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Digitalizing the supply chain to enable new value chains

The new capabilities offered by Digitalization are significantly changing existing Supply Chains. It would be unwise to consider digitalization just as a performance boost of existing activities. In fact, digitalization can be the first step to new Value Propositions, new Value Chains and even New Business Models. But, it is not possible to identify these new opportunities and implement new business configurations while still looking at the business with today’s understanding. To do this would hide the real potential of a new technological business environment. The best way to understand new Value Propositions is by using a helicopter overview of business ecosystem trends jointly with a review of newly available digitalized solutions. A cross-industry perspective is also recommended.

 Article by Giorgio Merli

Digitalization is significantly changing the paradigms of existing Value Chains. The two strategic key drivers of these new paradigms are the “disintermediation/unbundling “ of commercial streams (e-commerce) and the “Servitization” trend (products delivered via service and/or with the Pro-sumership logic). Traditional companies have to re-set their supply chains accordingly and, quite often, they have to redesign them or even design new supply chains from scratch. Very often, they have to manage their business with a multi-channel Value Chain enabled by some parallel supply chains. It can also mean that some of these supply chains are managed by companies different from the one producing the products. Many combinations are possible for the whole supply chain or just part of it (Fig. 1), and they can be developed internally (”bubble in”) or externally (“bubble out”). In addition, the ones set up and developed inside can be later outsourced…. and the ones set up and developed outside can be later insourced.

Fig.. 1 – Traditional Supply Chain Activities
Fig. 1 – Traditional Supply Chain Activities

In many cases, the changes are not just in the organization of the supply chain, but in what they deliver and how it is delivered. We can see breakthrough innovations in both the what and the how.

Indeed, we can also see many new entities historically not present in the industry. These new players are frequently changing the traditional industry Value Chain or appearing via new Value Chains. The Value Chain perspective is key to seeing what is happening and where we are going. Only in this way can we understand the rationale of these changes. Think about the revolution in Value Chains introduced by the disintermediation carried out by companies such as Amazon and Ali Baba (who entered horizontally into large parts of the previously existing Value Chains and Supply Chains).

In this scenario, even high levels of performance in traditional logistics KPIs (delivery time, flexibility/agility, efficiency, reliability, etc..) cannot guarantee the survival of a company (certainly not in the medium-long term).

Even if a company has been able to synchronize its supply that may still not be competitive enough for the new business scenario. It is just ready to face the new challenges and try to fight against the companies that are already offering new Value Propositions and/or just going to implement a new level of competitive capability: the digital capability. Digitalization of the full supply chain process is indeed a key lever of new competitiveness. Today the level of digitalization makes and will make a real difference. But the necessary digital capabilities cannot be defined at operations level. As already said, the competitive capability is determined mainly by the competitiveness of the full Value Chain. More or less all industries are repositioning their Value Chains to a higher or different level. It means that we have to avoid making the same error we did in the last decade when some companies thought that Improving only their operations performance would have been sufficient to compete. Even if they had Improvement programs that were outstanding and had won awards, many of them did not have the capability to face the competition. In fact, in many industries, the business priority moved from efficiency to effectiveness or to speed of innovation. In those cases, improving, for example, the operations OEE was a wrong objective and lost time, money and resources. Most often the right business priority of the last decade was in fact “Rethinking the Value Chain and the Business Model”.

So, once we are going to synchronize the Supply Chain, before starting an improvement process (“restore, improve and re-align/synchronize the activities”), we should first look at the type of supply chain that could enable the next level of desired Value Chain. In any event, we should rethink it in a digitalized way. But it should not be done in a mechanistic step by step development logic. The digitalization process itself has to be very flexible and continuously re-shaping, due to continuously unpredictable business needs and even business scenarios (think about the new threats, priorities, opportunities generated by the Corona Virus pandemic). Digitalized Artificial Intelligence platforms and solutions should be largely used to continuously re-align the Supply Chain and sometimes the Value Chain itself.

