The World Wide Web Turns 30: Can the Supply Chain Emulate its Technological Feat?
In 2019, the World Wide Web celebrates its 30th birthday. In honor of the milestone, we take a look at some of the most fascinating parallels between what launched the internet’s success and what the supply chain must do to fulfill the same ambitions.
What’s on the Horizon
When Tim Berners-Lee submitted “Information Management”—a proposal for how scientists could better track growing projects—it was the seed for the World Wide Web, a single network for information sharing.
Recently, Martin Verwijmeren shared his vision of a utopian supply chain future wherein product order fulfillment would be similarly streamlined across a worldwide web of enterprises.
Just as Berners-Lee better managed information through sharing, the supply chain is leveraging multi-enterprise business networks (MESCBN) to manage rising market pressures through collaboration. E-commerce and shrinking product lifecycles have challenged businesses to dynamically partner with specialists and service providers.
Moreover, both the internet and supply chain rely on continuously growing network components to scale. The internet hinges on an ever-expanding arsenal of computer servers, databases, and routers to sustain information production, processing, transmission, and storage. Companies today thrive when they build dynamic partnerships with factories, warehouses, carriers, terminals, ports, and stores to support the same capacities for their products.
Consider also the revolutionary move from circuit to packet switching technology. Splitting content into smaller packets allows individual data blocks to travel independently from source to destination through different routes in the network before reassembling at the end. Supply chains can achieve far greater speed and efficiency by making full use of all available bandwidth, splitting product quantities and consolidating packages as needed to optimize routes and deliveries.
What’s Holding Us Back?
Unlike the supply chain—an international practice, deeply rooted in history—the internet was novel, occurring in a comparatively small and secluded academic corner. It didn’t contend with legacy systems and practices that resist change. Its existence was predicated on modern technology, whereas the supply chain (in its most basic form) can ostensibly subsist without it. It therefore perpetually confronts the question of whether adopting new methods is worthwhile, creating slow and uneven progress.
MESCBNs—when done right—are capable of extraordinary advantages. Yet, too few companies are committed to expanding and optimizing them. Networks, though invaluable, are not a panacea; they require robust digital platforms on which to run and smart orchestration to run well.
From the start, the internet was already endowed with clever tenets that would enable its unhindered prosperity. The founders eliminated silos and upheld a flexible design to encourage experimentation. Yet, the supply chain continues to harbor bad habits that slow advancement. Systems continue to exist in silos – even those with growing networks. The tendency is to aggregate disparate solutions, and when these don’t adequately communicate, the system as a whole lacks the flexibility and experimental qualities needed to evolve.
Companies aren’t seeking enough partnerships to support Internet-level capacities for their products, and many that do, rely on systems that use static modelling. The future, like the internet, leverages cloud platforms. Effective orchestration needs systems integration, automation, and dynamic modeling to streamline product flows across regions, improve efficiency and service quality, and strengthen international reach.
Perhaps the greatest deterrents to the e-commerce utopia posed earlier is the fear of disruption and the staunch certainty that what is in place is “good enough.” There are profound implications for waiting for the world to change versus pioneering that change. While dreams are vital to providing us with an ideal to strive toward, we render them inanimate when we refuse to innovate and push boundaries in the present.
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