Could 2021 be the year of Supply Chain Co-operation?

Written by Alan Cheesbrough
I-Plan Founder and CEO A supply chain planning visionary, spearheading the I-Plan product evolution from original concept through current state and into the future. Always striving to harness new technologies and business thinking to enhance the art and science of creating opportunity from supply chain complexity and volatility, always driven by keeping it simple and making it beautiful.
14th January 2021

Throughout I-Plan’s history, it’s hard to think of a year when the supply chain faced more tests and challenges more than in its twentieth: 2020. For our customers in the paper industry, we’ve seen widespread volatility. Surging demand in tissue and packaging and declines in paper and print both come with their challenges. Further afield, the challenges of stocking supermarket shelves, the looming Brexit trade restrictions, distributing PPE, and now the all-important vaccine means that supply chain was the term on many people’s lips.

The difficulties faced forced businesses to adapt in order to survive, and that can often mean working together in a way not seen before. We believe 2021 could be the year of supply chain co-operation, something that was at the core of our beliefs when I-Plan was first formed and continues to be at the heart of what we do.

Then the reality: businesses were not open to sharing much information. There was no easy way to share, secure and restrict access to data. The obvious way to connect businesses was the internet, but it was not very well supported by tools to allow software engineers to build interactive applications. But the biggest barrier, the enormity of which was not appreciated at the time, was the culture change businesses needed to operate a network of factories and complex distribution channels based on the demand signals coming from the market and to base operations on the output of mathematical decision support tools.

At a time when the term Sales and Operations Planning was known only by a few, before the phrase ‘Cloud Computing’ had been coined, even before Apple’s first iPod, the concept of I-Plan was formed. A dream of how interconnected businesses could collaborate internally and externally along their supply chains, sharing information for the mutual benefit of all, driving out waste, reducing costs and ultimately driving prosperity for businesses and the people that depend on them.

Undeterred by the obstacles, and with the fortune of a visionary customer to back the venture, the business and technical teams started on the journey to build I-Plan and what we now called the Integrated Business Planning Suite. There were several streams:

• The business process design. How could we make it generic to support businesses multiple sectors with differing markets and production processes?

• The data model. How could we describe the businesses and drive complex planning functions?

• The mathematical processes for statistical forecasting and profitability based optimisation of production, inventory and distribution.

• The computing architecture that could be massively scalable and could deliver an interactive experience through the internet to distributed users participating in the process.

Despite the advancements in technology we were making, trying to drive integrated business planning initiatives in the 2000s was hard. There have been ups and downs since, but the overriding truth is that the evolving business trend and technology advancement have been good for I-Plan. Most businesses now see Sales and Operation Planning and Integrated Business Planning as key initiatives for their business improvement programs.

Cloud Computing and SAAS became big topics and whilst most software vendors were ‘cloud enabling’ their solution I-Plan already ticked all the boxes as a native cloud solution. Internet technology has advanced greatly over recent years and the I-Plan team has been able to harness new techniques to create what some have described ‘the best user experience of all the solutions they have seen’.

The journey continues though, and the biggest obstacle faced in the early days exists still today:

“The business culture change needed to operate a network of factories and complex distribution channels based on the demand signals coming from the market and base their operational planning on the output of mathematical decision support tools”

Of course, 2020 threw at us more obstacles than anyone could have expected. Government policy, trade barriers, the global pandemic have become new challenges to overcome in the way of businesses realising our dream of supply chain cooperation. Whilst the world is in a state of survival, we have seen throughout history how great innovation is born out of necessity. The pressure for businesses to adapt and rethink how to operate in the new climate could be the catalyst that drives the lateral thinking needed.

Enlightened leaders are realising more and more the benefit of this, and as 2021 looks set to present businesses with a fresh set of challenges, supply chain co-operation will be the key to driving prosperity.

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