Covid-19—exposing our supply chain vulnerabilities

Announcement

4 March 2021

Business-to-business (B2B) transactions still involve the heavy use of paper documents.

A disruptor and a game changer for many—COVID-19 has opened our eyes to how ill-equipped we all are to face a pandemic that is unprecedented in its global reach and impact.

When the pandemic first struck, people in a modern society were brought down to a level where we were purely focussed on basic necessities and survival. Around the world, there was a mad rush at grocery stores and supermarkets, and shelves were wiped clean of eggs, instant noodles, and even toilet paper. Governments had to step in to put limits on food and paper product purchases, and to close borders to travellers to contain the spread of the virus but yet work quickly improve supply chain efficiencies to allow trade to continue.

The main saving grace was that technology has advanced since the days of SARS, and in the last two decades, businesses and governments have been evolving to embrace digital technology. This made it faster for governments to roll out mobile phone updates to their citizens via Whatsapp and Telegram, and to implement measures for contact tracing.

On the commercial end, the adoption of digital technology has been especially high in the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) segment, where prior to the pandemic, shopping and buying online had already become a norm for Millennials and the Gen-Z individuals. In this case, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of E-Commerce compelling the Gen-Xers and baby boomers to start shopping online, interacting on social media, and even ordering food delivery to their homes as people were forced to stay home to avoid contracting the virus.

Jokes started circulating online, that it is not the CTO, CIO, or CEO but COVID-19 that has driven the adoption of digital technology in their companies. In countries like Singapore, the government encourages and provides both technical and financial assistance to Small-and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in retail and F&B to help them transform.

However, we also realised that the Business-to-Business (B2B) sector wasn’t digitally ready for the pandemic. Trading companies importing seafood and meat, logistics companies that handle freight, and even manufacturing businesses invested most of their IT budgets into productivity tools such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and did little to re-invent their businesses to market themselves online.

For these businesses, deals are usually made over a glass of wine or at a golf course, after which, hundreds of manhours are put in by various staff members to follow up on the paperwork, operations, and actual logistics.

While E-Commerce for the B2C sector has advanced quickly with easily traceable shipments and fast last mile deliveries, digitalisation of the B2B sector is lagging behind due to the complexities of legalities (customs documents and permits) as well as arrangements with various logistics, supply chain, insurance, and financing partners that help ensure fast, safe, and cost-effective deliveries.
A typical B2B transaction involves about 20 to 30 different stakeholders in the supply chain, and ironically, all these interactions still involve the heavy use of paper documents. Getting these stakeholders on board a single digital platform brings concerns such as data privacy and data sovereignty, harmonisation of processes, and lack of data standards and the lack of the supporting legal frameworks for documents such as electronic Bills of Lading (eBL) are still not widely adopted or legally accepted in many jurisdictions.

However, on the brighter side, the B2B technology development and adoption has also accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the implementation of Blockchain technology in supply chain industry applications to ensure secure data exchange, transfer of titles, digital certificates, and fraud prevention. Apart from Blockchain, sensors, and Internet of Things (IoT) are readily available technologies that will improve efficiencies and traceability across the supply chain.

Many B2B businesses are starting to invest in some of these technologies, that will make them more resilient to future pandemics. Hopefully, we will soon see a seafood trader able to negotiate and order containers of cod fish, arrange delivery from the port in Busan to his warehouse in Singapore, having his cargo insured, and also acquire financing from a bank for his shipment, all with just the click of a button.

A disruptor and a game changer for many—COVID-19 has opened our eyes to how ill-equipped we all are to face a pandemic that is unprecedented in its global reach and impact.

When the pandemic first struck, people in a modern society were brought down to a level where we were purely focussed on basic necessities and survival. Around the world, there was a mad rush at grocery stores and supermarkets, and shelves were wiped clean of eggs, instant noodles, and even toilet paper. Governments had to step in to put limits on food and paper product purchases, and to close borders to travellers to contain the spread of the virus but yet work quickly improve supply chain efficiencies to allow trade to continue.

The main saving grace was that technology has advanced since the days of SARS, and in the last two decades, businesses and governments have been evolving to embrace digital technology. This made it faster for governments to roll out mobile phone updates to their citizens via Whatsapp and Telegram, and to implement measures for contact tracing.

On the commercial end, the adoption of digital technology has been especially high in the Business-to-Consumer (B2C) segment, where prior to the pandemic, shopping and buying online had already become a norm for Millennials and the Gen-Z individuals. In this case, COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of E-Commerce compelling the Gen-Xers and baby boomers to start shopping online, interacting on social media, and even ordering food delivery to their homes as people were forced to stay home to avoid contracting the virus.

Jokes started circulating online, that it is not the CTO, CIO, or CEO but COVID-19 that has driven the adoption of digital technology in their companies. In countries like Singapore, the government encourages and provides both technical and financial assistance to Small-and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in retail and F&B to help them transform.

However, we also realised that the Business-to-Business (B2B) sector wasn’t digitally ready for the pandemic. Trading companies importing seafood and meat, logistics companies that handle freight, and even manufacturing businesses invested most of their IT budgets into productivity tools such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and did little to re-invent their businesses to market themselves online.

For these businesses, deals are usually made over a glass of wine or at a golf course, after which, hundreds of manhours are put in by various staff members to follow up on the paperwork, operations, and actual logistics.

While E-Commerce for the B2C sector has advanced quickly with easily traceable shipments and fast last mile deliveries, digitalisation of the B2B sector is lagging behind due to the complexities of legalities (customs documents and permits) as well as arrangements with various logistics, supply chain, insurance, and financing partners that help ensure fast, safe, and cost-effective deliveries.
A typical B2B transaction involves about 20 to 30 different stakeholders in the supply chain, and ironically, all these interactions still involve the heavy use of paper documents. Getting these stakeholders on board a single digital platform brings concerns such as data privacy and data sovereignty, harmonisation of processes, and lack of data standards and the lack of the supporting legal frameworks for documents such as electronic Bills of Lading (eBL) are still not widely adopted or legally accepted in many jurisdictions.

However, on the brighter side, the B2B technology development and adoption has also accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the implementation of Blockchain technology in supply chain industry applications to ensure secure data exchange, transfer of titles, digital certificates, and fraud prevention. Apart from Blockchain, sensors, and Internet of Things (IoT) are readily available technologies that will improve efficiencies and traceability across the supply chain.

Many B2B businesses are starting to invest in some of these technologies, that will make them more resilient to future pandemics. Hopefully, we will soon see a seafood trader able to negotiate and order containers of cod fish, arrange delivery from the port in Busan to his warehouse in Singapore, having his cargo insured, and also acquire financing from a bank for his shipment, all with just the click of a button.


About the Author

Desmond Tay is the CEO of GUUD, a business that aspires to use technology to make global trade accessible for anyone and everyone. He starts all his days with an insatiable curiosity, a drive to learn, and a vision to make the world a better place to live in.


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