September 2007 | Commentary | IT Matters

Data Fuels the Supply Chain

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When struggling to implement international supply chain management software, it helps to focus on the importance of clean and usable data.

Failing to get good data into and out of your supply chain management IT system is like filling a Lamborghini with nail polish remover and expecting it to win the Grand Prix.

How do you get quality supply chain data? Start with your technology platform.

Major global supply chains involve many partners with independently developed IT systems, using myriad data formats, as well as different codes for locations, countries, and currencies.

Even if you wrap your arms around all that, partners, codes, and formats all change over time, making supply chain information management grubby, complicated, and messy.

Many companies deal with the problem by insisting that all partners adhere to their format and codes. That's one way to alienate partners and ensure that software implementation takes forever.

A much better approach is to make sure you have a flexible technology platform that can accept different formats; deal with different partners sending different codes that mean the same thing; and handle formats and codes that change over time.

Other important dimensions to your technology platform's flexibility go beyond formats and codes. You may have standardized the data you receive from partners for all supply chain events, but what if it gets delivered in a different order - say, purchase order information comes in after the packing list? You need a system that can park information somewhere until it can link to other, more recent data.

Keys are Key

Then there are "keys," which are the reason why you are asked for a SSN or a phone number when you go to a video store. You need a technology platform that can deal with different partners identifying documents using different keys.

One partner might identify a shipment with a TA number, while another chooses a combination of bill of lading and container number. Solutions that have assumptions about these keys buried in programming code are inflexible. Look for technology that lets you configure the keys by document type and partner.

Lastly, you need to consider your technology platform's ability to configure the data and documents you receive with the actual business process that triggered them.

For example, does a set of dates defining a ship window mean that you can't invoice for any merchandise delivered after midnight on the last date? Or does it mean that's the broad window a supplier should aim for?

Getting your data platform right puts you in a position to monitor data quality in a smart way, but it's just the beginning. You need to implement processes to monitor and resolve issues as they arise.

You should be running weekly and monthly reports to measure the data in your system: What percentage of locations were not mapped? What percentage of updates came too late? Are you getting accurate, complete, and timely messages?

These additional processes and attention incur costs that are usually not factored into the system's initial price or implementation. It requires a dedicated team that might stretch your in-house capabilities. But an on-demand supply chain vendor can provide this data service for you.

Whatever you choose, remember that you need good fuel in your car, and you need good data in your supply chain management system.

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