Synchronizing Supply Chain Applications with Continuous Change

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The value of an efficient supply chain and its use as a competitive lever can only come when it is in continuous alignment with changing business conditions and market trends.

This is harder than ever to make happen in todays volatile business environment, characterized by tremendous competitive pressures and ongoing demand for better, faster innovations and customized products. The resulting shorter product life cycles add to associated supply chain risks, making supply chain management more complex and unpredictable. Supply chain owners want adaptable and agile processes that can change and adjust as need arises.

Too often, corporate IT organizations find that their packaged applications dont meet their business requirements, and consequently software reconfiguration after deployment is a common challenge. Yet, surprisingly, while low-cost offshore development options have made customized software solutions affordable again, many companies continue to select out-of-the-box solutions since they provide access to best practices and the latest technological innovations.

A hybrid approach is becoming more common, however, where packaged business applications bring a core capability but with enough flexibility to customize the user interface, workflow, data modeling and other components to align more closely with business needs. In fact, with the right tools and the right infrastructure in place, business users themselves can take ownership to affect changes to customizable applications based on changing business requirements. These applications, however, can only deliver high value continuously if they are flexible and easily maintainable to achieve high-level responsiveness.

Designing sustainable supply chain applications

Prior to revamping supply chain infrastructure and data management systems, companies need to think through each step upfront and lay out the necessary building blocks before tackling larger applications. For example, they need to set up foundations for developing an agile system, such as proper data models, data synchronization and governance strategies, re-usable basic services like user security, and the ground rules for enterprise visibility. The solution needs to be optimized throughout the design cycle, and more important, after deployment. Many software implementations face their biggest challenge right after deployment when the first business change request comes. If designed properly, the system will incorporate the change as an essential element rather than an inconvenient afterthought.

Architectural underpinnings to assure agility

A system that can change at the speed of business requires architecture that can:

         Integrate existing legacy systems until they can be replaced or enhanced

         Allow rapid prototyping of business ideas to see the end result in days and months rather than years

         Enable business users to define and adjust process flows without IT intervention

         Link multiple disparate applications in a business process flow without rewriting individual applications

         Provide for data synchronization and harmonization across existing systems

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) and model-driven architecture (MDA) both provide the loose coupling required to leverage existing systems and minimize programming required to customize applications to fit business needs. SOA uses services to access and link data from disparate systems.MDA defines models of business processes and workflows. Business users can develop rich applications through data model attributes and visual, intuitive interfaces that sit on top of a business model. Rapid prototyping tools help test new ideas before they become an integral part of the business.

Challenges in managing supply chain applications

Given the pace of business change today, even the best-designed applications wont deliver with a deploy-and-do-nothing approach. Proactive attention and maintenance are required to keep applications competitive and able to offer sustained business value.

Operational challenges: Retaining operational knowledge in companies or industries with frequent turnover requires a focus on employee training, employee process ownership and periodic refresher training. This focus is not only important, but a business necessity to ensure effective use of applications.

Evolution challenges: Dynamic business conditions spawned by continuously changing demand requirements, competitive pressures and supply arrangements challenge applications to evolve in parallel. A gap between business requirements and configuration of applications can quickly snowball, substantially diminishing application effectiveness

Organizational challenges: Most applications are implemented to respond to certain business needs and with specific business justification. Over time, needs change or priorities shift reducing their relative importance. As attention is diverted to the next priority, applications lose executive sponsorship, causing a reduction in the required ongoing investment to keep the application relevant, thus decreasing effectiveness.

Infrastructure challenges: As the technology landscape continues to evolve, new hardware and middleware releases bring new technology and innovations to the table. Every upgrade of infrastructure opens questions of compatibility, both backward and forward, requiring business applications to be upgraded. Keeping track of interoperability issues is a huge undertaking in the complex IT environment of a large enterprise, where the upgrade of one system can potentially affect other applications performance in enabling business processes. These issues continually compromise applications usefulness and business value.

Keeping supply chain applications effective

To overcome the above challenges, and not only sustain but increase the value delivered by the business applications, it is necessary to recognize and address the challenges listed above effectively and proactively. There are a number of different ways of ensuring the applications are maintained and stay aligned with changing conditions.

