Happy New Year 2021! I wish my readers a ton of actionable and enriching digital supply chain and technology knowledge this year.
Now, let us get right to the post:
There has never been a better time to be a software company in the collaboration space. As of the time of writing this post, early January 2021, private and public market valuations are at an all-time high. Throughout 2020, Zoom’s stock rose by over 40%, Salesforce purchased Slack for almost $28B, and Microsoft Teams hit over 115 million daily active users.
The collaboration space is also crowded. All the big and medium-sized companies are vying aggressively to share the rapidly expanding digital workspace, workflow, and communication market. But all these applications were built for employee collaboration. Few, if any, of these companies specifically address the users’ communication and collaboration needs across supply chains. Based on our research at Suuchi Inc., working and speaking with hundreds of companies: the average supply chain has many more diversity axes compared to diversity just amongst employees. These participants vary in user type across employees, contractors, consultants, agents, factories, suppliers, freight forwarders, 3PL providers, inland shippers, and many more categories. The users are also diverse in their geographic location, skillset, experience types and levels, languages spoken, sophistication, and variety of devices used for communication and work, and more. An added layer of variance compared to communication applications build for traditional needs: the average company has over ten times the number of non-employee participants across the inbound and outbound value chain that contribute directly or indirectly to the flow of goods and services. By sheer volume and variety both, it is shocking there aren’t more products that specifically cater to supply chain collaboration.
Let’s drill down into some of the feature sets necessary for collaboration amongst employees and between employees and the vast ocean of participants across their supply chain.
1) Real-time communication with 0 lag times and high reliability
This point is about the user experience, and the data gathered when users across the supply chain are exchanging terabytes of data daily. When simultaneously communicating with factories, shippers, and suppliers across many different countries, the back-and-forth interaction must be real-time, and underlying data storage and exchange reliable. Delays and lag times reduce the quality of user experience and cause delays in the flow of product. The technology stack and architectures supporting such products assume a critical role in alleviating concerns. First, redundancy planning becomes critical. When hosted on any of the major public clouds, this typically is easy to solve. Better yet, splitting data hosting and storage across more than one public cloud and using multiple cloud technologies – called a multi-cloud strategy – is a better solution for long-term cloud vendor independence, reliability, and scalability.
2) Real-time language translation
Real-time translation is a perfect example of a feature not as important with collaboration applications built for intra-organization interaction. But the feature set assumes critical importance for supply chain collaboration. From our research, the value chain for a company larger than $50M in revenue spreads across an average of twelve countries, and the branches spread even wider as the company gets larger. It is essential that any user can communicate with all other users dispersed globally without being constrained by the spoken or written language of the users at the receiving end of the communication. From a database standpoint, the product needs to have a central language for storing this unstructured data so that dashboards and analytics of such unstructured data can be harmonized and reported in one language.
3) Cross-device compliant and natively built applications across popular devices
Over 80% of users across the supply chain do not use their laptops or computers as the primary device for operations or work. They use their tablets on the factory, shipping, or work floor or use their phones as the primary work device. With such an overwhelming majority not working off laptops, it seems intuitive that product and technology teams aiming to build successful supply chain collaboration systems must invest in engineering teams to build native iPhone and Android applications. They also need to develop native applications on other devices most popular amongst their polled user bases.
The user interface and customer experience are arguably the most critical factors in determining the product’s success. Superior customer experience is the goal. Opening an application built for the web on a mobile phone is a substandard experience compared to opening an application built specifically for the frequently-used device.
4) Ability to add attachments on the fly
Flowing from (3) above, users must have the ability to initiate and complete core and high-frequency actions across devices seamlessly. Amongst such core functions are creating, uploading, and downloading digital documents, including purchase orders, bills of materials, shipping notices, suppliers’ and freight forwarders’ profiles, and more. This means that it is imperative for supply chain collaboration applications to support many types of file extensions, with no constraint on file size and no blockage in speed with big files. The user flow and interface across devices should also be conducive to an effortless and enjoyable ability to upload and download. The best designs also succeed through subtraction. The easier it is to complete the task and the fewer the steps it takes, the more likely there is a customer for life.
5) Connected, multi-product suite that minimizes data entry
Unlike typical collaboration environments, which are conventionally intra-employee ecosystems, the amount, variety, and complexity of information and data shared across supply chain systems are exponentially higher. Communication is a higher quality experience across every touchpoint when information flows effectively from and to other parts of the supply chain. As supply chains get more extensive and more powerful in transaction dollar totals, companies invest in additional products like ERP, PLM, WMS, vendor management, and other systems. These investments can be counterproductive for communication, especially if data from other systems and parts of the supply chain are not effortlessly accessible. Integrated systems solve this, or better yet, if new investments are part of a pre-integrated product suite. A user thrives on and relishes each product interaction far more when the data required to complete work. Data needed for fluent workflow continuity feeds as default entries from other systems and parts of the value chain. Repeat data entry or blocked data flow is the death of an enjoyable user experience.
6) Integration with text and common communication apps like WhatsApp, Line, and WeChat
Continuing with the point made in (5) above, interoperable supply chain communication systems further elevate the user experience. Hundreds of millions of supply chain actors conduct business via text, Line, WhatsApp, or one of many other communication applications. Instead of forcing them off their habits, which is tough anyway, building a path to push and pull data across these systems is a bonus. For a product management team, creating a digital supply chain communications system should be synonymous with building a globally accessible and application-interoperable business so that access for all users is democratized.
7) Audio and video call features
While video and audio communication are table stakes across popular communication applications, these feature sets need to be more nuanced in the build-out for supply chain users. A significant percentage of users on the average call might sign in from a phone and/or regions without powerful internet. Building a front end that looks clean and performs well despite variance and constraints is critical. Translating audio pieces to real-time written/oral transcriptions in the user’s local language on the other side would seem to be an overkill for a regular communication application, but is essential and must-have for a supply chain communication application. Real-time transcriptions of calls, when this feature is available and enabled, further help minimize data entry. Crucially, it can add much-needed accountability and transparency. For example, holding people responsible for completing a task by a timeline and method they may have committed to on a call.
8) Unstructured data is hosted and stored in a cloud data warehouse, so the foundation for analytics is intact
Data collected from communication applications is voluminous and primarily unstructured. It is also a gold mine of actionable insights, provided the data is stored, managed, and transformed intelligently. On-premise solutions are not scalable for either storing or working off this data. Additionally, querying of the growing mountains of data will not be possible off an on-premise data warehouse. Working entirely off a native cloud tech stack is imperative to set the right foundation for analytics. Common use cases both for dashboarding and AI from supply chain communication systems’ data can include but are not limited to: sentiment analyses, how frequency and density of collaboration impact sales, how preferred types of communication vary by geography and skill set, how levels of communication correlate to supplier performance, predicting the impact of long communication breaks on profit, and more.