This commentary represents the third of our ongoing Supply Chain Matters market education series directed at clarifying needs and requirements addressing supply chain wide visibility.

One of the most critical challenges cited by multi-industry supply chain teams is extended supply chain visibility. This challenge is becoming universal as industry supply and value-chain processes continue to become more complex with constant changes in needs for business support. It is consistently cited by many supply chain leaders as a continued perplexing challenge.

As noted in the first commentary of this educational series, supply chain wide visibility often stems from differing business process perspectives or different business priorities that can involve planning, customer fulfillment execution, analytics and business intelligence as well as other more informed and more-timely decision-making needs. Often, this visibility term is lumped into other challenges including supply chain wide traceability, transparency, capacity or inventory management. Thus it is rather important for teams to clarify specific short and long-term visibility capability needs and decision-support requirements from the ongoing distraction of day-to-day symptoms stemming from lack of needed information.

In our second commentary in this series we stated that creating a unified view of important data related to supply chain business processes is not a simple task without first considering foundational strategies. Supply chain data and information is typically spread among multiple systems in both structured transactional or unstructured data and information formats, supporting each of these different processes. Supply chain wide visibility, by our continued view, is not about a rip and replace technology strategy since that would be far too disruptive. That is especially pertinent to disruption of backbone transactional systems. We advocated that visibility should be viewed in the context of building-out enhanced decision-making support capabilities from more streamlined and better accessible sources of existing and future planning, execution and customer fulfillment information.

Within this commentary we address the information technology considerations for supply chain wide visibility. However, before we begin, we need to state up-front that we are advising a cross-functional and cross-business, as well as an IT support audience. Thus our citing of technology will be in the context of the supply chain wide process and business outcome impacts for certain information technology considerations.

To be perfectly frank, from the user lens, significant challenges in creating a unified view of all supply chain data and information remain as unfulfilled. However, new Cloud or on premise in-memory, data visualization and data cleansing information technology tools now coming to market continue to improve and will better assist in this effort. In particular, the combination of advanced in-memory coupled with data visualization and analytics will add augmented computing power and a more enhanced user-interface.

Let’s briefly reflect on the history of past challenges.

Supply chain related information is typically processed and collected among multiple supply-chain software applications. Many of these applications, whether product, planning, procurement or execution related, created their own data store within or directly integrated to the application itself.  The notions of information related to historic performance, current key performance indicators or future resource requirements invariably take on different meanings, especially if such applications were installed at different timeframes of the organization’s existence. They would typically include ERP applications, older legacy or specialty applications, centralized data warehouses or evolving more open standards data lakes. Whereas a newer supply chain planning system may have overcome some of these challenges, the context of other information would be lacking.

Thus, if a user or S&OP team member had to search for combinations of historic, current and future requirements information related to, for instance, planning and execution process needs, the search would invariably involve querying the specific applications as well as the information warehouse. A further challenge relates to making sure that the context for the data and information was framed properly. How many times have teams been frustrated in finally receiving the results of an IT enabled information request only to discover that the information was not appropriate or valid because of either improper context, lack of clean, consistent or complete data, the selection of an improper file or lack of synchronization of master data among different applications.

Is it no surprise that the fallback position was once again, the creation of multiple spreadsheets that end up to be an analysis at a certain point in time.

We continue to advocate that supply chain wide visibility, along with the information and insights garnered from such visibility, is best achieved in an architecture that includes a singular data and information utility. Readers should not interpret this to connote a large data warehouse. Too often in past efforts, such approaches have led to large and expensive data ‘monuments’ where all forms of information were collected without all-important context, and where such information could only be extracted without the direct assistance of IT based data administrators. This often created latency and time delays in retrieving such information.

As noted in our prior blog advisories, whereas in the past, IT teams and data administrators were the prime facilitators of integrated business process information and decision-making insights, today’s business demands require that appropriate line-of-business and supply chain wide functional teams serve as the generator of insights.

Consider the analogy of an information utility platform where key data is automatically ‘streaming’ (vs. statically housed) from various supply chain enterprise and internal software applications. The data is collected, validated, cleansed, normalized and modeled with other key internal and/or external data to form information insights. External reference data could relate to industry operational benchmarks, external transportation, production or inventory carrying costs as well as multi-industry benchmarks related to areas such as sustainability.

The information utility we are describing must be augmented by more user-friendly and user-centric information visualization, dashboard and analytics based tools to reflect more predictive or prescriptive insights relative to what the data and information implies in terms of operational, business, financial customer or strategic outcomes. With user-centric tools, augmented by automated routines once the data is validated, business users can overcome the need for direct IT assistance in specialized day-to-day information requests.

From an overall supply chain business strategy and support perspective, once a supply chain wide information utility we refer to is established, efforts directed at future initiatives related to supply chain control towers or Internet of Things (IoT) enabled process that bring together physical sensor and digital information can be better enabled by leveraging the same platform.

Here’s another caveat. Forget the vendor generated hype terminology of “Big Data’. That is not what supply chain wide visibility should be about. Rather think- ‘smarter data’.  The necessary data required to more intelligently manage and predict required supply chain outcomes.

Again, end-to-end supply chain visibility is a journey. Start with the vision of the end-state, build the foundational business process constructs and the information utility. Then proceed with the usual people and process maturity needs and learning that get your organization to the objective.

Bob Ferrari

© 2016 The Ferrari Consulting and Research Group and the Supply Chain Matters® blog. All rights reserved.

Disclosure: This educational series related to supply chain wide visibility is being sponsored by Supply Chain Matters sponsor, LLamasoft.