Supplier-User Collaboration Requires More Than Advanced Technology—Alliance Management Is Needed, To
The World Economic Forum (WEF) issued a white paper this month calling for all players along the manufacturing chain to expedite the adoption of advanced digital technologies that enhance the collaborative supply chain. WEF has given the industry plenty of homework in the directives it detailed in the document:
- Mine artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, and machine learning technologies to reduce material consumption and increase resource efficiency
- Utilize electronic labels, such as an integrated electronic display or a machine-readable code that links to a webpage (e.g., QR code), in order to foster the seamless movement of products across different regions that each have their own unique information and labeling requirements
- Leverage digital twin technology to combat fraud
- Use the potpourri of “it” technologies—blockchain, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), edge computing, predictive analytics, etc.—to increase supply chain network agility so that organizations don’t miss a beat when faced with natural disasters, new tariffs, social instability, equipment or infrastructure failure, or any other unforeseen events that can disrupt operations
- Remanufacture, reduce, reuse, and recycle parts wherever possible
WEF’s report is dotted with success stories from household names, including Foxconn, Ralph Lauren Corporation, Apple, and General Motors.
Now, nobody’s disagreeing with WEF’s premise; there’s an urgency for component suppliers, assembly manufacturers, final-product producers, and users to adopt these technologies—those who don’t will perish. However, we were struck by the relative simplicity of the use cases put forth in WEF’s paper. This isn’t to say that the achievements of the aforementioned brands came easily or that they implemented these technologies handily, but the case studies consisted largely of linear one-to-one relationships.
In reality, many of the increasingly complex products and services that manufacturers are trying to deliver today depend on an ecosystem of multiple deeply intertwined partners. As Russ Buchanan, CSAP, vice president of global channel strategy alliances and operations at Xerox and ASAP’s chairman emeritus, noted in a recent discussion about sourcing in the new economy, there can be as many as five or six vendors delivering a single smart vehicle, heart monitor, or other interactive device. Each of these partners has its own large network of suppliers and subcontractors. That is a lot of moving parts!
With each of these players bringing an essential part of a solution, a collaborative supply chain needs more than just these wonderful technologies themselves to deliver transformative solutions.
“The sourcing community is definitely being very sophisticated in some cases in managing their suppliers like alliance partners,” said Buchanan. “Increasingly, I find that the people in sourcing need these [alliance management] skills. When they start to work with a supplier, they’re trying to get more than just the lowest possible cost of commodity, the primary mission of most sourcing agencies. Increasingly, what you hear us asking our suppliers for, and what we hear our customers asking us for is, ‘Do more than that. Give me good value, but also give me innovation. Help me change my business. Help my transformation be more competitive in enhancing my customers’ experience working with us.’”
There is a much deeper degree of codependency between alliance members working together to construct solutions of this nature than the average supplier in a company’s network. This interdependency makes it much harder to switch suppliers in the face of a political revolution, seven-on-the-Richter-Scale earthquake, or sudden tariff hike, even if your predictive analytics algorithm is recommending and providing the blueprint for a change. That digital twin will certainly help the partner ecosystem synthesize a voluminous amount of data into actionable direction on how to maintain and enhance physical assets, systems, and processes, but it won’t help you iron out disagreements between each partner over how to implement changes.
As the degree of mutual dependence increases in manufacturing partnerships, the less effective advanced digital technologies will be in enhancing collaboration without good old-fashioned “soft skills,” particularly those set forth in The ASAP Handbook of Alliance Management. After all, conflict management, issues identification, and risk mitigation are integral parts of managing an alliance. Andrew Eibling, CSAP, vice president of business development and alliance management at Enable Injections, Inc., said it takes more backroom interaction to maintain a healthy relationship once you make the leap from run-of-the-mill supplier to strategic ally—or “Vegas-rules discussions,” as he framed it, where “you can have conversations with somebody about the partnership, but what we talk about stays here.”
In other words, supply chain collaboration has in many cases risen to a level of sophistication that requires more than just state-of-the-art software to drive industry-changing outcomes.
Be sure to check out the forthcoming editions of Strategic Alliance Monthly and Strategic Alliance Quarterly in Q4, which will feature deeper explorations of the evolving relationship between alliance managers and the sourcing and procurement functions as the latter more and more often find themselves managing their supplier relationships like alliances.