Had a great time today speaking at the ProcureCon conference in Phoenix today, and spent a good deal of time talking to a number of the different solutions providers in the vendor area. I was amazed at the speed and convenience of the technical solutions emerging in the procurement area, based on the discussions I had with the individuals present.

For example, a discussion with Anu Gardiner at Docusign opened up my eyes to the technology involved in signing contracts. Anu discussed how when she signed contracts for her house she bought in 2003, it involved 80 signatures. When she sold the house last year, it was done all electronically – and even changes could be done via email. Anu formerly worked in procurement at Kaiser Permanente, and also pointed out how increasingly young physicians want to do everything on iPads (including accessing patient records) – and this will be a problem as patient confidentiality regulations can inhibit the ability of physicians to be electronically productive.

Chris Hahn from Coupa did a demo for me, showing me the ease with which Coupa software allows Accounts Payable and Sourcing groups to access all of their data online. The software was founded in 2006, and is based on the Amazon model of being able to quickly access data…because of how new the platform was, it is better able to drive solutions that are truly mobile and accessible to sourcing and contract managers from their iPhones. The solution also drives individuals to better align early payment, by ensuring the AP capability is able to convert payments within the time in the contract to take advantage of early payment dynamic discounts.

I also met Mike Erickson, who recently started up a networking group called the “American Council of Sourcing and Procurement Executives”. They have a linked in group which would be a good one to join…

Several companies are working on data readiness issues that are driving new technologies. the challenges involve ensuring data is entered correctly and also can be used to drive insight through better spend analytics, contract accessibility, and supplier scorecards. Providers in this space are all moving to mobile SAAS solutions that enable greater accessibility, including Perfect Commerce and Xeeva. Others are focused more on managing temporary work programs, such as Pontoon. I also met with a firm that specializes in negotiating third party contracts with transportation providers, AFMS.

Lots of really interesting presentations as well. The current session is talking about the difference in hiring Generation X (1961-1981) vs. Millennials (1982-today)….one issue is around Gen Xers focusing on ethics and stability, and wanting flextime and telecommuting, and allowing them to question rules and authority. Millennials on the other hand are heavily tied to social media, and often have a redefined family structure, with high debt….but many have also gone through a period of recessionary economics, and are more tied to being highly multi-task oriented….Lots to think about here!

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One of the most important themes in our recent BVL study on global supply chain trends and issues was the emerging importance of transportation management. Transportation planning is often overlooked in enterprise and supply chain strategy, and viewed as a tactical planning activity. However, recent events and research point to the increasing importance of having transportation management become part of the strategic planning agenda. This event will explore many of the emerging transportation trends and issues on the horizon:

• Increasing challenges associated with infrastructure limitations and bottlenecks impacting working capital, supply chain disruptions, and longer planning leadtimes. The highway infrastructure is bloated, and will continue to grow. Even transportation with batteries and natural gas powered engines will still have queuing issues to deal with.
• Regulatory mandates are reducing the times when distribution and trucks can access major metropolitan centers. As a result, deliveries will need to be made during off peak hours, impacting the ability of organizations to deliver packages to consumers relying on e-commerce solutions.
• New technologies are re-shaping the transportation landscape. Some of these technologies include driverless vehicles, GPS analytics, track and trace, RFID, and others that will have a major impact on how transportation is carried out in the future.
• Concurrently, numerous challenges exist with respect to the shortage of drivers. The average driver age is 55…and some reports note that for every 10 drivers that leave the workforce, they are only being replaced at 20% of this rate. We may find that major truck rates may go up in the near future.
• The impact of transportation on CO2 emissions, and the role that better and more efficient transportation planning has on the overall carbon footprint of the enterprise.
• The role of packaging and transportation will become more important. This will require early intervention and discussions between transportation and design engineers to find ways to not only improve “cube” rates on trucks and trains, but to also find ways to improve sustainable packaging, pallet return, and network design that will minimize the carbon footprint.

In exploring these issues, I will be sharing with you insights I’ve derived through interviews with several transportation subject matter experts and SCRC student projects. Additionally, we will be joined by a number of supply chain executives from other industries who will also share their insights into these questions.

