Stibo Systems Takes STEP to Next Level of PIM
April 22, 2010

At Stibo Systems' annual conference this year, I got an update from its executives, customers and partners about the STEP platform for product information management (PIM) and its use of master data management (MDM). The platform blends PIM and MDM to support multiple channels of providing product related information for commerce to the supply chain. Based in Europe, Stibo has been adding staff, offices and customers in North America and across the world. The predominant drivers of its business are demand by consumers to get product information from retailers, travel agencies, manufacturers and other industries in a consistent and efficient process. The importance of these two drivers was revealed in our recent benchmark research on PIM, in which only 36 percent of participants said their organization is confident in creating product records and 49 percent use custom coding (which contributes to that lack of confidence). This research indicated the strong challenges in organizations and the significant need for improvement.

In 2009 Stibo Systems released version 5.1 of the STEP platform , which brings a common method to manage product information within the enterprise and across the supply chain of suppliers and commerce. Stibo has made more progress since my last review in 2009 (See: "The New Stibo Systems: Innovating MDM for Business and IT"). The platform and set of tools provides for the definition of all related product information (including content and data) and manage it in a single repository where it can be searched and served to any application or system. To accomplish this, STEP defines business hierarchies for product, items, location and suppliers, and it stores detailed attributes as metadata for utilization across range of applications. The platform provides options to set and apply rules and policies for how to access and update information that is provided to commerce systems to supplier portals. STEP also supports the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN) standards to receive and publish information across supply chains.

The next release, STEP 5.2, will be generally available in the summer of 2010 and adds a portfolio of new capabilities. One of them is to make  it easier to assemble PIM into a supplier portal with a new framework that permits suppliers to share product information with the manufacturer. Its workflow simplifies uploading of digital assets online and reviewing them for publishing. The new version also uploads and downloads spreadsheets more efficiently. Its search mechanism for product information, like Google's, offers an open keyword search to handle drill down, type ahead, parametric search, saving results into collections and combining search types to mix and match for multiple search criteria. This search flexibility is a big improvement over the old hierarchy- and attribute-based search.

Also the new release has bulk data editing through an update wizard that can set values across large volumes of data, and allow the user to preview and then apply changes. It brings data governance oversight to fields that have unstructured components such as images and references. Advances in supporting data governance were a top priority for more than half of organizations participating in our recent benchmark research. Version 5.2 of STEP enhances the Flat Planner feature that provides design and publishing of layouts for print and Web; it now has free-form editing of frames to manage pages for large publications such as print catalogues. Stibo also has improved its mass circular and free-standing insert (FSI) capabilities for print and direct mail to support hundreds of versions in a market rollout structure for retailers. STEP now supports Microsoft Word 2007 for technical document publishing so users can drag and drop product information items into a document and automates extraction of information in this format.

Technologically, the STEP platform is built on an open framework using industry standards and application interfaces that enable it to integrate with other systems across the demand and supply chain. The platform uses a Java-based architecture to support performance and scalability from distributed servers. It also supports an event-driven architecture (EDA) and messaging and services using service-oriented architecture (SOA). Version 5.2 updates the infrastructure to support revision of the database and operating platform. Stibo Systems also partners with many other software providers such as ATG for supporting commerce deployments that though is custom integration today are looking at an adapter for STEP and Datactics for data quality to make more capabilities available to customers in a more integrated fashion. In fact Stibo Systems has licensed Datactics technology as part of a new tool called STEP DQ that was announced in 2009 that is actively being used in many organizations today.

Currently in research Stibo engineers are looking at more in-depth methods to improve search engine optimization (SEO) to integrate STEP with search engines and facilitate keyword creation and content ranking. They are also making improvements to price-management capabilities and to pricing-master information so it can be managed consistently and compared across channels and competitors. All of this possible today through integration with other technologies and consulting, but Stibo is focused on improving its own platform to strengthen further its PIM platform.

The conference presented a series of best practices shared by Stibo's leading customers, including Agilent, DEMCO, Grainger and Home Depot. Among other topics, they discussed the importance for new programs of early involvement from process experts, an aligned cross-functional team, management leadership and maintaining focus on processes and business needs. Several emphasized engaging the vendor for business and technology expertise to determine whether it will be a reliable partner that you want to work with. Among the benefits customers said they have found in deployments of STEP were saving not just money but time, which equates to freed resources to focus on the business and not product content and integration tasks. Many of them are now embracing STEP as the product and item master and then publishing to downstream Oracle and SAP applications.

According to our research, Stibo has an opportunity in that only 26 percent of organizations use a dedicated technology provider for PIM, but an additional 44 percent plan to get one in 2010. Stibo has a solid footing and is unlikely to lose its autonomy like others in the MDM market have done in the last year. I have analyzed many of the acquisitions, including Initiate Systems by IBMSilver Creek Systems by Oracle and Siperian by Informatica. But even IBM, Oracle and SAP, which have some type of MDM and PIM offering, are focused on the infrastructure and data as they separate content into different technology infrastructures and mostly serve the IT organization, whereas Stibo engages directly with the business side on process improvement from marketing, product and commerce to manufacturing and the supply chain organizations. This focus on meeting business objectives with a strong business case but having an open platform that can integrate into the enterprise for meeting IT needs is contributing to Stibo success.

Stibo concentrates on the demand and supply chain of customers to suppliers and should not be lumped with the MDM infrastructure providers. Many of the other IT analyst firms confuse MDM infrastructure with the platform and tools for managing all product related information. Stibo demonstrated its focus on customer deployments and satisfaction along with continued technological advancements for business and IT in its product line that has translated to its growth in North America and globally.

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Mark Smith - CEO & EVP Research


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