Facebook for Supply Chain Communication and Collaboration?

“Communicate, Collaborate, Innovate” — I’ve been using that line as the subtitle of my keynote presentations this year. My first question to the audience: Why communicate, collaborate, and innovate in that order? Why not innovate first?

The short answer is that communication and collaboration — especially, and most importantly, between people — is the foundation of supply chain management, and you can’t effectively innovate without that strong foundation.

As we all know, exceptions are the norm in supply chain management: demand exceeds supply, shipments get delayed, weather or labor issues disrupt transit times, and the list goes on. It’s people (aided by technology) that ultimately have to respond, manage, and resolve exceptions by effectively communicating and collaborating with their colleagues across functional groups, and with their external trading partners too. As Tony Martins, the former VP of Supply Chain at TEVA Pharmaceuticals, described it a few years ago:

What is needed [in a dynamic business environment] is a supply chain of rapid response…Many people who work in the materials business [and] talk about supply chains and the speed of supply chains [have historically] thought about systems talking to systems across enterprises and about processes. But in reality, the speed of the chain is not really related to the systems used by the various companies—it’s all about people, and people talking to people.

But are the tools and methods you currently use to communicate and collaborate the most effective and efficient in all situations?

If you’re still receiving emails with attachments and countless people in the cc list (who sometimes reply to all, and sometimes don’t), then the answer is clearly no.

If there are multiple versions of the same document, saved in multiple places, and nobody knows which version is the most current, then the answer is clearly no.

If your response to solving a problem is to gather people in a conference room for an “all hands on deck” meeting, even though half your employees (who might know the solution) reside six time zones away, then the answer is clearly no.

Over the past few years, I’ve been telling supply chain executives to think of social networking as another set of communication and collaboration tools. These tools include discussion forums (think LinkedIn groups), document sharing (think Dropbox), video conferencing (think Skype), texting and micro-blogging (think Twitter), video and photo sharing (think YouTube and Instagram), and blogs and wikis (think Wikipedia). These tools don’t necessarily replace emails, phone calls, or face-to-face meetings, but they are arguably more effective in situations where many people, across multiple groups and companies, and across different time zones and geographies, need to communicate and collaborate.

I firmly believe that Companies of Tomorrow will embrace social networking to communicate, collaborate, and execute business processes in more efficient, scalable, and innovative ways, while Companies of Yesterday will remain mired in emails and meetings, and suffer from slow decision-making processes.

Social networking has been making inroads in the workplace for several years (see Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer and Salesforce.com’s Chatter ), but I predict that we’ll see the pace accelerate next year, as evidenced by recent news from Facebook and IBM.

According to an article in The Financial Times, “Facebook is secretly working on a new website called ‘Facebook at Work’ to get a foothold in the office…[the new product will] allow users to chat with colleagues, connect with professional contacts and collaborate over documents, competing with Google Drive and Microsoft Office, according to people familiar with the matter. The new site will look very much like Facebook – with a newsfeed and groups – but will allow users to keep their personal profile…separate from their work identity.”

A couple of days later, IBM announced IBM Verse, which reinvents enterprise email “with a new freemium social collaboration offering that uses built-in analytics to give individuals a new way to converse, find the right people and information fast, and get work done.” Watch the short video below for an overview:

Social networking is also making inroads in supply chain software (see Macrolynk and Cloud Logistics), and as I’ve written many times before, the next phase of Supply Chain Operating Networks is about facilitating communication and collaboration between supply chain and logistics professionals — that is, SCONs are becoming the business equivalents of Facebook and LinkedIn.

The bottom line: Review your strategic roadmap for 2015 and beyond. If transforming the way you communicate and collaborate with colleagues and external trading partners is not on there, then your innovation goals and other business objectives are built on a weak foundation.