Information sharing has always been a sticking point in supply chain collaboration. There are several facets to the discussion: When and how much information should companies share? How accurate is the information we have? Can we rely on the data we do have for decision-making? Is the technology available that connects machines to machines across corporate boundaries? Visibility into the supply chain increased during the latter half of the 1990s, but some say it has just revealed how bad supply chain data really is.
Perhaps we should take a step back and think about what we hope to accomplish by sharing supply chain data. Maybe the problem isn't lack of information, but an overabundance.
Mr. Spock from the Star Trek movies used to get Capt. Kirk out of some very difficult situations with his ability to perform the "Vulcan Mind Meld." Say you found yourself faced with a recalcitrant alien that didn't speak your language. Mr. Spock simply placed his fingers on the alien's head and closed his eyes, and thereby merged the alien's consciousness with his own to discover what the trouble was. It took a lot out of Spock, but it usually solved the problem.
Would this capability come in handy in the supply chain? If companies could instantly see into each other's brains and know everything there was to know about every operation, would perfect information lead to perfectly balanced inventory?
Probably not. Too much information, even flawless, is just as bad as too little.
The correct amount of information at the appropriate time is what's needed. Imagine a river of perfect data flowing throughout the extended enterprise. What if it were possible for supply chain practitioners to dip into the river and draw out the correct amount of data to make decisions - not too much, not too little.
For example, designers need component intelligence to avoid EOL problems in new designs; those responsible for transportation need to know about delivery dates; those that deal with logistics need to know pallet sizes; board builders need to know lead-times; forecasters need real-time demand data; and so on. Once we identify precisely what information is critical to which supply chain player-- erring on the side of less is better than more-- we have reduced the information problem to a manageable size. Everybody doesn't need to know everything. We need to drill down more deeply into the implications of collaboration and define what type of intelligence is necessary for pivotal decisions.
Information mismanagement can be expensive. To paraphrase a bumper sticker, "excess inventory happens." Supply chain experts have shown us that part of our problem is how we visualize the supply chain. It isn't a nice, sequential, linear series of discrete events. The extended enterprise is a four-dimensional web, with conflicting processes, and unpredictable, yet interdependent events. There is a lot of overlap. Often, the end result of the best-laid supply chain plan is excess inventory. When that happens, everybody loses, because unnecessary cost has been introduced, reducing profitability.
This question begs further research into the key decision points in the supply chain, and what information is needed to support them. We can't depend on Mr. Spock to get us out of this dilemma.
Tom Brunell, vice president of the Avnet Supply Network Solutions (SNS) organization, is a past president of the Supply-Chain Council.