Informatics Firms and Information Supply Chains
One of the most revolutionary steps in the evolution of manufacturing has been the emergence of sophisticated supply chains. To understand them, first imagine how a person or a firm could create a new product by gathering raw materials and making all the parts themselves. Then imagine how pieces of that process are picked up by others who specialize in various ingredients that go into creating the finished products, such as raw materials providers, tools makers, and (eventually) component manufacturers who create standardized subsets of a product that can be assembled by multiple downstream firms to produce different end products.
Over time the raw materials become more refined (planed lumber instead of timber, jet fuel instead of crude oil, steel instead of iron), and the refiners may in fact be separate companies in the supply chain who take in raw materials and output refined materials, perhaps in several steps by several companies. Over time, tools become more sophisticated and specialized, consuming materials and tools from their own supply chains. Components become increasingly complex and comprehensive (producing larger assemblages), again consuming materials, tools, and possibly sub-components from upstream. With this evolution, manufacturing supply chains have become exceedingly sophisticated and complex, with literally thousands of companies working together to build a car, for example.
One of the key innovations needed to allow this is standards. Thanks to accepted and widely used industry standards, a screw firm can specialize in making screws for a large number of downstream firms, without each screw being a bespoke project. That specialization/focus, and the automation that’s possible when manufacturing standardized components, drives economies of scale and advances in efficiency.
Along with physical goods, supply chains eventually also come to encompass value-added services, such as consulting, metrics gathering, supplier ratings, etc. A special kind of service provider associated with supply chains is the Logistics company. The Wikipedia definition of supply-chain logistics explains that “logistics is the management of the flow of things between the point of origin and the point of consumption in order to meet requirements of customers”. Logistics firms help companies orchestrate, implement, and operate their complex supply chains. They generally work with a network of suppliers that they can bring to bear when helping a firm set up a supply chain. And they have the skills and tools to make sure that the supply chains are operating smoothly, which in the physical goods world frequently involves planning and arranging efficient transportation and storage.
In information intensive industries, such as financial services, processing information to drive valuable insights is the core “manufacturing process”. For example, financial firms of all kinds—banks, hedge funds, research houses, private equity firms, insurance companies, etc.—all take in relevant information about the world, process and perform analysis on that information, drive insights, and take action on those insights. That action can take many forms—make a loan, place a trade, rebalance a portfolio, pitch a client, author a research report, buy a company, underwrite a policy, etc, depending on the type of firm—but all firms have at their core that critical process of gathering information and performing analysis to drive insight.
Over time, the range of information that firms utilize in this core process has grown in volume, velocity, and variety. As such, firms have started to move beyond simply collecting raw material (data), to thinking about their information supply chains, an evolution that closely mirrors what we have seen in manufacturing industries. We are witnessing rapid evolution in the tools that are available to companies to process and analyze data. And a large variety of suppliers, in the form of ‘alternative’ data vendors, have sprung up to meet the ever-expanding needs of financial firms to feed their insight generation processes. One interesting feature of information supply chains is that they may be looping, meaning company A may produce some data (perhaps exhaust from a trading system), feed it to one or more refiners, aggregators, or derived-data producers, who then feed their output back to company A to use in their analytics.
These information supply chains are getting more complex and thus harder to manage, yet—to date—financial firms have generally managed them themselves. This has led to inefficiencies and redundancies across the industry. Every firm has had to become at least basically competent in data management, many have built some form of in-house platform (some well, some poorly) to help manage their data flows. And we are left with a situation where hundreds (in some cases thousands) of firms are wiring up to the same sources of data, downloading the same data, storing the same data, cleaning the same data, mapping the same data etc, independently, redundantly, with no economies of scale.
Just as Logistics firms arose to help manufacturing firms manage their increasingly complex and burdensome supply chains, a new type of firm—Informatics firms—are an inevitable evolution of the market to help companies manage their information supply chains. Informatics firms help companies discover relevant sources of data and help them evaluate that data for fitness to the needs of the firm. They implement and operate the data processing pipelines that are needed to get the information from the supplier to the customer, while validating, cleaning, transforming, mapping, and enriching the data along the way (what we might call Data Engineering) so that it arrives at the customer in a form that is immediately actionable, meaning a firm can do something with it that is pertinent for their business (what we might call Data Science), as is, without requiring further refinement. With a supply chain mentality, Informatics firms pull in the right tools and partners to get the job done.
In effect, Informatics firms ‘manage the flow of information between the point of origin and the point of consumption in order to meet requirements of customers’. Informatics firms can bring economies of scale to the industry by wiring up to a specific source of data once, storing that data once, cleaning that data once, mapping that data once, on behalf of many clients, who can share the costs of those things rather than bearing them independently and redundantly. Informatics firms can also help with the broad implementation of industry standards, which allows for more automation and greater efficiency for everyone.
Firms in information-driven industries, such as financial services, need to think of their core data and analytics workflow as their ‘manufacturing’ process and they need to think about the content that feeds that process as their critical supply chain. As they do so, Informatics firms can help them orchestrate, implement, and operate those supply chains more effectively and efficiently.