The Connected Channel

There are a lot of dimensions and moving parts to supply chain management. But one area that I don’t think gets enough attention is channel management — that is, the way companies connect, communicate, and collaborate with their distributors, resellers, and other channel partners. As with other areas of supply chain management, there have been a lot of lessons learned with regards to channel management over the past two years. What are some of those lessons? Why are we now talking about The Connected Channel? And how can companies move up the maturity curve in this area? Those are some of the questions I discussed with Oana Rusu-Williams, Director of Product Marketing, Channel Products at e2open, on a recent episode of Talking Logistics.

An Expanded View

To begin our discussion, I asked Oana how the past two years have changed channel management. Oana explains that the traditional view of channel management has often been focused on downstream partners who sell, transport, and distribute products to customers. But the supply disruptions caused by the pandemic meant companies had to expand that view to include upstream partners too. Out of necessity, companies became supply-driven, only selling what they could actually deliver rather than demand-driven. Therefore, Oana says the entire channel partner ecosystem must be connected to leverage both the supply and demand sides to serve the customer.

The Connected Channel

I asked Oana to elaborate on what it takes to create what she calls The Connect Channel. She says that the first aspect is that it is a broader set of partners that includes everyone in the source-to-deliver supply chain, including supply partners and logistics partners.

Second, these connected channel (or ecosystem) partners have to go beyond having visibility to what is happening in the end-to-end supply chain to having the ability to communicate and collaborate with each other in order to see and respond sooner to disruptions or other changes up and down the supply chain.

Third, Oana says connected channel partners must have the applications and processes in place to take immediate and efficient corrective action to the disruptions and changes uncovered. “These capabilities can lead to autonomous, self-correcting supply chains,” she says.

Implications for Channel Partners

For a truly connected channel to exist, it’s clear that the above capabilities must go beyond the lead partner in the chain, typically the manufacturer or retailer who begins this journey. The implication is that each partner throughout the expanded channel ecosystem must have the vision, communications, applications and processes to interact with the other channel partners on a near real-time basis. 

“Someone has to orchestrate how the visibility and interaction occurs across the ecosystem and that probably resides with the central partner whose products are being moved,” Oana states. “The roles of the partners may change, as well. They will focus on handling exceptions because the rest will sort itself out.”

Moving Up the Maturity Curve

Given the infrastructure requirements for the connected channel vision, I asked Oana where companies are at in the journey and how they can move up the maturity curve.

Oana explains that most companies are already on this journey whether they are doing so consciously or not. She points to the continuing efforts to gain visibility and deploy control towers as steps in this process.

Oana notes that an important step in this journey is to implement a supply chain platform that supports the network approach to supply chain management. “Having channel partners connected to a network platform is key to the process,” she says. “It takes effort, time and money to make this happen — it doesn’t happen overnight. It also requires the openness for new partners to easily join the network and connect their applications to the platform so they can communicate with each other.

“A further step is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to understand what’s happening across the supply chain and take appropriate action. It can potentially correct mistakes or problems that occur in other parts of the channel. Not only is this more efficient, it improves supply chain resilience and reduces risk.”

What Lies Ahead?

With all of the implications of the connect channel, the next question is what’s next, what lies ahead? Oana discusses this in terms of economic changes, the partner and customer experiences, and further connectivity. For all of her insights and advice on this question and more, I recommend that you watch the full episode. Then keep the conversation going with your questions and comments.