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Supply Chain Visibility: The need & qualities of an effective system

In today's world, supply chains are no longer localized to an organization's four walls. As companies go more global for their demand and supply markets, there comes with it a spider-web of partners and dependencies. The situation gets more complex as partners may have their own processes, systems and work in their own time zones. This easily has a potential to lower the supply chain efficiency due to lack of collaboration between partners and non-availability of timely information. As a result, organizations end up either under stocked (that leads to lost customers) or overstocked (leading to unwanted inventory carrying costs).

It is imperative then, that companies can no longer bank on traditional solutions that only track inventory and its associated cost within the company's boundaries. Today's companies need to act on sudden changes/disruptions occurring in the supply chain that could otherwise have negative impact. Hence there arises a need to implement a system/process that can collaborate and obtain information from various sources, analyze and help formulate strategies for a more 'visible' supply chain.

Today's ever expanding supply chain environments have forced companies to think beyond traditional techniques of partner collaboration and information management which otherwise only increases latency and inconsistency. Systems not only need to be able to collaborate and provide data rich solutions but at the same time be nimble when expansion and changes occur. This is where most modern supply chains are automated - and Visibility is no exception.
However, leveraging the right technology is quintessential. The rules, flexibility and exceptions associated with supply chain information have created large volumes of data for companies to evaluate. The right technology can analyze data and produce valuable business intelligence, which can ultimately lead to better, more informed supply chain decisions.

Following are some points that can help choose a best-in-class Visibility system:

Ease of on-boarding: This is a step that needs to be executed with utmost caution and with ease. A challenge modern companies face is in onboarding partners onto their network. In some cases of modern Visibility implementations, this has been a deal-breaker! Not all partners of customers are gung-ho about painstakingly making themselves part of new networks.

Collaborate & Integrate: Firstly, to achieve total visibility it is very important for all partners of the network to share their side of information on the proceedings. Secondly, since different partners work on different systems, each of them may have their own data standards. The visibility system should collaborate and consume data in various forms from across all partners and use it in the best possible way.

Present Information Effectively: Data accumulation & management still remains a key ingredient to a successful Visibility program. Equally important for Visibility systems is to provide a platform that helps evaluate KPIs, compare information using scorecards and create strategic dashboards that can be utilized to take better decisions and improve overall supply chain performance.

Manage surprises: As organizations resort to more globalization and outsourcing, there is always an element of surprise embedded into the supply chain. As long as Visibility systems are able to keep key participants informed of key events, the system has proved its worth. A valuable visibility system also tells you what you SHOULD know in addition to what you already know. Most modern Visibility systems term this as 'Event/Alert Management'.

Be Near Real-time yet Scalable: A typical Visibility solution interacts with multiple systems to acquire, assimilate, churn and present data in a comprehendible way. Common challenges in this area are reading partner data in different formats and still adhering to different business rules that govern data processing. In trying to do so, performance should not be compromised.

'Partner type' dependent: Visibility is every single partner's problem. A competent Visibility solution should be able to present same data to all participants of the supply chain network, with their individual perspective. Example: For a shipper, number of shipments at a 3PL warehouse might be a relevant metric while the 3PL provider may be more interested in the number of shipments for all serviced shippers. However, processes within an organization should clearly outline owners of specific areas that are able to respond and take action in case of surprises.

Having considered the above points, the onus then is on companies to conduct a detailed study on existing processes, identify opportunities to streamline them and at the same time, evaluate the best of technology vendors that enable successful Visibility programs. For any modern day supply chain, technology enabled visibility system is not to be treated as an overhead but as a backbone of operations.

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