As advances in cloud computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) continue, the ability to connect many manufacturing nodes in a supply chain holds great promise.  However, the one obstacle that can doom any manufacturing supply chain initiative has nothing to do with technology—it is human adoption.

Adoption is the process of accepting and making full use of something new.  Properly planning for and driving high levels of adoption can help make supply chain initiatives wildly successful. Lack of adoption will derail even the most painstakingly planned initiative, causing it to fall short of expected results and cost your company time and money.

The hurdle is not only in motivating your employees, but also in motivating your trading partners and their employees to adopt your manufacturing supply chain solution.  This challenge is magnified, because businesses are typically dealing with hundreds or thousands of trading partners that are geographically dispersed, all with different tools, processes and priorities.  Compounding the challenge is that other companies (including your competitors) are trying to get your trading partners to adopt their supply chain solutions as well.

Successful adoption of manufacturing supply chain solutions requires the application of lessons learned from diffusion research (the study of how innovations are accepted and adopted over time) and applied marketing.  One tool that is typically not acceptable in this situation is using “the stick,” or any means of threats or intimidation.  The last thing you want to do is anger or alienate your trading partners—especially customers.

Understanding Adoption

The three key elements that must be addressed to drive adoption are motivation, change and aggravation.  Adoption is achieved by creating enough motivation to outweigh any change and aggravation that may be imposed.  Understanding these elements and incorporating those insights into your solution and its deployment are crucial for success.


Success requires that you create value for companies as well as individuals.  The reason is that while a senior executive whose compensation is tied to company performance may be most interested in what would benefit the company, non-executives are typically more motivated by personal value than corporate value.  This is an important distinction, because those individuals can easily torpedo your efforts.

Typical motivation for companies to participate in supply chain solutions involves reducing time or costs.  Typical motivation for individuals includes reducing their time and effort or making them look good.  While these sometimes overlap, one is usually stronger than the other.  Your challenge is to understand the different motivators so that you can choose the strongest for each audience.


Change barriers typically come in two forms—fear and behavior.  For companies, fear may involve channel disruptions, loss of profit margin or loss of competitive advantage.  Individuals often fear loss of their jobs, a reduction in compensation or even a loss of perks from the buyer/supplier relationships they’ve cultivated over the years.

Behavioral issues for companies can be deep-seated, often driven by the culture and processes that presumably helped the company achieve its success.  For individuals, the issues are often more obvious, such as being jostled from their comfort zone or being reluctant to take on any additional burden.

Whether rooted in fear or behavior, the hurdles of change will weigh heavily on adoption of any supply chain initiative.  Trying to impose significant or sudden change on your trading partners and their employees will yield considerable resistance.  Not only could that cost your company money, it also could damage valuable trading relationships.


The aggravation from a poor experience with your solution can be particularly damaging. Once the perception is set, it’s often hard to reverse.  That’s why it is so important to understand the issues before implementation so that you get it right on the first try.

Typical sources of such aggravation include excessive back-end integration, poor ease-of-use or lack of support.  A key challenge when dealing with multiple companies in complex manufacturing supply chains is that the perception of ease-of-use will vary from company to company due to different tools and processes.  The ideal supply chain solution will be flexible enough to accommodate those differences, with ample support to smooth over any wrinkles.

Driving adoption

The first step in driving adoption is to identify the issues that impact the three elements above for each of your targeted participants, which is easier said than done.  One key to unearthing the most valuable insights for these elements is to conduct qualitative and quantitative marketing research similar to what is done in the consumer world.  This is not simply polling your target audience to ask what they want in their supply chain solution, but rather observing and exploring how the audience works today.  Targeted audience insights may cover areas such as:

  • What is their greatest challenge that, if solved, would create the greatest value?
  • What tools and processes do they use, and how?
  • What has been their experience with the implementation of previous solutions?

Insights into the elements of motivation, change and aggravation all must then be encompassed in a comprehensive adoption blueprint.  Among other things, this blueprint should define the entire “onboarding” process and prioritize your target audience.  The blueprint should include customized communications that will clearly articulate the value in participating for companies and individuals in your target audience.  These messages need to be repeated before, during and after implementation to reinforce the reasons for your audience to embrace your solution.

First, try the adoption blueprint with a few “friendly” trading partners to work out any issues and to get honest feedback.  Since one of the greatest drivers of adoption is peer influence, these early adopters will become some of your greatest assets.  Getting your early adopters to become spokespeople in your online and printed materials, at trade shows and even in the field with other participants will help your efforts considerably.


There is an increasing effort to connect manufacturing supply chain participants across multiple tiers, from the OEM to the small precision machine shop.  While technologies such as cloud computing and SaaS are making those connections easier, human adoption is still a challenge.  Companies that drive the greatest adoption of their solutions will reap the greatest rewards.



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