Supply Chain Visibility: Past, Present, and Future

Achieving end-to-end supply chain visibility has been the Holy Grail for industry executives — always desired, but seldom achieved. This has been an ongoing challenge, in part, because supply chain networks, technologies, and processes are always changing, making supply chain visibility a moving target. The question then becomes, where are we today with supply chain visibility? What are some of the lessons learned over the years that companies can now leverage? And how are advancements in technology helping to improve this important capability?

Those were just some of the questions I discussed with Cindi Hane, Vice President of Product Management for Elemica, in a recent episode of Talking Logistics.

Old vs. New Supply Chain Visibility

Since supply chain visibility has been talked about for at least two decades, I asked Cindi why it was never really achieved in the past and what is different now. She explained that, “Before we were talking about event management and alerting solutions where you transferred your data into event management systems and tried to generate proactive alerts. However, these systems were not very robust or attuned to the underlying data. This led to many false alerts or lack of alerts when there should have been some. Thus, executives got disillusioned with the solutions and turned them off.

“Now there are new technologies that enable us to collect data in real time from sources such as the Internet of Things and smart devices through B2B networks. By leveraging this real-time data, we are finally able realize the benefits of supply chain visibility.”

Available, Usable, Timely, Accurate

The biggest stumbling block for supply chain visibility in the past was data quality. Cindi states that data quality requires data to be available, usable, timely, and accurate. She says it is common for companies to have B2B data integration with only the top 20 percent of their trading partners due to integration costs. This leaves a large amount of “long tail” data unavailable.

On the other hand, with the advent of networked smart devices, you have tons of timely, accurate data available, but do you have the network structures and analytical capabilities to turn this data into usable information? Cindi says that this is where the integration capabilities of supply chain operating networks can be very helpful. Rather than being straight-jacketed by EDI rules and Edifact transaction formats, these network tools allow companies to use a number of connection protocols (including APIs) or portals in addition to EDI to send data. This makes it easier and more scalable and cost effective for all trading partners to connect and share data.

More Focus on Improving the Customer Experience

Once you’ve built the digital network and data record, you can start to overlay executable processes to collaborate with partners on functions such as bookings, inventory management, and cost management. Cindi offered a simple example of a company and carrier collaborating on dock scheduling. The network already knows the company’s and the carrier’s operating constraints and automatically takes those into consideration in setting the appointment.

Cindi noted that there are two kinds of benefits their customers are experiencing with supply chain operating networks. “Customers often cost-justify implementing an operating network based on increased efficiency, on the ability of their customer service reps or transport planners to handle more customers, more orders, or more shipments faster based on the automation.

“More often now we are seeing customers implementing these networks to improve customer service. Being able to quickly provide customers with more accurate information and transparency creates customer loyalty. So it isn’t just about improved efficiency, it’s about how we can improve the customer experience and offer other value-added services.”

How do you determine where your company is on the supply chain visibility spectrum? What new capabilities are on the horizon?  Watch the rest of my conversation with Cindi to find out. Then post a question or comment and keep the conversation going!