Putting together a strategy for data synchronization is difficult enough -- imagine doing it for a global retail enterprise consisting of autonomous operations across several channels. That's reality for Rhonda Horn, director of global adoption strategies for Ahold, and she's making it work.

"We have operating companies with their own brand names, so there's a lot of autonomy located across the world for Ahold," says Horn. "However, one thing that has remained consistent across all of our banners is our commitment to global standards. In fact, Ahold has a team of globally located people that's dedicated to global standards.

"There's a lot of complexity involved with this," notes Horn. "It's a very large organization, and we're working across three countries right now."

To move toward global data synchronization (GDS), the company has sprung pilot projects with suppliers: Currently in pilots are the Albert Heijn and ICA chains in Europe, and, in the States, Giant of Carlisle and Ahold subsidiary American Sales Co.

So how does Horn keep it all on course? With a bit of salesmanship, a methodical approach, and a handy tool to help outline the benefits GDS can deliver. "I actually go to our operating companies, meet with key executives, and walk them through the various phases of the implementation."

The first phase is to educate executives on what data synchronization is, as well as its advantages. "This is where we tell them what the standards are and what the impact is going to be, what the industry is doing, and what we believe the benefits will be," says Horn. "Once they've been educated and we get a bit of a commitment from them, we enter what we call our engagement phase."

During the engagement phase, Horn digs into the nuts and bolts of data synchronization, building business cases and ROI studies. "We justify our business impact and work with the business processes, because it's not really about technology, but about how you're going to change the business transactions and how you're going to transact more accurate item-level information," she explains.

For help putting together the business case for data synchronization, Horn uses the GDSLaunch Pad, an interactive tool that provides a road map to GDS for manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers.

Developed and released jointly in November 2004 by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Food Marketing Institute, and Deloitte Consulting, LLP, the GDSLaunch Pad is a comprehensive suite of tools enabling users to build a detailed, customized business case for the feasibility of GDS.

The solution includes tools to develop an implementation plan based on individual organizational strategic goals, a benefits calculator to measure and compare goal-specific benefits attributable to GDS implementation, step-by-step instruction at each level of GDSLaunch Pad interaction, and recommended studies and white papers to help educate organizations about GDS.

The tool was initiated by the GMA/FMI GDS Taskforce, which was charged with the mission to identify ways to help companies understand the business case for GDS; examine processes, functions, and changes required for strategic GDS implementation; and help companies develop a business case specifically for their organizations, ensuring that GDS objectives would be aligned with corporate strategic goals.

"When we first met with the Giant-Carlisle organization to talk about data synchronization, we gave them the GDSLaunch Pad because it was a resource for information," says Horn. "It allows the users to not only take a look at their own data, but they could also see what the industry was doing, and where we were in the process. We were able to show them how much money we think they'll save with more accurate data. We use the GDSLaunch Pad tool and set up a baseline projection for ROI, prior to implementation."

The GDSLaunch Pad tool was first piloted at Publix. After extensive review and testing by other retailers and manufacturers, including Ahold, Wegmans, Gillette, Kraft, and Procter & Gamble, the task force directed GMA and FMI to disseminate the GDSLaunch Pad free to companies in all industries interested in GDS. To date, more than 1,000 copies have been distributed globally.

Finally, once the feasibility study is completed and corporate hierarchy is behind GDS, it's time for the real work to begin. Here, too, the GDSLaunch Pad comes into play. "We'll actually use the GDSLaunch Pad to help check where that baseline is," says Horn.

The tool has made a believer out of Horn -- so much so that she's now helping promote the system industrywide. "We're recommending it externally," she says. "You'll see on the GDSLaunch Pad Web site [] that there's a quote from Ahold endorsing this product. It's free and it's for the industry. This is one of those tools that can help you get started. It's also endorsed by the Global Commerce Initiative. The examples are great and very useable. In our organization it's pretty hard to get our U.S. and European divisions to agree on anything, but they both agree that this is a great and easy tool to use."
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