Supply Chain Council of European Union |

In Global Logistics, Orchestration Is the New Visibility

We’re all familiar with the consumer “one-click” digital experience. More likely than not, however, logistics teams face a daily work experience that’s nowhere close to digital.

Operations at major ports and container freight stations are still filled with paper manifests, green screens, phone calls to origin gateways, and an inability to access the right information at the right time. Freight forwarders book hundreds of containers a month by sorting through endless PDFs and chasing down e-mails for key information — a daily journey filled with unnecessary manual tasks, inefficiencies, and frustration.

But what if we could bring logistics to 2020? What if logistics professionals were treated like “digital natives”?

Imagine a digital experience that corroborates key pieces of information such as bookings and shipping documents, seamlessly integrates ETAs in the background, and limits alerts to a few critical exceptions. Yet logistics professionals remain trapped between “incumbents” and the “new.”

“Incumbents” are global logistics companies, freight forwarders, and transportation carriers, operating under significant margin pressures and stuck with antiquated technology.

The “new” are technology companies and logistics operators that are bringing novel solutions to market, including digital apps, software as a service, and the internet of things. Their streamlined operating models are already gaining market share. And with more than $12 billion going toward supply-chain and logistics startups in 2019, there’s no shortage of investment in innovation.

The challenge for these new entrants is to see beyond the next cool app. Rather, they need to deploy proven business models while delivering tangible value quickly. And that result only comes with adoption and scale.

So how should logistics leaders operate in the chasm between incumbents and the new? How can they leverage legacy IT assets, while simultaneously preparing their tech stack for the future? What will allow them to capitalize on industry momentum and let their teams achieve more?

The answer is orchestration.

Global logistics operations can’t live without it. Considering the number of systems, processes and people that must operate in tandem, it’s not surprising that an orchestration layer is emerging. Next-generation enabling technologies are already maturing. Global logistics visibility, mobile supply-chain execution, track and trace, and carrier and supplier appointment scheduling are well advanced in delivering value, according to the latest Gartner Hype Cycle Supply Chain Study.

The goal is to automate the mundane, and get the right data to the right people at the right time, with the right context, so they can make the right decisions proactively.

No time should be wasted in jumping from system to system. Data should not be trapped in legacy systems that can’t be easily replaced, thus contributing to an increasingly unsustainable technical debt. Blending disconnected data into contextually rich user experiences and automating the mundane can empower people to go beyond business as usual.

For decades, supply chain professionals have strived for end-to-end visibility. Today, that’s not enough.

Think of data pipelines that enable an immersive user experience, by blending information from legacy systems, PDFs and even e-mails and spreadsheets into a “one-stop-shop” experience. Such a tool can extract data across disparate systems and pull it into a “single source of truth” view, while allowing you to write back into systems of record.

Automation allows data to be aggregated and accessed through the digital app in near-real time. Key parts of the business process can be executed automatically, utilizing business rules to meet service-level agreement commitments. Automating the mundane frees up resources for critical exceptions.

When a logistics exception occurs, multi-party collaboration across internal teams, supply-chain partners and even the end customer is fostered by an always-on, one-click digital experience. Partners gain actionable information at their fingertips, including prescriptive alerts that tell them what to do next.

Typically, larger enterprise initiatives have tackled one problem at a time. But there’s little value in cleaning and blending data if you’re lacking automation to streamline the processes built around that data. The same goes for automating processes that are built on bad data, or building a great digital app if no one uses it. Customers will never see the value.

Supply-chain leaders need to tackle all three elements at once: data, automation, and collaboration. That’s the missing link in supply management. That is true orchestration.

Absent an orchestration layer, it can take a container freight station several business days after a transshipment arrives to identify any incidents or damages, let alone the time needed for resolution. A bent corner on one box can generate a chain of more than 20 emails among origin-country operations, warehouse agents, the freight forwarder and potentially the customer. And that’s in addition to manually retrieving data from booking and shipment execution systems, along with e-mails, spreadsheets, PDFs and photographs snapped on the freight station floor.

Instead, with an orchestration layer that has all the contextual information, such as booking records and the shipping manifest, CFS associates can document a damaged shipment and raise an exception with a single click. Automation takes over with notifications to relevant parties, and business process steps are executed automatically to take corrective action, such as reordering or claim generation. With a CFS network touching thousands of shipments, customer-service improvements and operational savings build up quickly.

Several years into the ongoing renaissance in logistics, supply-chain leaders are less hesitant to pilot next-generation “white-space” solutions — indeed, they have no choice but to act.

There are countless examples of great-looking apps, delivered on time and on budget, left sitting in the cloud with zero adoption. Today, however, logistics leaders can pilot and deploy solutions in the course of weeks. Next-generation cloud-based logistics software shifts the focus from onerous deployment to rapid tailoring to user needs, accelerating adoption, behavioral change and value capture.

When it comes to enterprise applications, logistics leaders find themselves at the front and center of innovation, rather than just being consumers of technology. Their imperative is to learn fast and uncover value through fast-fail pilots. Their need is for flexible, configurable, lightweight and scalable solutions. Today, when evaluating logistics orchestration solutions, there’s no need to settle for anything less.

Nikos Papageorgiou is vice president of solutions at  

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