Watson for i: Watson Can Help Forge Links in Your Supply Chain

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The IBM umbrella of supply chain services includes more than a dozen options, some of which are Watson-specific. Here’s a breakdown of the major features of each service.

In 2010, IBM acquired Sterling Commerce from AT&T as a way to expand the products and services it could offer for supply-chain operations. Today, with supply-chain-service additions under its Watson brand, IBM offers 15 cloud-based SaaS solutions to help enterprises with supply-chain tasks.

Stephen Bedford, vice president of sales at Shree Consulting, a California-based company that specializes in Watson and IBM/Sterling supply-chain solutions, provides some insights and cuts down on the clutter in figuring out which solutions might be right for your B2B and B2C operations.

Like most consulting companies, Shree’s basic methodology starts with examining an enterprise and its current systems.

“Understanding the customer’s business is one of the most critical steps in our process,” Bedford explains. “As part of our discovery process, speaking with the line-of-business owners as well as the technical teams helps Shree attain a good understanding of the current business challenges as well as the foreseeable business direction, goals, and strategy. This may take the form of multiple meetings with various stakeholders or an on-site business value assessment. This process lets Shree define with the customer the most appropriate solution that aligns with the customer’s strategy and meets the customers’ current and long-term business goals.”

IBM’s Six Major Industries of Supply Chains

“IBM defines six major industries for supply chain,” Bedford continues. “These are financial services, industrial, public, federal, distribution, and communications and systems integrators. While no one solution is exclusive to a customer segment or industry, certain solutions are most common across the different industries.”

The IBM Sterling Collaboration Network (also called the IBM B2B Collaboration Network) is a secure communications network between more than 300,000 businesses worldwide. It helps facilitate file transfers, EDI, and national-language translations between potential business partners. Similarly, the IBM Supply Chain Business Network (SCN) is an IBM Watson value-added network (VAN) that provides supply-chain optimization, B2B collaboration, and order management and fulfillment services.

“The IBM SCN solution is relevant to all markets and industries,” Bedford explains. “The one fundamental requirement for the customer is that they are capable of generating an EDI transaction themselves. The SCN is a hub for EDI transactions across the globe. It enables connectivity for a very small cost to hundreds of thousands of trading partners’ endpoints, specifically to facilitate B2B EDI transactions. Using a service like this relieves the company that originates the transaction from installing, maintaining, and administering large concentrations of network capability and capacity, as well as avoiding the overhead of managing the trading partner information.”

The Sterling File Transfer Service (FTS) is a cloud-based managed file-transfer service. Its usage models and pricing are based on file sizes, traffic volume, and number of partners. It’s particularly useful for businesses that want to move large files or have high traffic volume. “This service is similar to the SCN,” Bedford points out. “The difference between them is that, under the Sterling FTS, EDI data is formatted with a standard unique identifier (i.e., identifying the originator and the destination of the transaction) that enables any processor to automatically route it. FTS offers a vast array of protocol support, security options, and transfer options, again mitigating the need for the end customer to support a large and costly communication network, administration staff, and redundant systems.”

IBM Sterling B2B Integration Services “is a suite of SaaS offerings,” Bedford notes. The Basic version provides translation and exchange of documents from one format to another and one communications protocol to another. The Plus version adds process-management services and other options, particularly for international supply chains. “At the most basic level, the service can generate EDI transaction data from normal documents (i.e., Excel, web forms, faxes),” Bedford expounds, “but this is normally applicable to very small organizations that don’t have the systems or applications that can generate an EDI transaction. However, the suite also has applicability to larger organizations that may have all the capabilities to handle EDI themselves but have a number of smaller trading partners who cannot send or receive EDI. Such organizations would use this type of service to increase their number of EDI-capable trading partners and relieve themselves of additional administration.

“As you move up into the EDI managed-service offerings in this suite,” Bedford continues, “IBM provides communications and implementation services, mapping exchanges, trading partner setup and testing, and can even manage the ongoing trading partner relationship.”

SaaS for Supply Chain Is Revamping B2B Transactions

Bedford notes that moving to managed services for handling EDI and other B2B transactions is a rising trend. “Many large organizations are moving from on-premise to hybrid or full SaaS models. This is applicable to organizations and industries of all sizes. The most prolific adopters of SaaS are from the industrial, communications, distribution, and public sectors.” However, “the financial, federal, and healthcare sectors that are traditionally more regulated and risk-adverse are now also gaining momentum via these SaaS offerings.”

