the job so interesting. Grainger has over 1.7 million business and institutional customers from a broad array of industries including manufacturing, government, contractors and transportation. We are poised to support new applications and methodologies as they become relevant in the marketplace to ensure that our customers can drive efficiency in procuring facilities maintenance supplies.
Any additional comments you would like to make?
Martz: At Grainger, we are dedicated to providing easy access to our product solutions through multiple channels. EDI continues to play a very important role in our connections to customers and other partners.
As for your reports, it'll be really interesting to follow this series over the next few months. EDI isn't something you major in at college, so I'm sure there will be a lot of neat paths people have taken to get to their current roles.