Monday, October 22, 2012

The Shift from Service Provider to Integrated Alliance Partner

As end users become more sophisticated in their operations they understand through experience the real advantages of optimizing product delivery processes.  It is natural that they should want to extend those advantages to key services, both provided and received.  Supply Chain Management (SCM) is often thought of as a manufacturing discipline, which it indeed is.  Today, however, SCM principles are being adapted to the services side of business as well, with rewards and dividends to both sides of the provider / end user relationship.
For many this is a fundamental change requiring acquisition of new skills, knowledge, and mind sets.  These folks must learn to walk first, but getting up to “business speed” cannot take too long.  Others have the requisite skills and knowledge but need to extend them to new areas of their business.  In both cases, overcoming ingrained cultures running counter to the initiative is paramount and something that should be thoughtfully done.
Across industries and market sectors companies are looking for service providers who want to partner with them at new levels.  Whether the end product is machinery, financial services, a new building, or operational in nature; optimizing the delivery process is now a holistic agenda that encompasses all required resources.
What Is Driving Business Integration?
For starters, better educated and more demanding customers.  As organizations improve internal management systems and mechanisms they develop new intelligence about themselves, their competition, customers and yes, service providers.  Business intelligence is a greater differentiator now than ever before.  Process improvement, Six Sigma, metrics programs and other initiatives of their ilk are changing the way we understand and organize our work.  As that intelligence matures it begins to ask new questions, test new ideas, and probe for new advantages.  Extending that intelligence beyond the boundaries of your own organization by challenging business partners to match it in their domains and align their processes with yours is a natural next step.
Competitive intensity has increased in recent years, partially the result of economic stress.   Focused by the need to survive some companies have pared away non-core businesses, reduced or expanded offerings, or taken advantage of opportunities to expand and grow.  Behind all of these strategies is a single imperative – succeed when others do not.  The oft-quoted exhortation to “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has been taken to heart. These activities amount to a reshaping of business, each incidence an opportunity to streamline processes.  Many companies have gone after these opportunities with zeal and more often than not they challenge their business partners to match them stride for stride.
Customers seek to minimize the number of business relationships they must manage.  Their goal is to lower the amount of management friction that is applied to the business of doing business.  As a result, strategic business alliances often form in which multiple businesses collaborate in competition against other alliances.  It’s not just your company competing for business anymore, it is your alliance competing against other alliances.  That means each alliance partner has a vested interest in each partner’s business performance; and it motivates alliance partners to plan, act, measure, and communicate in similar fashion.  You cannot do that when your processes, standards, and tools are different.
Fulfillment of customer requirements has always been the primary business purpose - it has not always been the primary business activity. Although SCM began as a manufacturing discipline, business in general is moving from a production-based model to a fulfillment-based model, improving business speed and alignment.  The foundational principle at work here is that of connectivity, creating networks of entities that share business intelligence and act together in synchronized fashion.  As this model moves further down the chain efficiencies and advantages are increased to the advantage of all in the network.  Inherent in this model is the recognition that individual firms depend upon resources controlled by others in the network.
Integration Tools
Deployment of secure and integrated information technologies across the customer – provider alliance enterprise enables process synchronization and speeds the flow of information.  In classic terms, such seamless operating protocols make pulling resources vs. pushing them possible, thereby avoiding stranded investments for inventory, space, and management systems at each level of the alliance.
Common measurements and language are critical elements.  Each partner in the alliance may elect to retain measurements they feel are uniquely important to them but which are not relevant to other partners; all partners, however, should adopt common measurements and language for tracking and reporting enterprise activity.  If, for example, the customer’s five most important Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) are expressed as cost per end unit or cost per revenue unit, then the alliance partners providing support services to the customer should provide measures of their business that feed into the customer’s metrics in similar fashion and language.
The human part of the equation requires specific attention.  The degree of transparency required can be a challenge.  Sharing business intelligence and allowing visibility and integration of key processes may be a new dynamic for some.  Employing managers who have a collaboration orientation, are comfortable working with a range of technology systems, and who understand process design should be a priority for any firm engaged in an alliance business model.  Linking compensation to alliance performance strengthens the leverage towards implementation of cross-enterprise best practices.
Information is the Currency of Integration
Integrating and managing the supply chain seeks to assure that the right part shows up at the right place, at the right time.  The goal of services integration is to speed information to the point of need exactly when needed, thereby enabling the deployment of services in the most efficient manner.  The opportunity to integrate services to the level discussed here is enabled primarily by technology and information systems.  Information becomes knowledge, and knowledge becomes wisdom.  Wisdom, when acted upon correctly and speedily, becomes advantage.
Condition-based service management systems proliferate today.  I get an email from the car dealership with an appointment date and time when it is time for an oil change in my vehicle; not based on distance driven or elapsed time but on the actual condition of the oil and operating conditions of the engine, and on the day of the week and time of day I prefer based on the history of previous visits.  Sensors communicate automatically when set parameters are reached, triggering a process that results in my pulling into a service bay.  In building management an exact parallel occurs when an outsourced HVAC maintenance provider is dispatched to service a unit by automated sensors linked to intelligent building systems.  This model can be applied at multiple levels, even to stocking paper for copiers.  The fact that cloud computing largely eliminates the cost of deploying these technologies is speeding their adoption.  Service vendors lower inventories, redeploy capacity, and reduce costs.  Customers have greater visibility, can forecast more accurately, and have more control over cash flow.
The philosophies behind service chain integration are not new: Deep integration of business processes by alliance members who are invested in each other’s success, who are intensely customer-centric, who trust each other and accept accountability, who are driven by a desire to achieve process excellence, and who share business intelligence willingly.  When merged into a cohesive operating system each becomes a force multiplier for the others, improving service quality, cost and efficiency.  

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