Is data a liability or asset for supply chain departments?

April 09, 2021
by Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter
Dr. Randy Bradley, associate professor of information systems and supply chain management at the University of Tennessee, believes that data is the “invisible chink in supply chain’s armor.” In a virtual session at last year’s virtual AHRMM annual meeting, he said that the way to repair that armor is through understanding the most common types of data and implementing a data strategy.

The most recent challenge to affect the healthcare supply chain field is the COVID-19 pandemic. It exposed the fragility of the supply chain and highlighted the need for greater transparency and visibility.

“We do need better visibility, but I need us to understand that transparency and visibility are not the same thing,” said Bradley. “When we talk about them, I like to view them from an inside-out and from an outside-in perspective.”

He explained that transparency refers to an organization’s willingness to share information, whether it’s about their operations transactions. Visibility is the degree to which you can see upstream in the supply chain and downstream to the point of consumption.

But visibility hinges on a trading partner’s ability and willingness to be transparent. According to Bradley, you could have a good trading partner that’s willing to share information, but they may not have the technological infrastructure in place to do so.

He suggested taking a step back and looking at the supply chain’s traceability and integrity, but cautioned that they are only means to an end.

Dr. Randy Bradley
“What we should be striving for and what we should endeavor to build is a sustainable supply chain,” said Bradley. “I'm talking about a supply chain that to some degree is pandemic and natural disaster resilient [as well as] agile, adaptive, responsive, forward looking such that you are able to responds to prompts and triggers as they happen rather than sometime after they happen.”

The foundation for building a sustainable supply chain is risk management and risk mitigation. Visibility, integrity, transparency and traceability are the pillars that will support the supply chain into the future.

Although data is often perceived as an asset, it can actually be a liability due to the tremendous cost associated with cleaning, integrating and leveraging it. Bradley stated that the industry needs to change its perspective in order to treat it like an asset.

The first step is digital connectivity, which involves extracting data from systems and integrating it seamlessly across the healthcare organization. Once that is achieved, organizations can then look into implementing artificial intelligence tools to analyze that data.

However, a common hurdle that Bradley encounters is the lack of a data strategy. He stated that less than 10 percent of organizations have what he calls an “articulated data strategy.”

“I think part of that has to do with the fact that they thought they did [have a data strategy],” he added. “They may have had a big data strategy, a digital strategy or an analytic strategy, but those things, though they are strategic in nature, are not the same.”

A true data strategy involves “an integrated set of guiding principles that foster a set of behaviors and guide decisions that allow an organization to better govern and manage data assets throughout their full lifecycle”, said Bradley.

“When we look at it from this vantage point, it becomes abundantly clear that the vast majority of organizations don't have it because they haven't really thought about it,” said Bradley.

He stressed that organizations need to think about the data they already have and the data they might need to acquire in the future.

He referred to one source of data as “breadcrumbs” because it is fragments of data within an organization, that in isolation, have little to no meaning. However, this data can yield insights when those “crumbs” are stitched together with AI tools.

There is also derivative data, which involves taking one data element and extracting additional value from it. And lastly, there is proprietary data or data that only the organization has or has access to.

Other organizations don't know that those data elements exist or that there are sources of that type of data. That allows the organization to gain an advantage and is an example of how data can move from being a liability to an asset.

“[This journey is] part innovation, but it's also part continuous improvement and checking to make sure we have everything we need before we go on this journey,” concluded Bradley. “Do we have the right human talent? Do we have the right technical infrastructure? Do we have the appropriate strategy? And most importantly, do we have the right stakeholders on the team to get us there?”