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Supply Chain Data: Living In Two Worlds

Posted by Brian Glick on Nov 3, 2018 11:05:52 AM
Brian Glick

Originally published September 10, 2018


Sometimes I feel like I’m living in two worlds.

In one world, I go to conferences. I hear about how digitization is going to change everything. Forwarders are being disrupted (and destroyed). Shipments move step by step along a blockchain absent the slightest human intervention. Traceability is perfect. AI predicts and resolves every disruption before it happens.

In the other world, I visit our customers. A Fortune 10 company can’t pay invoices without correlating three PDFs with a printed spreadsheet. A major retailer can’t agree on what constitutes a purchase order number across six divisions. A global freight forwarder emails arrival notices to their own overseas offices.

Salespeople and futurists are pushing real-time-auto-magical-perfect-everything-sauce. Meanwhile, operators are excited that they’re not using the fax machine. How do we reconcile these vastly different world views?

One option is to wallow in the trough of disillusionment. We claim the future isn’t happening fast enough, so it won’t happen at all. In 1915, automotive market penetration was <10% of households. I’m sure that someone said, “These things have been around for 25 years and only the super rich have them… it’s never going to happen.” That would have been a mistake.

Another option is to charge full speed ahead. Icebergs be damned! Hyper-excited CEOs insist they’ll drag their companies into the future by sheer force of will. “Innovation” initiatives launch with a bang and wither on the vine. Cosmetic technology projects produce awesome charts and apps, but the stock moves in the wrong direction.

The third way is to do the hard work to get your house in order so you’re ready when these disrupting technologies hit the mainstream. When we advise our clients, this is the path we focus on. Unless you’re the rare exception, 2019 (and 2020) should be defined by data quality. (Honestly, 2017 and 2018 should have been, but we can’t live in the past.)

Go ahead with that AI pilot being touted by the hot startup. Have someone investigate the new blockchain consortium. Figure out if IOT has a home in your ecosystem.

But, while you’re doing that, figure out how this is going to work with the people, systems, and process that you already have. These new technologies demand high quality data. There’s a 95% chance that you don’t have that.

Here are some things to think about:

Do we have multiple divisions, business units, or subsidiaries?

If so, the teams have different systems and terminology. Do we have a common data attribute map that translates the language. Do we know that Estimated Delivery in group 1 means delivery to the store while Estimated Delivery in group two means delivery to the warehouse. Do we know that group 2 also has a field called Available For Sale date that means delivery to the store?

Can we use our data?

Do our software and service providers give us access to a complete and timely data stream that we can ingest and do what we’d like with. If you’re consistently asking for “mods” or reaching out to professional services to get more data in a piecemeal manner, then you’re not ready to react to the new pace of business. If we need to attack a new business problem, can we access our data in a different way this week?

Is our data agile?

Imagine you want to work with the new, hot AI startup solving problem X. They say to you, we can do a 90 day pilot and show you immediate business value. All we need is a stream of the last six months of your warehouse receipt data, purchase orders, and the associated freight payments. How quickly could you get them that information? How much time would you have to spend explaining the variances and corner cases? How many people would have to be involved? If it would take you two months (or more) to get ready for a 90 day pilot, then you’re not ready for the future.

Can we ingest new data?

Your COO calls tomorrow and says, we’re entering a new geography and we need to be live in 90 days or we’re going to miss the opportunity. None of your existing service providers are in the new space. Can you integrate new providers into your environment in that time, without sacrificing data quality and visibility? (Hint: If you’re asking the service provider to modify their systems to match your process, you’re going to fail.)

What do all of these questions have in common? Speed. We all know the world is getting faster. The key to keeping up is flexibility. You must accept that data will come into your world in diverse formats using different metaphors. Those ingestion mechanisms will be constantly changing, and you need to have the flexibility to adapt. The same will be true for the data that you need to push out of your systems. Upgrades, new business initiatives, system replacements, acquisitions… these are realities, and your data platform needs to handle them without a hiccup.

If you need help, our team at is here for you. Get in touch.

Topics: supply chain, logistics