How to Use Big Data to Improve Supply Chain Visibility

According to a July 2014 supply chain research study from Accenture focused on Big Data and supply chain risk management, most organizations have high hopes for using big data analytics in their supply chain but many have had challenges in deploying it. In fact, as noted in the study, “97 percent of executives reported having an understanding of how big data analytics can benefit their supply chain, but only 17 percent reported having already implemented analytics in one or more supply chain functions.”

There are a number of challenges when adopting and deploying a data analytics solution, and it’s important for organizations to clearly define their goals and objectives before embarking on this endeavor. Let’s explore some of the technology changes that organizations should consider as they align their corporate goals and objectives to utilize big data to improve their end-to-end supply chain visibility.

Thanks to changes in technology and digital storage capabilities, companies are now able to collect and amass a huge amount of data from many disparate sources. The question is how to develop and deploy the right data analysis tools and techniques to mine intelligence from that data. To gain visibility into your supply chain, there are a few preliminary steps you must consider.

1. You must implement the proper controls needed to optimize all of the processes throughout your global network. To do this, you have to create a closed-loop process to gain insight into your operations.

2. You need to consider what type of business intelligence tool to implement to obtain the visibility you need to measure and monitor your business across multiple workflows. Many companies explore using a point solution to help with data analytics and day-to-day decision making, while others consider an enterprise-wide solution that enables you to capture, process, and deliver insights into key supply chain processes.

3. Understand that true supply chain visibility is an ongoing endeavor as most organizations are unable to see across the entire supply chain. The lack of visibility, or blind spots, is often due to specific events or lack of integration points with trading partners or suppliers. With these blind spots, organizations are unable to drive the proper metrics to manage day-to-day operations and generate significant business value. Collaborating with trading partners and effectively capturing critical data are key elements to the success of achieving your goal of end-to-end visibility.

There is more to supply chain visibility than a complex set of KPIs. The technology solution you choose needs to capture key events or milestones, where there is collaboration among trading partners and suppliers. To accomplish this, you have to map the individual workflows inside your supply chain to truly capture and understand where the opportunities exist for optimization and process improvement.

This is where the platform approach to supply chain management comes into play. Creating a single dashboard or a series of KPIs is a good start, but in order to have end-to-end visibility you have to take a much broader approach and include visibility tools that sit on top of the complex workflows, consume the data within the platform, and allow you to capture those key interactions (collaboration events) as data points. Once you capture those collaboration events, you can tie them to your dashboards and KPIs; obtaining updates on those events will be invaluable, and the possibilities are limitless. You can track workflow events from purchase order all the way through the fulfilment process up to consignee delivery confirmation (P.O. to P.O.D). Adding your trading partners and suppliers to your visibility solution will foster stronger relationships, improve contract negotiations, increase awareness of bottlenecks, and provide many opportunities for business/process improvement.

To improve supply chain visibility you need to align your goals and set the right expectations for the use of Big Data in data flows, data capture, and data analysis. It is important to understand your workflows and data flows to capture the appropriate data needed for analytics, but it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing affair. You can start small with a few trading partners and expand over time. The key is to select the right partner or application based on your short-term and long-term goals for Big Data analytics. For true end-to-end supply chain visibility, keep in mind that you have to implement a solid technology solution that can tie all of this together and provide a robust set of KPIs and dashboards. The ultimate goals should include the ability to gain insight into your supply chain activities, provide the opportunity to proactively respond to changes, gain a cross-functional view of your supply chain, and ultimately optimize your supply chain performance.

Larry Lewis is the Director of Product Marketing responsible for driving Kewill’s solutions across the Courier, Express and Parcel markets with responsibilities for the company’s multi-modal shipping and spend management products and services. Larry has over 12 years of experience in software and high-tech industries. Prior to Kewill, he was the co-founder, CTO and COO of Pointandship Software where he led the design and development teams for their Shipping Expense Management software. Prior to co-founding Pointandship Software, Larry was the COO at Comm360 System Integrators.