Magazine Article | December 1, 2001

Collaboration? Says Who?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

As a manufacturer, you may think you're working collaboratively with your suppliers. Ask your suppliers, however, and you might get a very different answer.

Integrated Solutions, December 2001

It seems as though there are a host of words in the IT industry that are created in marketing meetings and promulgated by salespeople and marketers at conferences and trade shows. These people tend to use certain words as if there were royalties attached to them. However, you can tongue-tie many of these same people by simply asking for a definition of the word in question. Look at how the word "knowledge" was abused. Knowledge - which had no agreed upon industry definition - eventually became useless from overuse.

Collaborate Or Mandate?
I was reminded of "knowledge's" plight during a recent interview with an executive from a software company. The conversation turned to the term "collaboration," and that's when the trouble began. A Reader's Digest version of the marketing pitch went something like this: "Using this Web-based software, manufacturers will be able to collaborate with the smallest suppliers. All the suppliers need is a standard browser interface and e-mail." Once equipped, small suppliers would log on to Web sites and check and send e-mails to schedule pick-ups and deliveries, process invoices, or view manifest information. It all seemed quite useful and practical, but it was a stretch to call this collaboration.

Collaboration implies two parties are working together to accomplish a stated goal. In the aforementioned case, the only parties doing work are the small suppliers. The manufacturer pushes or mandates a system or process to small suppliers. The accompanying message - either stated or implied - is play ball or find a different game. Small suppliers that do jump on board are left to do the heavy lifting while the manufacturer gains most of the benefits.

Collaborate On Improving The Supply Chain
The benefits of collaboration being pitched by companies like Lotus and Documentum more closely resemble the definition of the word. These companies, and many more, offer users the ability to share data and documents without placing an unequal burden on any of the involved parties. Instead, there is no burden at all. A project team, for instance, can access notes, receive input, and change plans accordingly in real time.

The supply chain example of collaboration mentioned previously only serves to underscore the importance of definitions over buzzwords. Manufacturers that are looking to bring their smaller suppliers online should not shroud that initiative in the guise of collaboration. In addition to unmet expectations, many smaller suppliers will feel as though they have been deceived.

Phones and fax machines are hardly 21st century technologies, and manufacturers can't be blamed for trying to replace them. If your suppliers are EDI (electronic data interchange) capable, then maybe it is time to strongly suggest a technology upgrade. But, be up front. Carefully explain the benefits to all parties in the equation. Avoid fuzzy terms and buzzwords. As a manufacturer, you most likely want collaboration in changing your current supply chain process - not a truly collaborative supply chain. There's a big difference.

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