More insights to come!

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Supply management research has established the axiom that firms are no longer operating independently, but indeed are part of an extended global network that is subject to high degrees of volatility, increasing customer expectations, and is subject to major forms of disruption risk. However, what is not well understood is whether supply manager behaviors have shifted to reflect this broader paradigm shift. One of the major threats to the global supply network is supplier financial default. Financial theory has explored the impact of default in the context of investments, such as when a firm suddenly defaults, investors learn about the default threshold of closely associated business partner firms. This updating leads to “contagious” jumps in credit spreads of business partners, and can rapidly spread. An example is the default of Argentina and the associated immediate spread widening on debt of other South American countries (most notably Brazil), as well in the business context of buyer and supplier firms.

The issues around supplier financial health has generated increased traction at the federal government level. Apple and Coca Cola are two of the major companies who this summer signed on to a White House program called SupplierPay, a voluntary program in which companies commit either to pay small suppliers faster or help them get access to lower-cost capital.  SupplierPay is a voluntary program in which companies commit either to pay small suppliers faster or help them get access to lower-cost capital. SupplierPay builds on the federal government’s QuickPay program started in 2011. It sets a goal of having small-business contractors get paid within 15 days of delivering a product or service. Quicker payments can strengthen small companies’ cash flows and make them less likely to need to borrow.

This first became a major issue during the 2009 global downturn.  Across multiple industries, suppliers in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America all experienced a sudden drop in volume, leading to a uniform financial threat and risk of default. Suddenly, the risk of massive tiers of suppliers facing obliteration became a reality. Traditional methods of supplier risk mitigation involve diversifying risk, multiple sourcing, or switching suppliers, which are not effective in situations where entire regions, industry segments, or supply chains are experiencing financial distress. This is particularly of concern in emerging countries, where major shifts in economic conditions bank lending rates, or currency issues increase the likelihood of supplier bankruptcy. Supplier default risk exposes buying organizations to higher levels of supply chain disruption, as suppliers often cannot meet contractual obligations in a state of bankruptcy.

While Supplier Pay is certainly a step in the right direction, a recent research study I’ve conducted with Marcos Paolo, a colleague at a university in Brazil, has found that supply managers need to do more than this.  One of the major issues is that suppliers may not be willing to discuss their challenges for fear of losing business, so it is up to supplier relationship managers to instigate these discussions.  Perceived supplier financial health is a measure of a responding buyer’s perception of financial health; whereas supply disruption involves a major financial incident that is discovered “after the fact”. (The most common of these during the 2008 period included disruptions to operations, sudden price increases, erratic deliveries, or layoffs that result in capacity shortfalls. Our research finds that higher levels of information exchange through direct communication can have an immediate impact on buyer’s understanding that a supplier is or is not able to withstand a major economic downturn or financial rough patch.  Perceptions may also be a function of suppliers who request contractual modifications and shorter payment periods. In cases when perceptions are modified by direct supplier intelligence, buyers can take actions to ensure risk mitigation, flexibility, and redundancy through contract renegotiations. Through cognitive processes, Yates and Stone (1992) articulate a four stage sequential process in which the situation affects judgment of loss, which influence overall evaluations of risk, which drive risk mitigation action. The converse of this is a situation is when buyers are unaware of the extent of supplier distress in an equivocal environment that is unanalyzable. In the absence of meaning, this can lead to suppliers suddenly declaring bankruptcy with no prior warning.

Supply managers should also be aware of the telltale signs: requests for early payment, delivery problems, social media activity, or other factors that may indicate a supplier may be experiencing financial difficulties. In this case, don’t be afraid to ask for a “sit down”, and have an open and frank discussion about their financial challenges. This may be well worth the time, and avoid a lot of potential problems in the long run.

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I was interviewed by Forrest Burnson from Software Advice — a company providing SCM software research and reviews – earlier this month on insights related to sustainable supply chains.

This is an area that is proving to be a challenge for marketers and supply chain types alike.  Forrest captured my thoughts and a number of other sources, combined them into a very interesting article that addresses an important question:  Will consumers be willing to pay more if the product they buy comes from an ethical supply chain?

