What a long, strange 'trip' it's been

Jan. 1, 2020
Call it what you want, but paranoia runs deep on the issue of aftermarket data sharing.

Imagine an aftermarket where one of our biggest problems doesn't exist — data discrepancies. If you're a manufacturer, imagine that your newly created product and application data gets to the point of sale not in months or weeks, but in days; if you're a reseller, imagine that full, rich and accurate data is baked while you sleep and available to you fresh every morning; imagine service dealers that could get all the information needed available 24 hours a day through their favorite local jobber to keep up with OE dealer competitors; and for third party service providers whose business centers on converting, manipulating or delivering all of this data, imagine how much of your work such an aftermarket would require.

Now, with that fascinating fantasy fixed in your head, think about the possibility of realizing such a dream being presented to our industry...and then being rejected by nearly every stakeholder in our supply chain! At this point you should be able to see why I couldn't resist using a lyric from my favorite rock 'n' roll band as the headline for this rant.

Our long, strange trip to a more expedient method of sharing product and application data is not getting any shorter or more rational.

It started two years ago when a few of us who volunteer our time to work on various industry technology initiatives were kicking around some ideas over cocktails. We were discussing what is commonly (and misleadingly) referred to as industry data warehouses.

One of the things that I have learned is that business jargon has the potential to be grossly misunderstood. It's generally coined as a shorthand of sorts to represent some complex concept. Phrases like "pay on scan," or "vendor managed inventory" or "electronic commerce" are examples of such shorthand. It is common for people who are unfamiliar with the originally described concept to "read" things into the shorthand that were never intended to be there.

Take "vendor managed inventory" for example. A few years ago, a distributor friend said: "I have spent years perfecting my inventory management system. I'll be damned before I let a vendor who has never impressed me with his own ability to manage his own inventory, manage mine." Obviously my friend was making a literal interpretation of the "vendor managed" aspect of VMI and wanted no part of it. When he got past the fear of the jargon and learned about the concept, he implemented a VMI program on a test basis that he is now rolling out with his top 30 vendors.

Paranoia strikes deep

To circle back to our conversation over cocktails, one of my colleagues sketched out a diagram on the back of a cocktail napkin and handed it to me. It graphically suggested how an aftermarket industry data warehouse could work, and in fact, he had written that term at the top. It's easy to remember because the general misunderstanding of that term would haunt me for the next two years. We decided to form an independent group that would take ownership of the industry data warehouse (IDW) idea, and started investigating what some of the options might be for the aftermarket.

We called our initiative the "Aftermarket Data Trust" with malice aforethought. Let me explain what I mean...

The word "aftermarket" was all about not making an IDW the property of a single trade association. While individual trade associations had taken ownership of different technology initiatives in the past and done an outstanding job with them (for example, Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, MEMA, with TransNet or Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, AAIA, with data standards), it was our feeling that something as big as an industry data warehouse needed to represent the broadest possible aftermarket constituency, including, but not limited to, the typical members of MEMA or AAIA, as well as the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), and the rebuilding associations and performance parts and collision parts market. So we thought that positioning an IDW independent from any one association, but responsible to all the trade associations, made sense.

The word "data" was chosen to represent all the data that trading partners need to power their systems. There were those who wanted to call it Aftermarket Catalog Trust, to place emphasis on the critical application data that is so essential to selling replacement parts. But upon reflection, we came to realize that an emphasis on application data was a bias toward the replacement parts business and away from parts, accessories and heavy-duty products, so we opted for the more inclusive word "data" to include product attributes as well as application data.

The word "trust" was selected to concern images of security, safety and neutrality. We liked the connotation the word invokes, especially as money is held in a trust and distributed in accordance to the owner's wishes. We felt that the same must be true of data, that it should only be distributed in accordance to the owner's wishes, so it seemed an apt word to use.

So, where did all this careful selection of words to describe the initiative get us? In hot water.

