Data discussions dominate ISM 2017

Increasingly, supply chains are all about the data. The hard part is finding the resources and talent to put it to use.

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“I just want to say one word to you…Are you listening? Plastics.”

In the most memorable scene in The Graduate not featuring Mrs. Robinson, Dustin Hoffman is offered a one-word piece of advice about how to succeed in business: “Plastics.”  If I were writing that scene today, I’d substitute the word: Data.

I recalled that scene walking to a morning session earlier this week at ISM 2017, the annual conference for procurement professionals sponsored by the Institute for Supply Management. There were two guys walking beside me. One noted that he had heard the same statistics at three sessions in a row: 90 percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years; there are 6,000 tweets per second; and 5 billion posts per day on Facebook. The other remarked: “Every session I’ve been to has been about data.”

That was certainly my experience at ISM, and, as someone who attends a lot of conferences, data – how to collect it, how to analyze it and how to make decisions against it – has dominated them all. For most of us, the challenge isn’t how to collect even more data from more points in the supply chain, although certainly the proliferation of sensors and sensing technology and the unstructured data available to us through social media, is making that possible. No, the real challenge facing supply chain managers regardless of discipline is how not to be overwhelmed by the overload of data already tucked away in our ERP and best-of-breed systems. Jim Tompkins addressed the problem of choice overload in SCMR in May 2015.

I came away from the conference with four bullets:

-You need a strategy: Tom Choi, executive director of CAPS Research, said that as procurement managers are tasked with looking downstream for ways to add value to their customers, a digitized ecosystem is crucial for business success. At the same time, the upsurge of Big Data and analytics technology (there are something like 163 platforms that an organization could subscribe to for data) has been rapid and radical, especially the increase in unstructured data from social and media outlets that does not easily fit in a box. Choi’s advice: Create an analytics team; convert your data into a form you can use; and then launch small projects that work or fail quickly. Use those learnings to start again.

-Sure, we have data, but putting it to use is hard: Shelley Stewart Jr., DuPont’s chief procurement officer, summed it up this way: “Data is the foundation of what we do. Use it, and it’s a competitive weapon.” At the same time, Stewart noted that he had outsourced some of his data initiatives because in a large organization such as DuPont, it’s difficult to get the funding to upgrade technology or resources from IT to make it happen. Similarly, Beverly Gaskin, GM’s executive director, global purchasing, contended that GM has more data about its customers than its customers thanks to OnStar. Yet, the Big Three automaker is still trying to “to understand it and monetize it before someone else does.”  One example: GM is working with Shell and Exxon Mobile to enable a driver to use a connected key fob to enable payment at the pump. 

-We’re all software companies now: Tony Uphoff, CEO of ThomasNet, told me that he now views the venerable business publisher as a software company, rather than a publishing company. “ThomasNet provides data to enable faster and more informed decision making,” he said. Internally, ThomasNet is beginning to use Big Data to interact with its customers much like retailers communicate with us in our consumer lives, with follow up emails offering suggestions and prodding to action.

-The talent hurdle: While this Brave New World of Big Data is exciting, there was a sub-theme, one I’ve heard repeated at other conferences: Few organizations have the talent trained to put data into action.  “In today’s world, we have to make sure that there’s a subsection of our teams who are data scientists, deeply involved in analytics,” said Hans Melotte, the ISM board chair and executive vice president of Starbucks’ global supply chain. “And the short answer is, we don’t have the talent.” 

We never did learn how plastics worked out in The Graduate.  For now, there is data, data everywhere. As Jim Tompkins pointed out, our task as supply chain leaders is to figure out what to do with it without getting overwhelmed.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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