Consider the following question:  Would you be willing to pay double for your iPhone if you knew it was produced in the US under stricter labor standards?  “Uhhhh I’m not sure”….is the typical response I get from many people.  So, maybe you wouldn’t pay double – but the research shown here suggests you might be willing to pay 20 or 30 bucks more for it!  In fact, the research suggests that consumers are more likely to buy ethical products than ever before.  For instance, the research found:

  1. On average, consumers say they would pay 27 percent more for a product normally priced at $100 if it was produced under good working conditions.
  2. Consumers were split on whether improved working conditions such as: community involvement or environmental efforts would most convince them to buy from a firm.
  3. Twenty-eight percent of consumers said reducing water usage was an environmental initiative that would make them more likely to purchase a company’s products.

All of the survey results generally point toward consumers caring most, perhaps unsurprisingly, about labor conditions for the workers who make their products. For businesses with overseas operations, labor conditions can be one of the most difficult facets of the supply chain to maintain high standards on.  

In general, these facts are surprising to many of us.  However, it is clear that this message has not yet filtered down to the people who make decisions on Wall Street.  Most of the analysts and investment types still don’t “get it”…  My initial observations are that the analysts and people who buy stocks are still buying purely based on return, regardless of the risks associated with an unethical supply chain.  There are certainly exceptions: people like Rick Frazier at Concinnity Advisors have been investing in firms that behave in a manner conducive to “conscious capitalism” for years, and his portfolio has been beating the market…

In general, people are thinking more as they become more knowledgeable about their supply chains.  Who is making their stuff is becoming more important – and people are speaking with their wallets.

So next time you buy an iPhone, a cup of coffee, or a pair of running shorts….think of the supply chain!

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NC State kicked off classes last week, and as usual our incoming group of MBA students were lined up with projects as part of their entry class into supply chain management, MBA 541.  I have been teaching this class, called Supply Chain Relationships, for the last 15 years at NC State.

This class develops major themes and strategies of supply chain relationships.  The focus is on establishing a basis for collaboration relationships with supply chain partners through focused supply market intelligence research, relationship assessment and management, negotiation, collaborative contracting, and on-going management of relationships in global supply chains.  In this context, relationships may exist between internal functional groups, as well as with suppliers and/or customers.  The curriculum emphasizes the importance of collaboration, through the application of practical tools and approaches that drive mutually beneficial outcomes.  Students will learn core processes around initial exploration and assessment of supply chain relationships, establishing metrics/ expectations for the relationship, crafting and managing contracts, and sustaining continuous performance improvement in sourcing, logistics and operations.  These concepts are based on the assumption that students graduating from the NC State MBA will enter positions where they will be managing relationships from the  “supply management” end of the relationship, with less emphasis on the marketing/ sales perspective.


Multiple interviews with executives who recruit MBA students at the Poole College of Management have led me to design this class, based on the key skills and competencies that they tell me they are looking for in our students.  First, executives say they want students who have supply chain knowledge, business acumen, and can “speak the language” of SCM.   The first part of the class deals with the common elements of strategic supply management, including creating the vision for the organization, organizational roles and structure, and the fundamental elements of the procure-to-pay process.  Developing a deep knowledge of supply chain terms, vocabulary, analytical methods, and know-how is of primary importance in this section of the class.  To achieve this, students are given assigned readings, but are also assigned specific readings based on their assigned company project.  Class participation and discussion of concepts is an important part of the language of SCM.  But much of the learning comes through the interface with executive speakers in the classroom, as well as with dialogue with their project sponsors.  We will have speakers from John Deere, Excel Logistics, GSK, NSA, and others coming in this semester.

Second, executives say they want students who can perform supply chain analysis and have deep analytical skills.  To ensure this is the case, the class’s primary focus is on category strategy development, focusing on developing deep market intelligence, supplier evaluation, identifying appropriate performance metrics for governing the relationship, as well as structuring the relationship based on macroeconomic and industry specific market conditions.  Supply chain risk is an important subject in today’s environment, and a set of risk tools is presented and applied.  An emphasis on strategic cost modeling and contract price mechanisms is also emphasized.  The focus on execution is emphasized through a detailed discussion of negotiation, collaborative cost-based reduction, customer/supplier development, contract management, and conflict resolution.  A take-home midterm exam provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate that they can apply these principles, and that you can effectively communicate them in a written memo to be turned in for grading.