Over the next two years, those of us who suggested the Aftermarket Data Trust were accused of about everything except having the needs of the industry at heart. We were said to have engineered a solution that we were foisting on the aftermarket in an attempt to enrich ourselves. We were accused of acting on behalf of various special interest groups, be they potential suppliers or large users of the service. But I don't want to dwell on what people speculated about our motivation for starting this initiative. What is vastly more interesting is attempting to understand what caused the greater aftermarket community to view this rather altruistic initiative as an evil plot.

I realize that calling it an evil plot sounds rather sinister, but the fact is, in some quarters, that is how it came to be viewed. Almost everyone thought the initiative was being promoted (if not financed) by their competitor, and to their individual detriment.

I would go from being cornered at an industry cocktail party by an independent WD who was convinced that the IDW was a conspiracy by large retailers to crush the likes of him, only to hear a large retailer tell me that he knew it was designed to rob the early adopters of technology like him of their rightful advantage. Manufacturers were equally as paranoid; the big were convinced it was to help the small and vice versa.

But it didn't end there. There were manufacturers who were sure the ADT was a conspiracy of all resellers large and small, retail and wholesale, to wrest control of data from them. And of course there were resellers who were convinced that the motivation for this thing was for manufacturers to undercut the position of resellers. Just when I thought that every conceivable conspiracy theory had been covered, I discovered that several of the industry technology providers had decided that the ADT was a grand conspiracy by the trade associations against them to eliminate their position as industry suppliers. How does that other song from the '60s go? Paranoia strikes deep.

Help from the 'big three'

But, forging ahead, we approached the "big three" trade associations about funding a study to examine what this "thing" might look like. One association immediately greenlighted the project. One approved it after a brief debate. Another took much hand wringing and gnashing of teeth. With the money for the study now allocated, the associations appropriately took full control of the project to keep watch on their investments. They began the process of screening and eventually hired a consultant to conduct the study.

The consultant moderated a strategy/brainstorming session with about 30 people representing all aspects of the aftermarket. During the two-day gathering there was a strange undercurrent, a palpable sense that not everything was being said. Finally, the moderator asked the group if something was festering. A few brave souls spoke up. Their comments were typically prefaced by, "Well, this isn't what I think, but..." or "I've heard others say...but I personally don't agree."

The Japanese have a word that captures what was going on in that meeting. It's "tatemae." It literally translates as "form," but it means "what everyone publicly professes to be true, even though privately they don't believe it." It's tatemae that has continued on this subject ever since. I guess there were too many marketing people in the meeting because the solution to the problem was to change the name from Aftermarket Data Trust to Aftermarket Data Vision.

I spent a lot of brain time subsequently trying to understand how everyone could view this initiative as a plot against them. I realized I needed to talk with more people about it, and it was in those conversations that I began to understand the impact jargon, specifically industry data warehouse, had on ADT.

It seemed that many were literally interpreting the word "warehouse" to form the misguided notion that an IDW meant it was a "place," specifically a website where everyone in the industry would "store" their "data." You see how the use of the word warehouse directs the thinking? From there it took a short leap for one to assume that an IDW is a website where one publicly posts a full and complete list of their pricing, their product and application information that anyone can access any time on an unrestricted basis. Contemplating that possibility, it's logical to assume that a manufacturer's reaction might be, "Do they all think I've lost my mind? There is no way in hell I am going to put my data in a place where some Asian manufacturer can go grab it and know what they need to build and how to price it to kick my butt."

While this is not what an IDW is, that didn't matter. They were experiencing what the late Hunter S. Thompson used to call "The Fear," a totally consuming fear that denies any rationality of logic. And tatemae persists.

Continuing to rack my brain, I knew there was more than just the misunderstanding of the Aftermarket Data Trust — I mean Vision. Thinking more about it and talking with smart people around the industry, I have come up with a theory, but space dictates that presentation of this theory must wait until the next installment.

As I write this, the final report from the consultant is being prepared for presentation. I'm not sure what we will learn from it, or if tatemae will cloud the findings. So it looks as though this long strange trip is going to be a little longer and a touch stranger. Guess I'll have to hang it up and see what tomorrow brings. There will be new facts that might bolster or decry that theory I have.

Bob Moore is president of Bob Moore & Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in the automotive aftermarket. He can be reached at [email protected].