There's data and there's data-driven insights

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This article is brought to you by Retail Technology Review: There's data and there's data-driven insights.

By Marc Boileau, Senior Vice President Sales and Network Operations at FourKites.

Supply chain data can give businesses real-time insights into their operations, helping them navigate challenges, optimize processes and drive competitive advantage. This data, encompassing everything from inventory levels and shipment tracking to demand forecasts and supplier performance, offers a panoramic view of the entire supply chain ecosystem.

However, many shippers still struggle with getting the right data at the right time and in the right applications to realize its value. And though the days of manual tracking and paper-based systems are long gone for most, many leaders are still finding their way through the fog of their digital supply chain transformation.

The Historical Evolution of Supply Chain Data

The journey of supply chain data is a testament to the relentless march of technology and the ever-increasing demands of global commerce. Let's trace its evolution through the decades:

The Early Days: 80s and 90s

Before the digital revolution, supply chains largely relied on manual processes. The absence of integrated systems meant that each supply chain segment operated in silos. Information flow was slow and discrepancies were common, often resulting in stockouts, overstocking, and logistical nightmares.

The Digital Revolution and Modern Times

As businesses recognized the need for more streamlined operations, the late 90s and early 2000s saw the adoption of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems. These platforms integrated various business processes, from procurement to sales, into a single unified system, providing a more unified view of operations and facilitating data-driven decision-making.

Supply chains underwent yet another transformative shift as IoT devices, from RFID tags to sensors, started providing real-time tracking of goods. At the same time, cloud storage revolutionized data storage and accessibility, empowering supply chain professionals to access data from anywhere, anytime. Advanced analytics tools quickly followed, enabling them to derive actionable insights from this data, leading to more informed strategies and improved outcomes.

The Value Proposition: Why Supply Chain Data Matters to Shippers

Today, supply chain data is the compass that guides shippers through the complex maze of global commerce. For shippers, embracing this data is not just a choice; it's an imperative for sustained success. Those who are able to turn their supply chain data into actionable insights benefit in three ways: 

  1. Better Operational Efficiency and Fewer Costs: With accurate and timely data, shippers can streamline their operations, eliminating bottlenecks and redundancies. For instance, real-time inventory data can prevent overstocking or stockouts, leading to cost savings and efficient warehouse management.
  2. Happier Customers and Revenue Growth: In an era where customer expectations are sky-high, timely and accurate deliveries are paramount. With real-time shipment tracking and predictive analytics, shippers can ensure that goods reach their destination as promised, leading to increased customer trust and loyalty.
  3. Innovation and Continuous Improvement: By analyzing supply chain metrics and performance indicators, shippers can identify areas of improvement, test new strategies  and continuously refine their operations, ensuring they remain at the forefront of industry best practices. 

However, it remains challenging for shippers to see all inbound inventory. Inbound supply chains are broken into two distinct categories: vendor-controlled and receiver-controlled freight. It’s easy for a shipper to see their own loads coming into their facilities since they can easily set up proper tracking. Meanwhile, the vendor-controlled freight destined for their facilities is often an unpredictable blackhole in their critical flow of inventory. Sophisticated visibility providers are able to combine these two types of freight to serve up a single perspective of an inbound supply chain, allowing for better planning and mitigation strategies to avoid any lasting disruption.

Navigating the Data Deluge: Identifying Valuable Data Points

Supply chains are generating innumerable data, from procurement details and inventory levels to shipment tracking and customer feedback. However, the abundance of data brings its own set of challenges. The key lies in distinguishing between 'data' and 'insightful data'.

Identifying the Opportunities That Matter Most to Shippers

To start, shippers should identify the areas where they think supply chain data can help them the most. For example:

  • Inventory Levels: Understanding current stock levels helps in preventing overstocking or stockouts, optimizing warehouse space, and ensuring timely replenishments.
  • Demand Forecasts: Predictive analytics can help shippers anticipate market demand, allowing them to adjust their supply chain strategies accordingly.
  • Shipment Tracking: Real-time tracking data ensures that goods are on the right path and will reach their destination as scheduled.
  • Supplier Performance Metrics: Evaluating suppliers based on their delivery times, product quality, and reliability can aid in strengthening supplier relationships and ensuring a consistent supply chain flow.
  • Customer Feedback and Returns: This data provides insights into product performance, potential issues, and areas of improvement, ensuring that customer needs are consistently met.

Once goals have been set, shippers must then ensure the data they have associated with each is usable and valuable.

3 Characteristics of Valuable Data

  1. Accuracy and Reliability: The foundation of any data-driven decision is the accuracy of the data itself. Shippers must ensure that their data sources are reliable and that the data is free from inconsistencies or errors.
  2. Timeliness and Relevance: In the dynamic world of supply chains, old data can be as good as no data. Real-time or recent data allows shippers to make timely decisions, while its relevance ensures that those decisions are contextually appropriate.
  3. Actionability: The ultimate test of data's value is its actionability. Can decisions be made based on the data? If data doesn't lead to actionable insights, its utility is questionable.

In essence, while the ocean of supply chain data is vast, not every drop in it holds value. With the advent of advanced analytics tools, AI, and cloud-based platforms, shippers can efficiently manage, analyze and derive insights from their data. These technologies not only help in organizing vast amounts of data but also in visualizing and interpreting it in meaningful ways.

By identifying and focusing on the right data points, shippers can harness its true power, turning their supply chain data into a strategic asset that drives informed decisions, optimized operations and sustained growth.

Beyond Operations: Using Supply Chain Data for Sustainability

As businesses face increasing pressure from consumers, regulators, and investors to adopt sustainable practices, leveraging data becomes the key to aligning supply chain operations with environmental goals — yet MIT research shows that only 38% of companies have mapped their supply chains, and less than half (46%) have audited their suppliers.
 
Achieving meaningful change in any domain, including supply chain sustainability, fundamentally depends on the ability to measure progress. Effective measurement allows organizations to set goals, track performance and identify areas for improvement. However, this measurement process relies on accurate and timely data.

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