D&H Distributing, one of North America’s most prominent technology companies, is celebrating its 100th year in business in 2018. In a full century, a company is bound to experience a considerable series of changes that can only be viewed as an evolution. Although growth and success are always positive scenarios, they require a company’s internal and technological infrastructure to expand in order to accommodate its transitions.
First, some background on how D&H has developed, to illustrate how its technology workflows came into being. D&H is a family-owned organization with its roots in regional distribution. The company has worked to maintain its personalized focus on service, despite its growth across two countries. It’s an international enterprise with a home-town mentality.
In the mid-80s, D&H changed its business model to become a national distributor, and it expanded further north into Canada in 2007. Before transitioning from regional to national status, however, the only way to grow was for its sales team to work closely with technology dealers in a limited selection of territories, and help increase business for each individual customer within that geography. It was a hands-on strategy focusing on relationships—an ideology that pre-dated CRM packages, back-office systems, and even computers themselves.
As CIO, it’s been my team’s challenge to take this very effective, relationship-based, “high-touch” business model and apply it to an infrastructure that spans a widely distributed enterprise, one that is approaching $4 billion in revenues, with close to 1,200 employees and seven warehouses.
As with any company, D&H has what we call “islands of organization” within its internal structure. Its individual departments include IT, sales, finance, marketing, buying, logistics and HR. Each of these has developed customized systems or processes that function for each specific area. When D&H was more of a mid-size corporation, the use of different departmental processes was a manageable proposition. The enterprise has grown, incorporating a greater volume of personnel within that broadly-affixed infrastructure.
It then becomes more challenging for departments to seamlessly collaborate when different departments have embraced varying workflow processes.
In the past, when an issue arose in one department such as buying, we’d implement a fix—yet that change didn’t necessarily address the issue as it related to any other department.
We had IT teams conducting solutions outside of the bounds of the common system functionality, as opposed to adopting changes across the enterprise-wide solution. Our goal is now to view issues from a strategic perspective, creating solutions that consider the big picture of how our company functions.
This is where enterprise content management and workflow becomes crucial. The ability to manage workflows across a common platform is a vital part of accommodating a larger enterprise with many islands of organization. Data needs to be accessible. In today’s world, the quicker we can access data, the more efficient we are. Yet in keeping with D&H’s priority on relationships and team interaction these workflows and technology solutions need to maintain their value for each unique department as well. This process began with the deployment of Microsoft’s SharePoint collaborative software tools, which offer opportunities for workflow management.
D&H is primarily a sales organization, so document and workflow management is a huge element of its daily operations. The company deals with a consistent flow of contracts, invoices, bills of materials, and more. It’s our responsibility to integrate our document management processes so these records can be easily accessed by the sales department, the buying department, and others. Without such integration, personnel will hit stop-gaps as requests for information pass from department to department. The goal is to allow a single staff member to immediately and directly access the documentation or information they need for their projects.
Scalability of workflow and document management systems is also key in assuring a smooth growth trajectory for the enterprise. As a smaller organization, when a challenge presented itself, we could easily assign a team of technicians to address an issue. As a larger organization, this becomes less feasible. A typical issue would require too large a team to address the more complex needs of a larger enterprise. We need future-proofed systems to address our business processes.
D&H in fact was able to use email as a workflow solution for many years, to keep track of partner communications and workflows via email trails. E.g., accounts payable used email to track correspondence of different customer issues, which is realistic when you have customers numbering in the hundreds. However, when your customer roster reaches the tens of thousands, email is not sufficient for this purpose—no matter how terrific a tool it is for communications. We needed to adapt the right solution for the right task via an enterprise workflow. Otherwise, it’s like trying to build a house with a hammer—it’s a great tool, but you can’t use it for everything if you want to build efficiently.
Similarly, D&H hosts a series of trade shows for its customers each year, which is a laborious undertaking. The team is migrating from a less scalable solution–one of those “islands of organization”–to a cloud solution that will eventually integrate with our CRM systems. This integration will allow internal departments to share data effectively and thus reduce manual effort, perform better analytics and make better decisions overall.
Over the last several years, we’ve been researching and deploying solutions that will unify desperate systems across the organization, creating efficiencies and accommodating legacy systems. We’re in the process of a “deep dive” analysis to develop an integrated enterprise solution that leverages the capabilities of existing technologies, like SharePoint, as well as new technologies that will position us for the future. It’s an ongoing evolution.
Growth is the best problem any organization can have, and all successful enterprises face these trials. As with any complex and evolving corporation, no single solution can address all its needs and departmental requirements. An integrated ecosystem of workflow management solutions, however, can address the vision of D&H Distributing as a comprehensive organization, while still meeting the needs of its separate departments, and its unique individuals.