By Ralph Windsor
Digital Asset Supply Chains have become a hot topic in the last few years. While there has been comparatively little innovation in the core functionality of Digital Asset Management (DAM) software, one big change is the range and scope of integration with other solutions taking place.
Integration requirements are becoming a key component of many enterprise DAM initiatives because either the raw materials that are required for digital assets or the finished assets themselves need to be received from or sent to a multitude of different sources and destinations. In this article I am going to explain the theory behind them and offer some guidance about how to apply this in practice.
What is a Supply Chain?
Supply Chain Management is an established operations management concept which has been widely used and applied for almost forty years, especially in logistics, manufacturing and a number of other sectors also. So what exactly is a supply chain? In simple terms, it is a network of connections or nodes between an organisation and its suppliers. Each of these nodes are steps or processes which transform raw materials into a product a customer uses. These may be external organisations or potentially internal business units which are managed independently.
Value vs Bottlenecks
Central to supply chains is the concept of value. Each node adds or contributes a certain amount of value to the finished product. These activities, however, also create bottlenecks as a side-effect, further, the processes that add the most value will tend to also create the largest bottlenecks.
The speed with which raw materials can proceed through all nodes on the supply chain to become finished products is referred to as ‘throughput’ in supply chain terminology.
Supply Chain Management
One of the core objectives of Supply Chain Management is to increase the value created while minimising the bottlenecks that slow down overall throughput. Some high value processes can potentially be quite inefficient and this presents an opportunity to reduce a bottleneck without significantly affecting value. This translates to bottom-line profit for organisations that are able to successfully apply the principles of efficient supply chains.
Upstream and Downstream
In order to identify the point at which a given process occurs on the supply chain, the terms ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ are used. Upstream means the source of materials that are in the process of being transformed into product. Downstream means the destination where the product will move to next after it leaves the current node.
What Are Digital Asset Supply Chains?
The activities that take place in a conventional or physical supply chain are remarkably similar to the process of how digital assets come into existence. It is common for digital asset users to refer to ‘the asset’ as a synonym for a file containing the media they want to use. It is widely accepted among Digital Asset Managers, however, that digital assets are both the intrinsic binary data (e.g. the pixels in an image) and the metadata that is used to describe and contextualise what a digital asset is and why it might be potentially useful to someone. Metadata is also sometimes referred to as ‘extrinsic value’.
Based on this definition of digital assets, it is easier to understand how a digital asset might be composed of different digital raw materials which are acquired from many different upstream sources and then brought together to create the digital asset inside a DAM system. Increasingly now, upstream integration may take the form of receiving complete digital assets potentially from a dedicated Work-In-Progress DAM , but also from an solution supporting your content buying process – which is (itself) integrated with a wide range of third party content providers. This topic is discussed in greater depth later in the article.
On the downstream side of the equation, the vast majority of DAM systems now have some form of direct integration with digital channels.
In a Digital Asset Supply Chain, upstream sources and downstream destinations can be any or all of:
- Human beings
- External businesses
- Digital marketing channels
- Other software systems
Here are some examples:
- Photographers (images)
- Video production companies (videos)
- Master Data Management Systems (digital asset metadata)
- Artwork approval systems (print artwork files and metadata)
- Another DAM
- Enterprise Content Buying software*
* In some cases, another DAM, or a stock media library integrated with a DAM using an Enterprise Content Buying software might supply a finished digital asset.
- Websites (Web Content Management)
- Mobile apps
- Social Media
- In-Store Displays
- Email marketing
This is one of the major reasons why most of the innovation that has taken place in DAM in recent years has related to integration and how to ingest digital materials as efficiently as possible. Where in the past DAMs may have been treated as ‘content warehouses’, the DAM is now the operational centre of an organisation’s Digital Asset Supply Chain.
One other key point to be aware of with Digital Asset Supply Chains is that occasionally one system might be both upstream and downstream, i.e. they supply digital materials and receive them from the DAM. The flow is not necessarily linear. For example, a PIM (Product Information Management) system might collate product metadata which is used by the DAM, then the DAM may send back the finalised digital asset using a digital image supplied by a photographer.
