EDI EXCHANGE

EDI EXCHANGE

DOES ANYBODY WANT to be a hero? That's what the trade community needs when it comes to transforming paperless trading from theory to reality.

There are executives and companies that are making contributions above and beyond the call of duty. Unless more companies start pitching in, vital questions about the automation of international trade will remain unanswered.Only the marketplace can provide a true test of whether a technology is worth using. A few companies have been willing to volunteer as digital lab animals.

But the number remains far too low, proponents say. A tiny user population makes it tough to get any but the most basic information on how well paperless trading works.

It also pushes achievement of the critical mass needed to make paperless trading a day-to-day tool ever further into the future.

Duncan Alexander is one of the most familiar faces on the international paperless trading circuit. As operations manager for Johnson & Johnson International's export division, he's spent years helping move the world toward systems that replace paper documents with electronic messages.

Those who create paperless trading systems tend to be very diplomatic. Mr. Alexander has reached the point where he makes his frustration clear. Companies are "sitting around," he says. Paperless trading is a technology of the future - and it will stay that way until companies are willing to move.

Myriad wonderful reasons exist for not getting involved with global paperless trading. Virtually all of them are valid. But no business is without risk. Companies are going to have to be willing to lose if they're going to give their industries an opportunity to adopt some winning technologies.

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CHEERLEADING ISN'T ENOUGH. Money is needed - dollars to be spent on everything from consultants to writing new software to travel expenses to send executives to meetings of the groups that create paperless trading messages.

U.S. companies have many valid doubts about international paperless trading. The U.N.-backed Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport has the mandate for creating messages that will enable companies to do business without paper worldwide.

Only two Edifact messages have been completed. A huge population of companies in this country are already working with the home-grown messages created by the American National Standards Institute's X12 committee.

Legal issues loom that may make a total shift from paper to electronic communication difficult, if not impossible. Procedures for moving, tracing, tracking and clearing goods through computers will have to be developed.

For some companies, the early stages of a move to paperless trading may actually increase cost, as messages are sent both electronically and with paper backup.

Perhaps most important, no one really knows how much a shift to the new technologies will cost. There are estimates galore. But the only way to determine real expenses is to work with real systems in the real world.

Big fears can provide the motivation to overcome little ones. Many European companies enthusiastically accept international standards for paperless trading because their continental competitors are doing the same. U.S. companies seem to feel this environment is a safe ocean away. A 3,000- mile moat, however, is no protection against messages that travel at digital speeds.

Doubters can say that paperless hasn't proven itself yet. And it won't, until they give it a chance.