You won't be breaking rocks, but you will be learning to see the world differently

One of the most intimidating aspects of information technology is that it's always changing. If you're like most fleet managers, you've been working hard just to keep up with changes in trucking's information tools. There's always something new to read or another conference to attend, but chances are by now you've acquired a good understanding of current fleet management systems and their various components. Unfortunately, that probably isn't good enough anymore.

Most commercial trucking businesses move goods of one type or another. Just as information technology has brought major productivity gains to both private and for-hire fleets, the people whose goods they haul have also turned to new information-based systems to find similar efficiencies. It's taken awhile to gain momentum, but supply chain logistics is beginning to fundamentally alter the way companies obtain, make, market, distribute, and sell goods.

You've probably heard the term many times, and maybe even investigated broadening your fleet's operations to include "logistics services." Most fleet operators, however, have a "truckingcentric" view of the supply chain. The movement of goods looms large in their eyes, and the rest of the process is seen in terms of transportation problems and solutions.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the major developers of supply chain management systems, and unless you spend a good deal of time in a manufacturing environment, I have some unpleasant news for you.

These are massive systems that seek to give their users complete control over every aspect of bringing goods to market. However, most of them don't understand trucking very well. As sophisticated as they may be about inventory management or order forecasting, their transportation application is essentially a bid management tool. In their eyes, transportation is a small link in the chain, a commodity that's managed for lowest cost whether it's an in-house fleet, a contract supplier, or a spot-market transaction.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn't it? It doesn't have to be, though, if you can move beyond the complexities of fleet management technology and begin to understand the information systems that are driving your customers.

Supply chain systems demand large amounts of detailed, timely information. Without the right data, they're useless. In the supply chain world, it doesn't much matter if you're a corporate fleet, a contract carrier, or someone looking for a backhaul. These systems may approach trucking as a commodity, but they also have to rely on carriers to provide a significant portion of the data they need to run properly. The most valuable carrier will be the one that best provides the right data.

That's not an insignificant task. As I said before, these are complex systems. But most of them use modular designs and offer a variety of standard interfaces that allow suppliers of all types to link up with the rest of the chain. You just need to talk their language.

In general terms, that means learning to see trucking through the eyes of the supply chain manager. More specifically, you have to learn all you can about your customers' plans and expectations for supply chain logistics. And you thought you'd finally caught up with technology.