Yanking my supply chain


Recently, I had an experience that shook my faith in SCM (supply-chain management) and made me think that the concept might just occupy the same space as CRM, ERP, and other big software categories that I lump under TDW (Things that Don’t Work) or perhaps TRLC (Things that Require Lots of Consultants), or maybe HLF (High Likelihood of Failure).

I decided to purchase one of the new large (120GB) external Firewire hard drives to use as a back-up device for my home computer. Planning to get my home back-up strategy in order on a weeknight, I decided to go online to determine whether my local computer superstore had the drive in stock. I found the product I wanted, entered my ZIP code, and sure enough, it was “in stock.” I called the store and was given an array of choices by its phone system, but no way to talk to a real person, so I jumped in the car and headed over.

As I drove to the store, I thought about the efficiency of the system – pretty cool that I can check the store’s stock from the comfort of my home. I had wasted no effort, thanks to a retail store’s inventory system. This is what technology is all about: saving time.

To be totally honest, I’m not a supply-chain expert. But supply-chain management, in a nutshell, reflects the “just-in-time” demands of business today. The ultimate goal of SCM is to have no saleable inventory sitting idle at a manufacturer, in a distribution warehouse, or anywhere it is gathering dust or isn’t getting to the customer who pays for it.

But back to my story.

There was one problem with my trip to the local computer superstore. You’ve probably guessed by now that the disk drive in question wasn’t actually in stock, and my trip was wasted. Frustratingly, the computer at the store gave the same answer about inventory availability as its Web site. Their systems were perfectly in sync, but the sales associate said something along the lines of, “Oh well, the computer is wrong sometimes,” and left me dumbly clutching the sheet of paper that I had printed indicating the “in stock” status of the item.

The supply chain was broken at its most critical point: me, the end of the chain and the most important link, the buyer who generates demand. In this case, I was the end-user of a system that did not work. As I said above, I am not a supply-chain management expert, and despite the discussion of SCM above, this column is not really about supply-chain management at all. What I’m more concerned with is the tendency for technologists to implement grand systems that ultimately don’t deal with the needs they set out to address.

I have no idea what sort of supply-chain management system was implemented on the back end at this particular computer store, but I do know that it didn’t solve my problem and delivered bad information, which is actually worse than no information at all.

Sometimes we technologists become so enamoured of the technologies employed to solve a problem that we forget to solve the problem. Our lingua franca deals in high concepts such as “supply-chain management” and we build databases that are normalized and synchronized. We might even glue disparate systems together with SOAP and various XML-based technologies. This is all well and good, and maybe even fun for people like you and me, but if we hang end-users out to dry, we’re really just wasting our time, and more importantly, theirs.

Dickerson is CTO of InfoWorld (U.S.). He can be reached atChad_Dickerson@infoworld.com.