But what does it mean digitalizing the Supply Chain? Digitalizing the current-existing Supply Chain means just e-enabling all current activities, using all possible e-digital systems and technologies, as represented in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 – Digitalizing the current Supply Chain (Source: G.Merli, “Business on Demand“ IlSole24ore)
Fig. 2 – Digitalizing the current Supply Chain (Source: G.Merli, “Business on Demand“ IlSole24ore)

However, if we review the supply chain starting from possible evolutions of the Value Chain enabled by digitalization, the progression of the Value Chain could be represented as in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 – Value Chain Evolution (Source: G.Merli, “Business on Demand“ IlSole24ore)
Fig. 3 – Value Chain Evolution (Source: G.Merli, “Business on Demand“ IlSole24ore)

Looking at the relationship with customer/market, we can consider some of the evolution stages, starting from the basic one, where digitalization means just applying digital solutions to the commercial transactions. These can be named as follows:

  • E-transactions (Channel enhancement), including: Website, Direct selling, Order placing, Online catalogue, E-Customer service, E-CRM, E-communications, Online Market research, etc…
  • E-enabled Supply Chain (Value Chain Integration), including: Supply Chain transparency, Integration of suppliers-customers, Integrated IT architecture, E-Procurement, E-Logistics, Disintermediation, Reintermediation, etc...
  • E-redesigned Value Chain (Industry Transformation), including: New Value Propositions, Outsourcing, New Value Chains, Community and virtual organizations, Industry Consortiums, Industry Re-engineering, Virtual Organizations, Market Places, etc..
  • Business reconfiguration (New Business Models), including: New Business Models, New markets, Artificial Intelligence New brands, New partnerships, New economies of scale, Integrated Industries, Cross Industry Convergence, Core business redefinition, etc..

This last evolutionary step is the one that is generating the Digital revolution we see today. Everything started in the late ‘90s with the idea that sometimes a successful external brand can be stronger than the industry specific ones, especially in the Consumer world. So the first real cross-industry new business models were based on cross industry-brand value (as described in the book “E-biz” il Sole24ore, G.Merli, 2003). The first examples of these Converged Business models (late ‘90s) were: Virgin (music, banking, airlines, railways, soft drinks, cars,…), Microsoft (software, travels, images, internet communities,..), Amazon (books, CD, toys, electronics, home services,..), Sonera (telco, mobile sales,..), E*Trade (investments banking, stocks trade, ..), Travelocity (flights, hotels, cars, holidays), etc... All of them continued into the next decade to enlarge their offerings and their services: the revolution is continuing.

As previously said, the evolution of the Supply Chain should be led by evolution of the Value Chain, which is just a consequence of the New Value Propositions the company wants to offer to the market and/or of the new Business Model the company wants to implement. But, quite often, the new Value Chains and Business Models come from other industries or from start-ups (not needing a progression logic). They come in at a more advanced stage, thereby disrupting the existing competition scenario. Think Tesla (new entry) or Google (cross Industry) in the automotive business.

This is the reason why considering possible new Value Props/Business Models should not be done with the usual incremental logic i.e. “what more can we do?”

The key perspectives with which we should identify new and sustainable Value Propositions/Business Models/Value Chains are the following:

  • Extended Business Ecosystem analysis
  • Servitization trend
  • Digitalization opportunities
  • E-commerce evolutions

The combination of these perspectives should allow us to identify Opportunities, Threats and Sustainability.


This approach, starting from outside (the market), enables us discover new Value Propositions while understanding the new Value Chains through which we can sell and deliver them. It allows us to have a complete perspective of what other players are doing and with which business model. It is also very useful to determine the players we could engage to do our business with and their role (supplier, partner, customer). Once we have designed a possible Value Chain we can then think about the new supply chain. With this kind of analysis, a large utilities company looking at the emerging Smart City business, was able to identify more than one thousand new possible value props (for B2B, B2C, B2G, B2B2C, B2G2C) and to decide which ones were a good opportunity to be developed. For the selected ones, they decided the structure of the Value Chains and designed the related Supply chains.


This perspective offers a huge spectrum of possible new value propositions, even starting from the products or services already delivered by the company. Conceptually, this should be the easiest approach (because you would be starting from what is already known), but cultural resistance and entrenched attitudes are often a big obstacle in this. Sometimes, it is much easier to start up a new business based on the servitization of an existing product through a “bubble out” approach (new independent company or new business unit), instead of developing it in the existing organization. The first possible “servitizations” are identified in “selling an existing product through a service” or “adding services to the products”. Much more disruptive is the adoption of the “Pro-sumership” concept, where the client is offered the option (as a service) to self-deliver, self-customize, self-engineer the product or service he needs.


Digitalization is the enabler of a large part of what we have discussed and, very often, is itself the source of ideas for new Value Props/Business Models. It is obviously the enabler of all the Servitization and Pro-sumership streams, where the Customer (B2B) and the Consumer (B2C) can prepare/customize for themselves what is needed.


