Do supply chain professionals have low expectations when it comes to data? Or are they simply realists? Either way, our 2020 Supply Chain Data Survey resulted in some puzzling contrasts between clear pain points and a general acceptance of the status quo.
The central goal in running the survey was to better understand how supply chain and logistics professionals view the data they use. Is it easy to obtain and is it helpful? How do they manage data and what do they do with it? What are their frustrations and how do they feel about it all?
Unsurprisingly, in 2020, a year of changes and challenges, data and the insights it can provide are very important to our respondents. Yet, in the same year, which led to unprecedented growth in e-commerce sales, 68% of our respondents believe that as companies their supply chain data and visibility is worse than that of their personal experiences using sites like Amazon or Alibaba.
It may not be an entirely fair comparison, but the fact that today someone purchasing a toothbrush online knows and controls more than a corporation shipping or receiving a container worth millions is an indicator of both the quality, or lack thereof, of data and the trust that most supply chain operators place in their partners.
Perhaps only trust or low expectations could explain why over half of our respondents rate their data quality as 7/10, while at the same time 63% of respondents don’t know which of their carriers or forwarders perform the best, and 72% don’t know the CO2 impact of their shipments. This may also explain an apparent tolerance for spending a significant (>50%)portion of their time gathering and cleaning data, prior to being able to analyze it.
Whether satisfied with the current state of supply chain data or not, it is clear that there are areas for improvement.
Anyone reading the news knows that every day new solutions are made available to facilitate communication and collaboration, and in doing so bring transparency and flexibility. Yet, if the fact that only 19% of survey respondents use APIs in some shape or form is any indicator, these solutions will take time to have an industry wide impact. As with most transformations, it is up to individual leaders and corporations to draw attention, take action, and raise standards.
Our study featured a variety of industries and roles,giving us a broad perspective on the state of the field.
Importantly, our respondents included shippers that supply both durable goods and more complicated products like food and pharmaceuticals, from companies both large and small.
While we are not academics, we know enough to recognize that 102 respondents is not a sufficient sample size for drawing actionable conclusions. We did not analyze, for example, correlations between industry or role and certain responses, given the small number of respondents. However, we hope that the information gathered can serve as an indication, or at least food for thought.
Our respondents spend a lot of time working with supply chain data. More than 66% report spending at least half of their time,and fully 25% most or all of their time, immersed in it. Unfortunately, it seems that they spend most of those hours making information usable, with 63% devoting at least half of their time to gathering and cleaning data prior to analyzing it.
On the one hand this indicates that the respondents lose valuable time on cleanup at the expense of analysis and communication, and on the other, it suggests that the information they receive is incomplete or inaccurate and doesn’t conform to standards.
Time Spent Gathering and Cleaning Data
Yet in spite of this, our respondents tend to evaluate the quality of their data positively. More than 50% of them assessed quality at 7 out of 10 or higher. Does this indicate that professionals simply expect to spend a significant amount of time cleaning information, or does it show that the bar for quality in the industry is low? One potential explanation for the sheer amount of time spent gathering and cleaning data is the variety of sources and formats involved.
Data Sources and Formats
In a company, or an industry, with lack of broadly applied standards, the inconsistency of nomenclature and structure only increase with scale. Simple differences in application of HS codes or UN/LOCODEs as received from many stakeholders can easily cause hours of work, and this only multiplies when changing media and formats between employees, departments, companies, and countries.
Number of data sources/platforms
On average, our respondents receive data from at least 6sources, although one awe (and fear) inspiring outlier we removed from our participants collects data from 200 sources. While on the face of it, this appears to be a high average number of sources, it makes sense when considering the variety of stakeholders a supply chain professional interacts with, whether customers, colleagues, or carriers. A single shipment can easily involve more than 10 parties when including freight forwarders, customs authorities, and suppliers.
To no one s surprise, when it comes to medium and format, email and excel reign supreme. Nearly 50% of participants report receiving data via excels (or other tables) attached to emails.
EDI, and increasingly API, represent means of facilitating and automating data transfer, however their penetration remain slow amongst respondents at 19%. In the case of EDIs, this low figure is likely in part due to our sample, as some sources, such as Data Interchange, estimate as much as 60% of companies use EDI in some form, although not necessarily in the supply chain area. Other factors for the low EDI and API penetration may also be internal, such as a lack of an ERP orTMS software, limited IT resources, or a shifting procurement strategy that doesn’t justify establishing connections with transport partners.
Nostalgia for paper (or excel) aside, the opportunity for efficiency improvement through adoption of EDI orAPI is clear.