Implementing Digital Asset Supply Chains
Every organisation that deals with digital assets effectively already has a Digital Asset Supply Chain, but they may not have necessarily have described it in those terms nor thought about how each of the nodes connect up with each other. As such, it is less about implementing a supply chain than it is first formalising and then optimising what already exists.
Mapping The Current Digital Asset Supply Chain
The first important implementation task is to list all the upstream sources of digital materials which flow into a DAM as well as the downstream destinations where digital assets are sent to. See the examples above for some guidance as to what these might be. After the two lists have been produced, the next step is to draw a diagram of how digital materials flow into each other. At the centre of the diagram should be the DAM itself. Everything above this (or which provides materials to the DAM) is considered upstream. Everything below (where digital assets are sent to) is downstream.
Equipped with this information, you should be able to get a complete picture of your current Digital Asset Supply Chain. As part of drawing up this diagram you may be able to see inefficiencies and redundant processes that do not add a lot of value.
One of the key issues to look for when it comes to devising and implementing a new Digital Asset Supply Chain are those activities that are currently carried out with direct human intervention. For example, if a stock image has to be manually downloaded from a content provider’s site and then re-uploaded to the DAM then this is evidently inefficient and presents an opportunity to remove the bottleneck (downloading/uploading) while preserving the value (the ability to use the stock image).
Clearly, not everything can be automated, especially those tasks that depend on a great deal of discretionary judgement by a qualified human being (for example, assessing usage requests for restricted assets). With that said, many of the inefficiencies can be reduced and sometimes removed entirely.
Technology & Digital Asset Supply Chains
The process of streamlining Digital Asset Supply Chains depends heavily on the ability to facilitate automation through direct integration of different nodes with each other and the DAM. This may be achieved via a dedicated connector, using the DAM system’s API or data loaders etc. Discussing the fine detail of technology considerations is outside the scope of this article, however, where the DAM can directly interface with a given upstream or downstream counterparty through the use of dedicated connectors rather than custom implementation, the results are likely to be more robust and easier to manage on an on-going basis.
One of the other key principles of Supply Chain Management (which applies to its digital asset counterpart) is what is referred to as ‘Continuous Improvement’. In simple terms, this means incrementally reducing the friction between supply chain nodes and optimising efficiency where the opportunity presents itself.
Targeting complete automation of everything is unrealistic and will be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve. Continuous Improvement in the context of a Digital Asset Supply Chain means streamlining digital processes where the most advantageous and straightforward to implement opportunities present themselves. In addition, it implies constantly collecting data as well as reviewing supply chains to identify where improvements can be made.
The Relationship between Digital Asset Supply Chains and Enterprise Content Buying software
For those unfamiliar with the Enterprise Content Buying software I wrote an article explaining this concept recently for the Smint.io blog. In simple terms it means being able to directly ingest digital assets from a content provider’s DAM into the organisation’s own digital asset repository. This integration is made possible via the use of a dedicated ECB solution which is designed to integrate a DAM with a number of other third party providers and manage the whole process of procuring and licensing content digital assets. These might be stock media libraries or they could be key partners that an organisation has a close relationship with, for example a marketing agency.
Enterprise Content Buying solutions have a strong relationship with Digital Asset Supply Chains. It is a practical implementation of many of the core concepts of digital supply chains in that it seeks to streamline the integration between two platforms and also generate a body of auditing data which can be used to gain insights about digital asset usage. To the end user, a DAM integrated with content providers using an ECB solution makes the content provider’s digital assets appear as though they are part of the DAM. This is the core objective of optimised Digital Asset Supply Chains – the integration should be as seamless as possible so the capabilities of multiple solutions and suppliers can be aggregated into a single cohesive and holistic experience.
This article has provided an overview of Digital Asset Supply Chains and has hopefully explained the basics of why they are critical to maximising ROI from investments into DAM technology. For DAM end-users, a free six part Digital Asset Supply Chain course is available which goes into far more detail about the concept. Some further resources on the Smint.io site are given below:
Why Enterprise Content Buying Solutions Will Become an Essential Component of Marketing Content Digital Asset Supply Chains