Third, executives emphasize that to succeed in internships and entry level jobs, students must have a strong knowledge of cost models, negotiation and contract management.  In the latter portion of the class, students will be involved in a comprehensive supply chain computer simulation exercise.  Students are assigned to small groups (distributors and manufacturers of a pharmaceutical supply chain), and are required over the course of the semester to develop a relationship and execute a contract with another team. The simulation effectively reflects the profit or loss outcomes of these relationships, and also identifies the participants’ tolerance for risk and the consequences of doing so.  Each team will develop a written contract with selected partner(s) that documents the agreement resulting from the negotiation process.  The student teams then experience a one year simulated environment, which requires them to think about how to deal with conflict in the supply chain over a period of time, how to manage inventory, meet customer/supplier requirements, and do so profitably.  A final presentation reflecting the final outcome of the experience will be made in class.

Finally, executives emphasize that they need people who have practical supply chain project experience.  A number of guest speakers will visit the classroom to help infuse this into the curriculum.  More importantly, a significant portion of the class requirement will therefore be dedicated to a supply management project with an SCRC partner company.  The nature of these projects will vary but they all have a common set of attributes:

- They will require that students work with the partner to convert a vaguely defined problem into a tight project scope document, with project deliverables, due dates, and a final outcome.  Bear in mind that the SCRC partner is the “client” in this case, and you need to define the project so it will meet their requirements.

- The project involves primary and secondary research, utilizing a variety of tools and techniques.  As such, students are required to develop a report and presentation to the SCRC partner, and will also develop a “gallery walk” board display summarizing the key research outcomes, that will be presented at the SCRC meeting in late April.

An example of the projects to be completed this semester reads like a lineup of problems facing many companies, but are being sponsored by the following companies:  John Deere, NACCO, Biogen Idec, GlaxoSmithKline, Quintiles, Bayer Crop Science, Laboratory for Analytic Science, and the General Services Administration.

- Best practices and trends in supply chain logistics that can be applied to a practical setting

- Researching the best approaches for identifying and developing diverse minority suppliers

- Exploring development of vendor management as a service for upstream customers

- Spend analysis for software across a major branch of government

- Identifying optimal approaches for managing leased space for new manufacturing facilities

- Developing best cost models for global manufacturing production processes

- Establishing process models for global aviation manufacturing

These and other projects will surely lead to some interesting insights for this group of bright young minds!


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Direct conversations through on-site engagement with different lines of business is the most direct and effective means of understanding how sourcing processes are occurring today, as well as understanding how the sourcing need evolves and is expressed to suppliers.  The initial approach should be selected based on the greatest likelihood of success, not necessarily the area of biggest spending.  As an example, a large financial services organization found that corporate offices were buying art to decorate interiors.  A TCO analysis revealed that interior design consultants were directing the spend with suppliers, but that the cost driver for art was the cost of framing and transportation and installation, not the value of the painting or graphic itself.  This in turn generated a different analysis of suppliers that resulted in a different set of outsourced relationships with delivery providers that generated significant savings.  Understanding the buying channel current used and evaluating it against alternatives often leads to a different set of decision frameworks with different sets of suppliers than originally considered by stakeholders.  This can be accomplished by assigning sourcing managers to work closely with lines of business, to move beyond the static spend data and understand the patterns of consumption to identify root causes of unexplained variances.