All of the time-intensive complexity aside, over 70% of participants reported backing all or most of their decisions with data. This is encouraging, especially considering 100% of respondents indicated that data will be very important to running their business in the future.
Rather than being a question of if, it may be a question of which decisions are being backed with data. When asked whether they analyzed their transports for performance, more than 75% reported doing so. Yet going a layer deeper, less than 40% knew which carriers/3PLs performed the best, less than 45% knew their demurrage costs for a given port, and less than 30% could measure the CO2 impact of their shipments.
Performance/service related indicators were by far the most common, at 40%, when asked which KPIs are the most important to our respondents. While perhaps this prioritization explains why so few respondents are able to measure CO2impact, it does beg the question of what performance actually means. If it is the most important KPI category for many, yet, as stated above, less than 40% are able to cite which carriers or forwarders perform the best for them, perhaps choosing transport providers is more a matter of preference or relationships. It may be that for these companies analysis focuses on other areas, such as non-transport concerns such as inventory and sourcing or internal KPIs. However, with better data, analyzing and communicating carrier/forwarder performance indicators like timeliness (OTIF),reliability, response time, and invoice accuracy likely wouldn't hurt.
Data Frustrations and Limitations
Ultimately information is only as valuable as the insight it provides or the impact that it causes. When it comes to supply chain data, it seems there is a gap between the customer experience of a company awaiting a container and that of a consumer awaiting a package. 68% of respondents believe that the e-commerce treatment of using sites likeAmazon or Alibaba is better than that of the data and visibility they experience when dealing with shipments in their day job.
Of course, there are a number of eminently reasonable justifications for this e-commerce gap, including the difference between last-mile and global scale and the legacy standards of a centuries old system being compared to more recent entrants. Even so our survey suggests that corporations order and ship goods valued far beyond that of individual consumers, yet oftentimes do so with less information and less control.
As noted above, however, our survey participants seem to be more or less okay with this, and accept the gap. If more than 50% rate their data quality as a 7 or higher on a scale of 10, perhaps the lack of an e-commerce experience isn’t something that needs fixing. This idea is partially borne out by the fact that lack of data or bad data was the biggest frustration for only 17% of respondents, falling behind gathering and cleaning data (20%), technological limitations (22%), and other(26%) which contained a broad variety of answers.
It is difficult to say whether the relatively low level of concern for a lack of data/bad data indicates low expectations or simply a high-level of trust in intermediaries such as freight-forwarders. An outsider might argue that investing serious time and resources into gathering and cleaning data, and still being unable to measure important KPIs like carrier performance, suggests poor data quality, or at least incompleteness. An insider might argue that working through the mess is part of the job, and one must learn to trust that their supply chain partners will deliver. After all, 3PLs and carriers are typically the experts responsible for solving issues that may arise, and shippers implicitly and explicitly trust that they will handle it.
Toward Better Days
For many supply chain professionals, 2020 was a bit of a wake-up call, or at the very least a learning experience.Unfortunately, we cannot say that our survey resulted in any ground-breaking insights. Just about anyone working in supply chain or logistics could have guessed that our respondents spend a lot of time working in excel, communicating with stakeholders, and measuring KPIs, only to have inferior transport information compared to e-commerce consumers.
What was surprising, and perhaps concerning, is the apparent acceptance of this status-quo, best exemplified by the average rating of 7/10 for data quality. Setting aside whether this is an act of wise realism, or simply a sign of strong relationships with service providers, there is certainly room to improve transparency between stakeholders while avoiding a total loss of trust or control in either direction. With a wide variety of available software and management solutions both old and new, investing in new approaches to visibility, data management, and communication are within arm’s reach for any supply chain professional. Even if the industry will likely move slowly, this doesn’t mean our respondents, or our readers have to.
Logward offers a suite of flexible supply chain software solutions including order management, rate, tender, & allocation management, transport automation, performance analytics and more. Built in-house by logistics and software experts, we believe in delivering intuitive software that adapts to your supply chain design.
To learn more, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to comment on our survey, or be notified when we launch our 2021 survey, please reach out to email@example.com.
Our final tally was 102 respondents from over 40 different verticals.
Our objective was to gain indicative, rather than scientific, insights, and in doing so paint a general picture of the state of our industry. Therefore, in spite of the risk of a small sample size, our goal was to achieve a minimum of 100 respondents from a variety of industries and company sizes.
Once gathered, we applied basic statistical analysis to look for interesting conclusions, careful to avoid conflating correlation with causation.
We believe the end result meets our aim of providing thought-provoking indicators. Accordingly, we don’t recommend using this information for anything other than a conversation starter or cause for reflection.