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The rising tide lifts all ships – enhancing data literacy in global supply chains

Dr. Paul Barth, Global Head of Data Literacy, Qlik


The last couple of years have exacerbated underlying issues and exposed systemic flaws in the way we manufacture and distribute the goods and products so many people expect to have easy access to.

The last couple of years have seemingly been the perfect case study for the fragility of global supply chains. These complex, invisible networks that put food on our tables, cars on our roads and TVs in our homes have been hit with constant disruption – from a pandemic and port congestion, to political turmoil and even war.

While these disruptions have been severe, they are not new problems. Rather, they have exacerbated underlying issues and exposed systemic flaws in the way we manufacture and distribute the goods and products so many people expect to have easy access to. For example, data has been a crucial ally to try and mitigate some of this disruption, but crucially, it is not always shared effectively across the supply chain. This is not just about the compatibility of technology, but about the humans that use it.

Making the invisible network transparent 

One of the greatest challenges faced by enterprises is visibility of the supply chain. When even processes such as inventory management are regularly outsourced, having a clear, real-time view across a distribution network can be difficult. As a result, making informed decisions becomes harder too.

And supply chain leaders need to be able to make the right choices, quickly and accurately. Sixty percent of Chief Supply Chain Officers (CSCOs) said that they are expected to make faster, more accurate and consistent decisions in real time, according to Gartner. Access to the right data gives global organizations the capability to not only understand evolving supply and demand, but the drivers behind those changes, and the chance to adapt accordingly.

But it’s not as if supply chain data is not readily available. Even the simplest of logistics networks involves numerous parties, all creating their own data and storing critical information on the status of their part of the journey. However, this is part of the challenge CSCOs and their organizations face; corralling that data from disparate sources to make sense of what is happening, where it is happening, and how they can adapt accordingly.

However, the collection and advanced processing of data is just one challenge faced by supply chain operators. It means nothing if the whole supply chain network can’t use it effectively. Beyond adopting the right technology and processes, enterprises with complex supply chains must also consider the data literacy of the organizations they are connected with.

Does your supply chain understand data?

Data literacy is the ability to read, work with, analyze and communicate with data. As access to data becomes democratized and businesses are using it more to inform decisions and operations, expectations about employees’ data skills increase as demand for them does too. Our latest study – Data Literacy: The Upskilling Evolution – found that data literacy is predicted to be the most in-demand skill by 2030. In fact, 85% of executives believe it will become as vital in the future as the ability to use a computer is today, but only 11% of employees are fully confident in their data literacy abilities.

This is enough of a challenge when companies are tackling their own skills deficits. But when the efficiency of the supply chain is dependent on the data literacy levels of the businesses within it, the issue becomes greater still. After all, an enterprise generates significant volumes of data insights from their operations every day – whether to benefit themselves or their suppliers and partners. If those suppliers are unable to use those insights effectively, they suddenly have a lot less value. One break in the supply chain – whether physical or digital – can render the whole network inefficient.

With this increasing emphasis on data-led supply chains, organizations should not only be thinking about the insights that they generate, but how to share them with other parts of the supply chain. If the ability of the full supply chain to use data effectively comes into question, isn’t it in their best interests to support data literacy in their suppliers? Particularly for global firms working with local suppliers, their networks may not have the resources to roll out data literacy training programs to staff. Fortunately, consortia like the Data Literacy Project have been created to provide free and low-cost online data literacy training for everyone.

If all businesses are considering how they should be sharing data externally, then serving it in a way that is easier for all parts of the supply chain to use must be considered. For instance, food supplier Whitworths has shared data on spikes in demand for certain food stuffs with its retail partners, allowing them to advise customers and communicate with their own suppliers. The difficult part is doing this in a way that standardizes information so it is consumable by non-data specialists.

That’s not to say that it’s not important for businesses to get their own house in order first. Of course, there is an element of everyone taking responsibility for themselves – if the most efficient and reliable supply chains are those using data to increase visibility, then others with low levels of data literacy could find themselves superseded by competitors that can.

There will always be disruptions to the best laid plans. The most agile and resilient supply chains will be able to respond, and even pre-empt, these events. While data visibility and insights have become a fundamental part of the modern supply chain, a team is only as strong as its weakest player. As the influence of data grows, so does the importance of data literacy – in both global organizations and the full supply chain network. Whether it is a priority or not, businesses may need to look beyond their internal capabilities to consider the capacity of their partners and suppliers to use data too.