Supplier registration processes need to be designed around sourcing engagement processes, which track the supplier life cycle.  This begins with the supplier registration process that establishes the supplier’s profile, capabilities, and service offerings.  The next phase occurs when an RFI or RFQ generates more information on supplier capabilities, and additional price, volume, and operational business risks.  The contracting phase leads to additional details on pricing volume, general terms and conditions, and approaches.  Leading to on-going vendor performance against the contract.  Often this is documented into a supplier scorecards, and over the procure to pay cycle, invoices and payments occur, which are folded into the on-going spend analysis.  Payments need to be matched against contract prices and performance requirements, and a reconciliation occurs.  When a vendor is terminated, the contract is closed out, but the data must be retained over time.  If one looks at the entire set of transactions that must be organized, maintained, and cleansed over time to allow reporting and on-going sourcing analysis.  When this is multiplied over millions of vendors across multiple languages, the challenges of tracking and managing spend analytics becomes evident.

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Several companies I’ve interviewed recently have been sharing how to structure or “tier” their supply base, based on impact on tier 2 suppliers or commodities.  As companies continue to outsource, one major segment is the management of leased equipment, which entails management of the aftermarket parts for major equipment.  One company I spoke with works with suppliers that are much larger than they are and who are furnishing component replacement parts. The team spends a lot of time properly understanding the scale of the relationship that exist up and down the supply chain, and building a deep understanding of the product component parts market that drives quick response time for part delivery.  The company competes directly with the manufacturers of the equipment, but often have a more responsive and flexible response to customer requirements, which becomes a factor in a time-critical environment.

Another organization manages tier 2 raw materials for their automotive parts supply base on a global basis, with a global purchase team that looks at major categories such as steel, material, paint, adhesives, lubrication, and fuel.  Each of these global teams have commodity strategies at a central location, as well as a developer who works directly with major tier 1 suppliers on cost strategies.  The team is able to conduct global lowest total cost analysis to manage raw material supply to suppliers all over the globe, and conducts a complex analysis considering price analysis, logistics hubs, and supply routes that create the optimized mix by location.  Most of the contracts with tier 1 suppliers are local sources near assembly facilities, to promote the “buy where you sell, sell where you buy” culture that exists.  To further promote collaboration with tier 2 steel suppliers, the supply organization has established multi-year agreements with steel producers to enable hedging on raw materials such as coke and iron ore, and combines this with bank hedging agreements that also benefit steel suppliers.  A three month rolling price adjustment is established to enable long-term risk management on steel, a core component of tier 1 and tier 2 supply.

There is also an increasing recognition that supply base reduction poses a risk of pushing the contracting and relationship piece back onto tier 1 suppliers that are less capable of supply management than the buying organization.  An executive at a major oil and gas company noted that:

“As we have reduced the number of tier 1 suppliers, we are forcing our suppliers to do more subcontracting, and we are seeing issues as we have forced them to become general contractors.  They end up subcontracting the same people that we used to work with directly!  But they are not good at managing them.  So this raises a number of questions?  Who is the best supply manager for managing second tier suppliers?  Should we be directing them to work with tier 2 suppliers?  Do we have any business forcing relationships that didn’t exist before?  We are recognizing that supplier management is not a skillset that one develops overnight, it is a skill that needs to be built over time, and by reducing our supply base we are creating something that the supplier is not ready to do!”

As such supply base reduction strategies should always examine the impact on tier 2 suppliers as well.  Tier 2 suppliers are an important component of the supply chain, and as I’ve discussed in this blog, can dramatically impact availability, cost, quality, and technology innovation.

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A recent article in the Wall Street Journal points to the increasing pressure being felt by financial services, as well as insurance companies.

The article goes on to point out that the biggest Wall Street banks have slashed tens of thousands of jobs and pruned all manner of expenses since the financial crisis. But expanding pay packages and the rising cost of complying with government regulations have neutralized those efforts.  Put simply, banks can’t continue to slash employees, because they need these people to work in order to comply with all of the expanding set of onerous government regulations. With revenue pinched by a slowdown in trading and tepid loan demand, profits are coming under pressure this year.  The WSJ story points that in the first quarter, revenue at the six largest banks declined 3.2% to $104.86 billion. Profits declined 9.5% to $18.67 billion.