There are seven other IBM offerings that are on-premise solutions for creating and managing EDI and file transfer services. IBM Sterling B2B Integrator handles integration security. IBM Sterling File Gateway offers secure and encrypted file transfers. IBM Control Center tracks and logs B2B activities to demonstrate compliance and help troubleshoot process failures. IBM Partner Engagement Manager centralizes control of B2B actions and support activities. IBM Transformation Extender automates validation and transformation of data between different formats and protocols. IBM Sterling Secure Proxy provides a “demilitarized zone” between networks and added authentication features that increase transactional security. IBM Sterling Connect:Direct provides secure, high-volume, point-to-point file transfer connectivity without relying on the File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

Of this group, Bedford states, “Order management and fulfillment solutions help you efficiently provide customers what they want, where and when they want it, through real-time global inventory visibility, sophisticated sourcing and fulfillment logic across all channels, and intelligent linking of inventory to demand. All of these solutions have significant relevance across all industries and sectors.

“However, there are some sectors where parts of this portfolio are more dominant. For financial services, those are Sterling File Gateway, Transformation Extender, Control Center, Secure Proxy, Connect:Direct, and Partner Engagement Manager. For healthcare, Transformation Extender, Control Center, Secure Proxy, and Connect:Direct are most commonly used. For federal, Sterling File Gateway, Transformation Extender, Control Center, Secure Proxy, and Connect:Direct are the most usual options. For the industrial, integrator, and public markets, all solutions in the portfolio are in use.”

There are still more products in IBM’s supply-chain portfolio.

IBM Order Management provides a centralized view of inventory, lets users customize order execution, and summarizes order information from all channels. IBM Store Engagement keeps track of all transactions for brick-and-mortar emporiums, including inventory, credit-card processing, and goods-delivery options.

IBM Watson Order Optimizer helps omni-channel retail outlets analyze their operations using a wide array of data. IBM Watson Commerce Insights provides an “insights assistant” that can analyze under-performing products and categories in online stores, predict actions that can stimulate customers to buy more, and notify users of abnormal business conditions that may need intervention. “These solutions are most prevalent in industrial, integrator, and public sectors, with the predominance in retail and manufacturing,” Bedford shares.

Shree Consulting’s familiarity with Sterling Commerce’s product line and IBM’s adaptations of it have been come by honestly.

“Shree Consulting originated from a group of individuals who had been part of the original Sterling EDI and managed file transfer consulting solutions group. As the demand for expertise and resources grew with the adoption of enterprise-level solutions around EDI and files transfer rather than “home grown” or multiple point products, the new drivers in EDI and managed file transfer became platform and product consolidation, integration, solution manageability, end-to-end visibility, high availability, and data security. IBM solutions are the most enterprise-robust because they provide reliability, performance, and scalability and integration capabilities, combined with the integration of superior analytics and the potential of cognitive via Watson,” Bedford declares.

What Do You Need to Call Your Supply Chain “Modern?”

Given the cornucopia of supply-chain options available just from IBM, what does it take for an enterprise to be satisfied (at least for today) that its B2B operations are “modern”?

“There are many elements that make up the supply-chain critical path,” Bedford reflects. “The supply chain continues to evolve. Initially, organizations that had a digital supply chain focused on each element in the supply chain interacting electronically with each other, therefore the need for enterprise integration. Next was to have visibility across the supply chain, to know the status at every stage through the critical path, and to provide end-to-end visibility,” he reviews.

“The next step in the evolution is to encompass elements that are outside of the supply chain itself that have a direct impact on the chain and to be able to understand the impact of those outside elements. An excellent example of this would be weather. The impact of weather can cause disruption to any part of the supply chain, especially in the delivery path, whether that be from manufacturer to distributor or distributor to retail. Any significant weather event can cause a negative disruption to the supply chain. Equally, a weather event can provide an opportunity to change your supply chain to add inventory to a geographic location directly due to that event.

“Applications and solutions that can add elements of information to your supply chain and then additionally make proactive, cognitive recommendations based on the individual business using that information is the next evolution in supply-chain thinking,” Bedford concludes.