cassette with unwound tangled tape

Guest Blog: How Long Is A Piece of String?


An Introduction by VL

If you are a regular follower of VL’s blog, you already know that we are striving to be a hub for education and the sharing of omnichannel data integration knowledge. We do this through as many different media as possible to appeal to all the different learning styles out there: from infographics, to ebooks, to videos, to case studies and much more.

In order to round out our ongoing discussions surrounding data integration, VL regularly reaches out to other industry experts and thought leaders, like in our ongoing 7 Questions Series, to gain insights. Today’s blog post comes from world ranked CMO Extraordinaire, Chris Herbert of Mi6. This second guest blog from Chris follows up where his last post on VL’s hub-and-spoke method of omnichannel data integration left off. In this post, Chris expands on the ‘ball of string’ methodology VL employs to illustrate data touch points within a business.

This guest blog article is the second in a series of two by Chris. Subscribe to VL’s blog to receive automatic updates when new articles like this and more are posted in your in box instantly, daily, weekly, or monthly!

How Long Is A Piece of String?

Guest Blog by Mi6

“How long is a piece of string?” is a phrase people use when someone asks a question that can’t be answered. It’s used to buy you time, or maybe to avoid the fact that you weren’t sure of the answer.

When I was listening to Tema Franks and Robin Smith, featured as part of VL’s post Systems Integration: Not Sexy, But Very Important, two important analogies were discussed that helped me “get” the importance of doing it right when it comes to omni channel data integration. These analogies are very useful for non-technical executives who need to understand how their companies need to sell online. These analogies serve as key inputs to help develop the architectural blueprint for the design, implementation and management of your ecommerce and omni-channel customer experience.

The first analogy is the Hub and Spoke Model of Data Integration, which puts your accounting application (ERP) at the core of your company’s ecommerce success. Yup, the core shouldn’t be your shopping cart! This is more than just an analogy, though. It’s a framework that you can use to make sure your digital sales (revenue) channel will work properly AND scale.

Like the first analogy, the one I’m going to focus this blog post on – “the ball of string” – is more than an analogy. It’s an exercise I strongly urge you to replicate in your offices as a first touch point into the data integration process, and a great litmus test for your company if you’re unsure if customzied omni-channel data integration is something you should be considering.

Here’s How It Works (but first read this)

When you listen to Tema’s podcast, Robin lays out the way companies need to think when it comes to the digital customer. There are fundamental questions that need to be asked AND answered before any discussion and decision is made on technology. Whether you’re selling online now or plan to do so later, you need to start with defining what it is that your company and your brand represent. Why does your company exist? What makes you different and unique?

Next, you need to clearly articulate what you want your customers to experience when they buy from you. Buying online is heavily rooted on trust and positive customer experience. [That customer experience drives decisions around data, tools like web store connectors and EDI integration, metrics and measurements. JESSICA SAYS: I can’t figure out what this sentence is trying to say] Without doing these two steps first you simply won’t know what technology you HAVE to implement in order to achieve the ideal customer experience.

Get the Ball of String Out

Here’s where things get interesting. (You can hear what Robin has to say at the 29:04 minute mark in Tema’s podcast You Can’t Improve Customer Service With Disconnected Systems. But How to Connect Them.)

Robin talks about using a ball of string to track all of the moving parts that are tied to buying something from your company. You use the ball of string to follow an actual order and physically map who touches the order, who is impacted by the order, what has to be done to process, record, fulfill and confirm the order has been received and the customer is satisfied. Who is responsible for keeping the customer coming back to buy again and buy more? This can be an eye opening experience where everyone learns how an order works it’s way through your organization and the supply chain. This shows you the reality of the current customer experience or helps you define one if you’re starting from scratch. You can then start looking at the processes and technologies that are needed to guarantee your customers keep coming back with a smile on their face.

Try this activity at work over a pizza lunch and see what happens. Or book a meeting with VL and they will walk through this process with you…  I’m sure they’ll even spring for the pizza!

Make the String Work For You

The ball of string method is just one strategy that VL employs to help you visualize the number of hands your company’s data has to pass through for an average order. But the point of the exercise isn’t the string: it’s to get you thinking about your data and it’s touch points. You can try this process or any other mapping exercise yourself in your offices to map out several different visualizations of your company’s data, like:

  • How many people ‘touch’ the data
  • How many applications does the data have to flow through before reaching it’s final destination
  • How many people have to perform manual tasks related to the data
  • How many times the data is translated by manual and automatic processes

It’s all about thinking on your inefficiencies and how to make your business leaner, smarter, and more effective. If you find that your ball of string is literally tying itself into knots as your team works through this exercise, VL can definitely help you untangle the mess. And even better: they’ll Mi6

Chris Herbert is the founder of Mi6. Mi6 is a B2B (Business to Business) marketing and business development agency dedicated to helping companies build their brands and develop commercial relationships. He is the founder of ProductCamp Toronto and the Hi-tech community Silicon Halton. He tweets under the handle Website | LinkedIn


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