The current rapid revolution in commerce and logistics processes is generating new Business Models, embracing the full Value Chain. Think about the amount of disintermediation in progress (dramatically) in the commercial Sales & Distribution process introduced by companies such as Amazon, Ali Baba, E-Bay, or the specialized ones by industry. This disruptive/breakthrough trend started in the early ‘90s with the creation of the first e-Market Places, both by industry and cross-industries (Metamarkets).


Recently, new Business Models have been developed through new digital solutions that can link the monitoring of operational data directly to those who can give new valuable service to the client (especially new if based on the dynamics of the data). For example:

  • Black boxes in cars (for fleet management, insurance, etc..)
  • New telemedicine business, where a device held by a person (Apple Watch or now even a ring on a finger) can send info on body performance directly to a doctor elsewhere, who can then take care of you.
  • The new Pro-sumership frontiers, where Retail companies or Fruit Consortiums can self-design, self-engineer, self-manufacture, self-deliver their customized packages (even by sales campaign) and then monitor and track the full end-to-end journey until it is on the supermarket shelves…. including the Customer experience phase and related feed-back.
  • New applications of Artificial Intelligence in downstream processes offered by new platforms (in contracts and installation real-time management in B2B, in marketing analysis for real-time new offerings in B2C, for Virtual Assistant service in home banking and other industries).
  • New solutions and platforms to manage the issues/opportunities of Data management and monetization regulated by GDPR new rules. The ownership of data and its monetization right will come back the consumer (owner of a social account, owner of the car, owner of the utility counter, etc..).
  • The Market Places where the current owners will be challenged by new Players handling the data on behalf of Consumers. - Opportunities offered by NLP (Natural Language Processing) in Telco, Healthcare, Banking, Insurance Law, etc.
  • Voice Recognition Systems, OCR (Optical Character Recognition-Text Recognition), Image Recognition, Machine Learning, Intelligent Automation, Artificial Intelligence, etc.. with application opportunities in all industries….


The emerging new Business Models are significantly changing existing Value Chains and the related operational Supply Chains. The speed of this change is high. Supply chain re-configuration, with its new and upgraded performances, could be the starting point and enabler of the new Business Model.

These changes have many implications on the role of the Supply Chain manager.

First of all, he has to adopt a “squint” management capability: looking at both the short term and medium term simultaneously. With the short-term view, he has to restore and improve some basic capabilities that are negatively affecting current competitiveness in the traditional business. With the medium-term strategic view, he has to identify those activities where improvement would have no value (because they would be managed differently in the digitalized world) and the ones that could enable new business capabilities. These medium-term necessities/opportunities can come from the Strategy of the company and/or from the Supply Chain Manager himself, but he needs to be aware of what could be digitalized to empower the offering of the company or even its Business Model. This means that the Supply Chain Manager cannot be specialized in just logistics processes and systems, but that he must develop a larger and more strategic knowledge of Business and Digital Solutions.

Fig. 4 represents a development reference model where we can see the evolving linkage between Value Proposition, Supply Chain and Business Models.

Fig. 4 – Business Model Evolutions enabled by Supply Chain
Fig. 4 – Business Model Evolutions enabled by Supply Chain

Once he is aware of it, the Supply Chain Manager should prepare the way to implement this strategic and digital evolution of the Supply Chain. He must identify key activities to empower/digitalize it, referring to both the existing ones and necessary new ones (using a map as in Fig. 1) and also prepare and implement the necessary or opportunistic changes to enable new business capabilities. Fig. 5 shows an example of a digital intervention map created during a workshop.

In the Supply Chain review process, all Value Chain activities are subject to possible change, including the role of the players. According to the importance of single activities and of the company’s capability to best manage them, each activity could be differently attributed and managed. All roles must be considered: Supplier, Partner, B2B Customer, etc... If an activity is not of strategic importance, it could even be given to competitors (or to cross-industries service companies). It would help to reduce company assets and improve efficiency (for example Ferrero gave their frozen logistics chain, which was not was not strategically important to them, to their competitor Lactalis/Galbani, who performed the service better). From an organizational point of view, each activity could be out-sourced, co-sourced, in-sourced, near-shored-offshored, etc... Only at this stage should procedures be re-designed and re-stated. No point in improving processes before having decided the new organizational structure.

fig 5 identifying activities
Fig. 5 – Identifying the Activities to be digitalized (example)

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About the author:

Giorgio Merli, author of numerous books and articles on Management published in Europe and USA, consultant to Multinationals and Governments, teacher in several Universities in Italy and abroad. Formerly Country Leader of IBM Business Consulting Services and CEO of PWCC Italy, is currently Senior VP of EFESO Consulting.