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Technology Toolbox

Too often executives abdicate responsibility for IT decisions due to the exasperation that they feel towards information technology. Not surprisingly, executives also often complain of the lack of value derived from high-priced technology investments. LQ’s newest department has been created to help

By Chris Norek, Ph.D.

Welcome to the first article in LQ’s Technology Toolbox, a series of articles focusing on technology issues related to supply chain management. Throughout this series, I am looking forward to providing practical information that you will find useful in your day-to-day duties. The world of technology is an exciting one. However, it changes constantly and we need to be vigilant to keep pace with it. My approach to technology was founded five years ago while I was on the faculty of the University of Tennessee in logistics and transportation. At this time, we were at the height of the dot com boom. I was doing some executive teaching in the technology area regarding supply chain management. I quickly realized that to truly learn the technology “space,” I had to totally immerse myself in technology. So I left academia and joined an eCommerce consulting firm. During my tenure at that company I learned about the power technology could provide to business as well as the dangers derived from putting too much faith in technology. In this introduction to LQ’s technology Toolbox Department, I will provide some of my “lessons learned” in technology during the last few years and set the stage for future articles.

Technology is an enabler,
not a solution

I have had several people ask me over the last several years, “What is the best ____ (fill in the blank: WMS, TMS, forecasting) package on the market?” The best package depends on your company’s wants and needs. Prior to embarking on a technology implementation, your core group should first diagram and evaluate your current processes. Next, you should identify the areas of improvement and then decide on the functionality needed and choose a package based on this information. Too often, companies skip to step three and select a package and don’t get the full benefit of the technology’s functionality. implementing technology without first fixing the process to which it is applied only speeds up inefficiency.

Poor integration often negates superior software applications
The backend integration or “heavy lifting” in technology implementation is often where true success or failure of software implementations lies. Most, if not all software applications have the necessary functionality to solve supply chain problems. However, getting the data into the software is often where difficulties arise. Integration may not be the glamorous part of technology, but it is essential. There have been several highly publicized incidents where a software package didn’t meet expectations. Companies have even blamed poor earnings reports on these types of failed software initiatives. It is my belief that many of these failures could have been avoided by more realistically estimating the time requirements to implement these packages and the specific integration challenges. One positive note here is that over the last few years application providers have realized that companies sometimes select “best of breed” in each area of functionality rather than a full suite of solutions from the same company. In these cases, each provider has
standard “hooks” or integration procedures that allow them to connect to complementary or competitive packages.

Investigate the same
technology every year or so

In technology, trends come and go more quickly than in most areas of business. I have talked to executives who have said “we looked at that company/ technology last year,” assuming that they have the most up-to-date information to make an informed decision. unfortunately, in the technology world, a year can be an eternity. More frequent checks on the functionality of updates to software can often result in surprisingly different perspectives. There are, however, several ways to keep up with the trends and functional capabilities of the multitude of software offerings. (I will discuss some of these approaches in future columns.)

“Techies” do rule the world—make friends with them and
learn from them

You may have seen the documentary “Revenge of the Nerds” showing the rise of “nerds” like Bill Gates and others. I experienced a similar perspective during my time in the internet consulting world. One of my initial learnings (although not affiliated with supply chain management) of this lesson was based upon one of my “technology masters’” creations, a program designed to submit a request for a first class seat upgrade with the airlines so that he didn’t have to remember to call in advance. Of course, he wouldn’t share the program with me. However, this is the type of leading edge/creative thinking that is continually occurring in the software application and integration world. Based on my experience, I would recommend that you make friends with someone experienced in the IT area if you haven’t already. This will accomplish two things: 1) you will learn about how you can leverage technology in your job and 2) possibly move you up on the priority list of the many requests that IT folks field each day.

Over the next several issues, I will explore various areas within technology that are both directly and indirectly related to supply chain management, from purchasing to transportation and returns management as well as issues such as how to select software applications. I will focus on the impact technology has on business and interrelationships with technology so that executives in a wide array of disciplines can easily comprehend the value technology affords their business.

It is my intent to give decision-making executives a series of short checklists of issues that they should keep in mind when discussing and evaluating technology options as well when they become involved in the process of implementation. The lessons learned/ checklist for this installment include:

1) Technology is an enabler, not a solution.
2) Poor integration often negates superior software applications.
3) Investigate the same technology every year or so.
4) “Techies” do rule the world—make friends with and learn from them.

I will cover both niche players as well as full suite and ERP players in my discussions. In addition, relevant hardware issues will be discussed. As we begin this series, I invite you to write the editor of LQ if there are specific areas of interest that you want covered and we’ll try to accommodate them.