Standard maintenance programs: Out-of-the-box applicationswhether used as is or used as the basis for a customized solutionoffer some level of standard maintenance programs. These vendor-offered maintenance programs are valuable because they lower business risks due to disruptions, and also improve user productivity by providing access to expert support. Service contracts usually include upgrades as theyre made available, incorporating the latest best practices, tips from other users, standard technology advancements and added functionalities.

Maintenance programs help to overcome many operational and infrastructural challenges, supporting users by providing technical help as needed and maintaining compatibility with the latest technology advances.

Solution review and tuning: Inevitably, applications get out of synch with business requirementsnot from major shifts in business processes, but from small changes over time. To keep solutions effective, it is necessary that applications receive regular architectural, technical and functional reviews. Subject area expert reviewers can identify any misalignments, gaps or missing opportunities and then address the best way to get the application back in tune. Often, solution tune-ups result in up to 20 percent improvements in key metrics by realigning critical factors related to demand patterns, supply changes, manufacturing constraints, etc.

Business changes and synchronization: Making changes after deployment has always been a challenge. However if designed well, using a loosely coupled architecture, it is possible to make adjustments economically to keep the application tightly aligned with business changes. The rules-based solutions built with BPM (business process monitoring) tools, can be adjusted quickly to keep pace with business changes. The IT organizations, if needed, can tap into solution architects and expert consultants to make changes in the user interface, add or remove steps in the process, change data models, work on integration points with other applications, and reconstruct the workflow if required. This work can be outsourced to experts who can continuously monitor the semi-custom solutions and intimately track changes in business to make adjustments as needed. With the right technology in place, the evolution of business processes can quickly be integrated into semi-custom software solutions.

Strategic impact analysis: With every deployment, key metrics and targets for improvement need to be identified. Establishing a baseline for these metrics is a good practice at deployment so that over time changes can be tracked and measured. Periodically reviewing metrics and process improvements can enable and improve application business practices. This step becomes an important one when seeking sponsorship to address organizational challenges. Such studies can also identify gaps and opportunities to further increase return on investments.


Companies invest a great deal of resources and money in the applications that support their businesses. These applications face a number of ongoing challenges that reduce their impact and effectiveness over time, and diminish the value they are delivering to the business. By using loosely-coupled technologies with a disciplined approach to deployment and maintenance, flexible applications can be adjusted to maintain their effectiveness and continue to provide a high return on investment. Proactive consideration from the IT and business organizations, as well as with close collaboration with vendors and experts, will keep the applications performing to their potential.

SOA Platform Migration Path

Whether a companys current applications are on a service-oriented architecture (SOA) platform or not, the challenges associated with sustaining the effectiveness of those applications remain the same. Most of the steps suggested here for keeping applications aligned with evolving business needsuse of standard maintenance programs, periodic impact analysis and regular fine-tuningapply to legacy systems as well. With legacy systems, however, synchronization measures are more complicated and costly, and therefore likely face longer implementation times due to budget considerations.

Start with SOA on the front end

Companies with legacy applications can implement an SOA platform that acts as the front end for all business functions. The platform can provide the external interfaces using WSDL/SOAP protocols while internally talking to the legacy application interfaces. It is not necessary that all of the data models of the legacy application be migrated to the SOA platform, as long as the necessary business functions in these applications are callable from the SOA platformthereby leveraging legacy functionality. This approach enables the company to modernize its infrastructure to suit current business needs without incurring the costs of upgrading or replacing applications until absolutely necessary.

Iterative migration to SOA

Some of the SOA platforms (such as the i2 Agile Business Process Platform) provide utilities to import data models from relational databases and construct logical representations of them, thereby enabling model-driven architecture (MDA) paradigms for new functionality that needs to be built. Such an approach provides a natural path for upgrading existing systems in bits and pieces.

Finally, while integrating an SOA platform with legacy applications will make those applications more adaptable, an application entirely developed on an SOA platform will be easier to manage and keep synchronized with changing business requirements on a timely, ongoing basis.

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