The squeeze is leading banks to look for new ways to save.  And that is where procurement is suddenly playing a role – because nowhere is there more of a need to find savings than in the area of indirect spending in banks.  This includes elements like temporary services, software, data providers, real estate, and many, many other categories of spending that banks and insurance companies spend money on to provide services.  The article cites the example of Morgan Stanley, which a few years ago announced plans to more-closely monitor costs such as BlackBerry usage through an auction platform. The sourcing process typically results in an additional 5% cost reduction on goods and services including business cards and printer cartridges, according to a spokesman.

For categories that cross multiple business units in banks and insurance companies, the effort to build a consensus among different groups is more challenging, but the opportunity is often greater.  This begins by understanding the individual within the business responsible for developing the strategy, and understanding how each point of view on requirements differs across the lines of business.  Finding opportunities for consolidation of supplier spend will vary, and in some cases, will be very difficult to do through a conference call with 10 people!  Still, low-hanging fruit can be discovered through these conversations that provide a very easy solution, leading to a starting point for taking on the tougher categories of spend.

In some cases, external hires may be required with prior experience and capabilities in the category of focus.  For example, a large insurance company recognized that they needed category specialists to understand the current state and provide advice to lines of business on sourcing options:

“We had to hire an IT specialist to work with the IT group to assist in building their IT category strategy.  Travel was a similar story:  We didn’t have a focus around travel and recognized that to develop great travel deals we needed in-depth skills, and hired an individual who is now going out assessing process, tools, and skills on this team to ensure we can make the leap to build a comprehensive travel category strategy.  The procurement solutions team works optimally when we have those with good procurement experience and good functional experience.  So for our marketing category, we hired advertising agency people and taught them procurement.  That has its challenges, but the benefit we got from that ability to build a TRUSTED ADVISOR function was invaluable.  We are doing passive recruiting for more marketing people on our team because we feel we have solid procurement experience but need the marketing experience.” 

Financial service companies are also moving to establish a “service relationship owner” to manage risks from an operational perspective.  This approach recognizes that a center-led approach is not able to manage all the risk with outsourced relationships.  These positions are designated to act as an intermediary between those who manage commercial contracts and risk.  Companies have also sought to employ third parties to conduct some level of risk monitoring of credit scores, turnover of executives, and other dimensions that can provide updates to supplier profiles.

Developing an understanding of key supplier characteristics, buying channels, spend analysis, and capabilities is fundamental to building relationships and establishing criteria for segmentation of the supply base.   It also serves as the basis for establishing communication with suppliers and establishing procurement’s position as the driver of relationships.  An important change here is designating individual category owners who become the coordinator for spend decisions when it crosses multiple lines of business, or indeed within a single business.

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As organizations go about building supplier relationships using segmentation approaches, several of the companies I’ve met with are also thinking about how to structure such relationships when their supplier also happens to be an organization that is a major customer.  While the dreaded “reciprocity” issue must be avoided at all costs, the fact is that organizations can rarely build a “Chinese Wall” between sales and procurement and completely ignore this issue.

As such, more and more companies (especially in financial services) are considering how suppliers can also contribute to front-office revenue,  and whether they can become future customers when sourcing segmentation decisions are made.  The landscape can be viewed in the matrix shown below.

As shown, the upper right quadrant involves customers with whom your organization has both a high spend from a supply side, and high revenue from the organization on the customer-facing side, this represents a win-win opportunity to grow the business.  However, if a hugely important client is one which is only a small supplier, there is a need to use caution and seek to create opportunity to expand supply opportunities, in an effort to nurture the relationship.  For example, supply management wouldn’t want to put their business out to bid, and destroy goodwill that could translate into lost customer revenue.  One executive noted:  “Conversely, if we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars with them and they aren’t even looking at us for institutional investing or transaction banking, we have to be careful to avoid reciprocity, but we can certainly take steps to be more aggressive and ensure that connectivity with our sales organization occurs so that they are aware of the situation.  Normal selection criteria should always be used, and we can’t ever cross the line when it comes to compliance, but these relationships do matter.  Purchasing can become a big influence when a senior Managing Director sees banks as a commodity, and they can change the perception and create a new dimension to these discussions.”

