If logistics, as the adage goes, is more about the flow of information than the flow of materials, then the ever-more popular spread of social media tools could be just the right equipment for 21st century supply chain management. Twitter, with its up-to-the-next second updates and its ability to build networks for example, seems to do inherently what much supply chain track-and-tracing technology is meant to.
But while there are yet to be reports of OEMs or LSPs tweeting the status and location of parts or finished vehicles, it would appear that the next generation of applications and ERP systems are learning something from how people use social media. At the moment, the way the industry uses social media is mainly for marketing purposes or for personal networking. Press release or product feeds might be sent out on Twitter, for example, which serve as a testbed for product development as fellow users post their comments and critiques. Otherwise, executives and managers post their CVs and build networks on sites such as LinkedIn or Plaxo.
Steve Jones, Managing Director of software-developer Vehnet, said that he does see social media as an important future tool for the logistics industry, but believes that it needs to move past career development and toward a platform for sharing information and exchanging ideas. “I have found [most social networking sites used by the industry] purely to be used for career purposes – just keeping in touch in case the current job folds,” he told Automotive Logistics. “In fact, to the extent that I cancelled my details.”
Jones hoped to see more groups of special interest become popular online for the automotive logistics industry. Certainly, these groups do already exist, often informally, across social media sites, from discussion groups on LinkedIn to message boards on various news sites. But several IT companies and ERP developers, such as Inofsys and IFS, are already looking at ways that these sorts of shared platforms and data exchange could be integrated into corporate-wide systems, which could then become part of official projects.
Sudhir Chaturvedi, Vice President and head of Infosys’s manufacturing vertical, said that the company is experimenting with creating Facebook-style walls in its systems where users could group together to develop and discuss ideas, from best logistics practices to improving the efficiency of brake pads. He said that such an ‘opensource’, collaborative exchange across the supply chain would be a benefit. Connecting partners through social media appears to be a useful way to encourage such collaboration, although Chaturvedi admits that the business model is still in development.
Dan Matthews, Chief Technology Officer of IFS, said that the company is already building such online communities into some versions of its ERP systems. Discussions can develop around supply chain issues and then be tagged to specific projects as part of a virtual file or post-it note, which can be fully searchable within the system. “Clearly there will be a huge benefit if we can keep [and organise] this data within the ERP, and make it visible across the company,” he said.
Although the automotive industry is, as Jones put it, macho and secretive by its norm, it appears already that social media has gone someway toward thawing out the frozen silence. As Infosys and IFS already believe, the industry could gain if it could go someway toward formalising the shared information and exchanges that are already happening across the net.