What is SCM? (Supply Chain Management)?

Supply chain management (SCM) is the broad range of activities required to plan, control and execute a product's flow, from acquiring raw materials and production through distribution to the final customer, in the most streamlined and cost-effective way possible.

SCM encompasses the integrated planning and execution of processes required to optimize the flow of materials, information and financial capital in the areas that broadly include demand planning, sourcing, production, inventory management and storage, transportation -- or logistics -- and return for excess or defective products. Both business strategy and specialized software are used in these endeavors to create a competitive advantage.

Supply chain management is an expansive, complex undertaking that relies on each partner -- from suppliers to manufacturers and beyond -- to run well. Because of this, effective supply chain management also requires change management, collaboration and risk management to create alignment and communication between all the entities.

In addition, supply chain sustainability -- which covers environmental, social and legal issues, in addition to sustainable procurement -- and the closely related concept of corporate social responsibility -- which evaluates a company's effect on the environment and social well-being -- are areas of major concern for today's companies.

Logistics vs supply chain management

The terms supply chain management and logistics are often confused or used synonymously. However, logistics is a component of SCM. It focuses on moving a product or material in the most efficient way so it arrives at the right place at the right time. It manages activities such as packaging, transportation, distribution, warehousing and delivery.

In contrast, SCM involves a more expansive range of activities, such as strategic sourcing of raw materials, procuring the best prices on goods and materials, and coordinating supply chain visibility efforts across the supply chain network of partners, to name just a few.

Benefits of supply chain management

Supply chain management creates efficiencies, raises profits, lowers costs, boosts collaboration and more. SCM enables companies to better manage demand, carry the right amount of inventory, deal with disruptions, keep costs to a minimum and meet customer demand in the most effective way possible. These SCM benefits are achieved through the appropriate strategies and software to help manage the growing complexity of today's supply chains.

Supply chain complexity

The most basic version of a supply chain includes a company, its suppliers and the customers of that company. The chain could look like this: raw material producer, manufacturer, distributor, retailer and retail customer.

A more complex, or extended, supply chain will likely include a number of suppliers and suppliers' suppliers, a number of customers and customers' customers -- or final customers -- and all the organizations that offer the services required to effectively get products to customers, including third-party logistics providers, financial organizations, supply chain software vendors and marketing research providers. These entities also use services from other providers.

The totality of these organizations, which evokes the metaphor of an interrelated web rather than a linear chain, gives insight into why supply chain management is so complex. That complexity also hints at the types of issues that can arise, from demand management issues, such as a release of a new iPhone that chokes demand for old iPhone cases; to natural supply chain disruptions, such as the halt of transportation in the U.S. in 2015 due to extreme winter weather, or California's drought and its effect on crops; to political upheaval, such as the strikes in India that throttled movement at its largest container port.

The role of supply chain management software

Technology is critical in managing today's supply chains, and ERP vendors offer modules that focus on relevant areas. There are also business software vendors that focus specifically on SCM. A few important areas to note include:

  • Supply chain planning software for activities such as demand management.
  • Supply chain execution software for activities such as day-to-day manufacturing operations.
  • Supply chain visibility software for tasks such as spotting and anticipating risks and proactively managing them.
  • Inventory management software for tasks such as tracking and optimizing inventory levels.
  • Logistics management software and transportation management systems for activities such as managing the transport of goods, especially across global supply chains.
  • Warehouse management systems for activities related to warehouse operations.
  • Infor, JDA Software, Oracle and SAP are well-known vendors of supply chain software.

The increasingly global nature of today's supply chains and the rise of e-commerce, with its focus on nearly instant small deliveries straight to consumers, are posing challenges, particularly in the area of logistics and demand planning. A number of strategies -- such as lean -- and newer approaches -- such as demand-driven material requirements planning -- may prove helpful.

Technology -- especially big data, predictive analytics, internet of things (IoT) technology, supply chain analytics, robotics and autonomous vehicles -- is also being used to help solve modern challenges, including in the areas of supply chain risk and disruption and supply chain sustainability.

As just two examples, IoT can help with transparency and traceability to help boost food quality and safety by using sensors to monitor the temperature of perishable food while it's in transit. And analytics can help determine where to put smart lockers in densely populated areas to cut the number of single-item deliveries and lower greenhouse gas emissions.