In effect, organizations must continue to apply independent supplier selection processes that are methodical in nature, and independent from the notion of the client relationship.  But in the process of negotiating, tendering, and evaluating suppliers around a requirement, there are separate and distinct sales operations occurring with the same organization.  This represents a real opportunity for procurement to operate in a way to create top line revenue with banking relationships, to work in a way that benefits both organization, or at a minimum to ensure that there isn’t a clash that occurs because of an oversight of this fact.

Some organizations have assigned managers to consider the idea of a client relationship as a component and decision factor with the right level of weight as part of the supplier selection decision.  Compliance officers need to be involved as well, and as the tendering process runs its course, this officer can review it to at a minimum ensure that bad news isn’t delivered to the supplier on a day that sales are pitching them on a proposal, or that there is good news on a day when the information can be exploited.  This is only the initial phases of this approach, but organizations are beginning to consider how best to manage these segmentation situations in the future, and structure the decision in a comprehensive manner.

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Just finished speaking at the EurOMA conference in Palermo, and was excited by the discussions and feedback over the course of today.  I arrived in Palermo yesterday, and had an opportunity to wander the streets and experience the wonderful food, carefree and friendly people, and of course the wonderful mix of architecture and cultures that exist on this island.  During my visit, Giovanni Perrone, also emphasized how the Italian economy is seeing a resurgence of manufacturing and product development.  My walks through the city led me to many thriving markets bustling with small manufacturing and design enterprises, and Italian designers and apparel makers are no doubt some of the best in the world.  But there are many other industries that are also growing, which is heartening to see after many years of stagnant growth.

The discussion at EurOMA focused very much on the role of innovation in the networked economy.  The latter point is important, because it is becoming increasingly clear that organizations are part of a network, and that we can’t simply focus on buyer-supplier dyads.  The multi-tier nature of today’s supply chain means we need to think about customer integration, supplier integration, internal stakeholder integration, and also tier 2 suppliers and customers.  This poses many interesting problems for the research community.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to innovation.  As I discussed in my talk, one can think about product innovation, but a core component is also process innovation, and the ability for operations and supply chains to execute in the face of global complexity, challenging infrastructure, increasing government regulation, and talent shortages.

Product innovation will rely on the ability of organizations to harness and leverage the brain power that exists in their supply chain.  Several individuals I spoke with, including Steve Brown, Editor of IJOPM, emphasized that the biggest drivers of the economy will be small enterprises as the driver for innovation, and the ability of larger companies to identify, locate, develop, and commercialize innovations from their entrepreneurial roots, and bring about solid operations practices in doing so.  Many issues came up in discussions with researchers at the conference.  Intellectual property will continue to be an issue of concern, as companies need to find the best commercial contractual mechanisms to satisfy the lack of relational trust that exists in many of these smaller companies.  Another issue will be the ability of companies to establish business development methods that create the right blend of licensing, contract research, development, and manufacturing, leading to the idea of a “supply chain of knowledge”.  These are areas ripe for exploration in the future.

One of the big differentiators of process innovation will be the ability to deal with complexity and risk.  Organizations are faced with an increasing number of disruptions, and while there are strategies to deal with global disruptions (such as economic downturns) or local disruptions (such as supplier performance), there is comparatively little that exists when we think about systemic disruptions that involve one or more parties somewhere in our supply chain.  This will be a crucial differentiator for the future.  As companies begin to better understand the structural complexity of their supply chain, they will need to think about broader strategies that will also involve the government as part of the supply chain. This is especially important in finding solutions to inadequate or bottlenecks in infrastructure, compliance issues, human health and safety, and inadequate visibility into product and service flows.  Research issues will focus on innovations that provide greater insight into how to configure human decision-making, global process standards, and technology analytics to create the right blend of responsive and agile capabilities.

In my mind, a lot of this require that organizations focus on the core of the problem – getting the right people.  As discussed in my earlier blogs, People are at the core of the issue.  This means developing the right strategy for the long term that treats the problem of human capital development as a “Sales and Operations Planning” problem, including building a forecast, establishing demand requirements, estimating supply, and developing sources given uncertain retention, hiring, and recruiting success rates.  Because people are at the core of innovation.

Thanks again to Giovanni and the team at Palermo who put this conference together – great job!

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