The week before Easter here feels a little slow, and my volume of email and phone calls in the last few days has dropped from massive to only semi-massive.
So this week I decided to pull out a topic that is a little on the lighter side and which I have been thinking about writing on for many years: Should companies do supply chain case studies?
This is a battle or dilemma I have been involved with for many years, both in my periods being with different technology vendors and still now to an extent at SCDigest. The basic question is fairly simple: should we as a company share what we have done to improve our supply chain, or keep it a secret to achieve/maintain some sort of advantage?
But there are many nuances and shifts to this basic issue.
One is that a company often wants to toot its own supply chain horn on its own, apart from any pressure/requests from a vendor or consultant involved in a project, which the preponderance of the time is the catalyst for published cases studies.
"A public case study in some cases may hurry the process along a little. I think where it can have the greatest impact is when a company is thinking about new technology in some area, but hasn't really started to move forward."
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For example, it was clear to me that in the mid-2000s when both IBM and HP began almost simultaneously began "sharing" their supply chain improvement stories in articles, conference appearances, etc., it was in part if not substantially so because they were both tired of Dell getting all the supply chain glory up to that point.
Ditto with efforts both Unilever and Kimberly Clark starting in the early 2000s, when I think both felt like their supply chain excellence was not being appreciated to the extent that rival Procter & Gamble's was.
There are other similar examples.
This in part is just the symptom of a very positive trend, which is that Wall Street pays a significant amount of emphasis on a company's supply chain excellence today - even if they don't always really understand what that means. I believe a company's supply chain reputation can actually impact how customer's think about that company as a supply chain partner, to an extent different from what the reality is, especially at senior levels. Finally, a company's supply chain reputation (great/progressive versus average, stodgy) can unquestionably impact how attractive opportunities seem there for new graduates and experienced talent. If you were coming out of say MIT's graduate supply chain program in the late 1990s, all things being equal would you have preferred a job at Dell or HP? It's no knock on HP to answer that question would have been Dell, just a reflection of what the perception would have been at that time.
Now, a couple of things you may or may not know. First, readers of supply chain trade magazines are actually not all that interested in case study articles. Surveys in the non-digital days and web statistics today have consistently shown that top news stories, trend articles, research, etc., are all more popular than case studies.
There are nuances - the larger, more well-known the company is, the more it will attract readers/viewers for sure, as an example. But overall it is absolutely correct.
So who wants case studies? Usually the solution provider associated with the deployment, whether that is a software vendor, consultant which led the implementation, hardware provider, etc.
And if you haven't noticed in most/all publications that the cases study subjects on the vendor side have a very close correlation with advertisers in that publication, you need to pay a bit more attention.
Second, companies are naturally leery about letting competition know what they are up to. But if you don't think that the vendors are doing that on their own, then you don't know how the game is played. The level of detail shared can vary, and sometimes there may be some gaming, e.g., the vendor says "I can't tell you the name, but it might be a big consumer products company headquartered in southwest Ohio," or something like that.
What also happens is that the level of detail shared with a new prospective customer tends to expand over time. If a vendor just did something really cool with Acme Widgets, and it is known to be a sensitive topic, then when the sales team visits Zenith Widgets in the first few months after the implementation at Acme, details may be vague (but don't think the basic idea isn't shared). By the time a year or two goes by, the vagueness gradually disappears altogether.
All that is just to say that if you are trying to protect what you are doing from competitors by not going "public," the information is likely getting there anyways via other channels.
But a public case study in some cases may hurry the process along a little. I think where it can have the greatest impact is when a company is thinking about new technology in some area, but hasn't really started to move forward. I believe in some cases seeing a competitor is doing something could trigger that company to get off the dime. But if they haven't been thinking about that idea at all, I don't believe it usually has much effect. The article may be noted, passed around, etc., but then it is largely forgotten.
The reality though is that we all need case studies. Think how boring a CSCMP conference or the User conference of a software vendor would be if we didn't have many of them. Case studies are an important factor in what moves the industry along, building over time a sort of critical mass for a new supply chain process, technology or vendor without which they would never thrive.
For public companies, the hurdles seem to be getting greater, just meaning the effort is more for those on the supply chain side to make it happen. It used to be common to interview supply chain execs/managers by themselves. Increasingly now, there is a corporate PR person there to ensure they don't say the wrong thing. Then there is growing phalanx of legal and especially investor relations folks making sure no one might say something that could cause a Wall Street analyst to change its estimates for the company. That's why you are seeing so many supply chain initiatives first announced in earnings calls - get the story out to Wall Street, then repeat it in other channels later.
So if I was VP of Supply Chain for Acme Widgets, would I do case studies? The answer is Yes.
I would do them as an element of an overall program for establishing a reputation for supply chain excellence, for the reasons outlined above. In most cases, especially for changes that may be innovative for me but not for the larger industry, I would realize "going public" would have little or no real impact on my competitive position. I would feel some modest obligation to share some information to the industry as so many others do to keep the profession moving forward.
If we happened to be doing something that was truly innovative, I would probably not go public for at least a year. That in the end probably gives you a three-year jump on the competition. (Of course, if it was that radical an innovation, you just might keep it to yourself for a very long time, but there aren't many of those). I would recognize that word about what you are doing is going to get out no matter what you do on this, such as employees moving on to other firms, vendors and consultants talking privately to new clients, etc.
I would extract some value from the vendor for doing so. Many have some form of "reward" programs now anyways. But if it has value to the vendor, you should receive some benefit from them. A promise to do a case study is often best negotiated a time of contract, in return for an additional discount on something. Why? Because it doesn't come out of anyone at the vendor's "budget" then, as it in effect does if you try to work the deal later. Also, if it is in the contract, it removes a later barrier to getting it approved internally.
And of course, I would tell the story via Supply Chain Digest first!
What is your opinion and approach on doing case studies? What would you add to Gilmore's recommendations? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.