Last week, I was briefed by Sterling Commerce on their software-as-a-service TMS. The main focus of the briefing was their new optimization capabilities, powered by ILOG’s Transport PowerOps (TPO) solution. According to Sterling, TPO offers improved capabilities over their previous optimization solution, including faster processing speed, multi-modal capabilities (including parcel), and improved route planning functionality. It’s also easier to use, thanks to an improved user interface that allows users to set up rates, transit times, and other parameters without having to delve into the complex math behind the scenes. Based on the demo I was given, I would say Sterling is heading in the right direction.
As I reflect on this briefing, and others I’ve had recently from other TMS vendors, a few trends come into focus:
- Software-as-a-Service TMS vendors continue to strengthen their planning/optimization capabilities. As I wrote back in November, most SaaS TMS vendors came into existence during the dotcom era. The problem with “legacy” TMS applications at the time was that they were great at optimization, but poor at execution. Saas TMS vendors filled this void, leveraging the Internet and Web technologies to streamline and automate shipment tendering, booking, track and trace, freight audit and payment, and other execution processes. Over the past few years, SaaS TMS vendors have been adding optimization capabilities and, as evidenced by Sterling, these capabilities continue to improve.
- You can make optimization solutions easier to use, but it’s still not easy. There’s no such thing as a “plug-and-play” optimization solution. It takes time to set up and fine tune an optimizer so that it accurately reflects your transportation operations. And since your operations change over time, you need to continuously fine tune the optimizer, otherwise the quality of the output degrades and you’ll end up thinking the solution is “broken” and stop using it. Historically, most TMS vendors have dropped the ball when it comes to helping clients “tune up” their optimization setups after the initial implementation. Some boutique consulting firms are filling this void, like Chainalytics with its Transportation Management Systems Value Assurance service. But I think TMS vendors should include annual or bi-annual “optimizer tune-ups” as part of their maintenance package.
- Usability is the next frontier for competitive differentiation. Several vendors, including Manhattan Associates and JDA Software, have engaged with “human factors” firms, such as Human Factors International, to improve the usability of their TMS solutions (and other applications too). The main objective is not just to improve the “look and feel” of the user interface, but to layout the application screens and the information displayed in a way that maximizes productivity and streamlines workflows. Having to click ten times and open three windows to accomplish a task is a common complaint I hear from logistics software users. The ability for a transportation planner or dispatcher to perform their daily tasks from a single screen, by replacing multiple clicks and windows with, for example, “drag and drop” capabilities, is part of the goal.
The bottom line: If you haven’t looked at your TMS setup since the day it was implemented, it’s time to schedule a tune-up. And if you’re tired of clicking across multiple screens to accomplish your daily tasks, let your TMS vendor know it’s time for a usability facelift.