The annual meeting of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals is by a long distance the world's best forum for shippers to hear discussion, education, explanation and examination of the most important issues surrounding logistics management and the  2006 edition proved that all over again.

That's why it was especially interesting and instructive to hear so much talk about collaboration at the 2006 meeting in San Antonio. Something of a supply chain buzzword in recent years, collaboration was on the program, which was hardly surprising given the size and scope of the CSCMP educational sessions - rest assured, there's certainly never an inventory shortage of topics and sessions.

But it was in the midst of sessions on other topics, from managing 3PLs to pricing metrics, transportation forecasting and energy costs, where talk of collaboration really stood out, sometimes to be held up as an icon to solve transport and logistics ills and sometimes to be shot down.

For shippers and carriers alike, collaboration was shorthand for the increasingly important discussion on how to drive more productivity and efficiency through supply chains facing myriad challenges. Yet neither shippers nor carriers suggested that collaboration, at least in transportation, was really happening.

Brice Russell, logistics manager at candy maker Mars, says collaboration is part of his company's bid to cut its transportation spending, particularly energy costs. An automatic message to generate a rapid LTL order, he says, may be held back if the same customer has a truckload shipment leaving the next day. "But that takes talking with your customers," he said. "That's all about collaboration. ? We have to train our suppliers to think about energy costs."

But then listen to Barry Mulkay, director of carrier operations and procurement at Pepsico, which spends some $1.5 billion a year on transportation. "Collaboration needs to move faster than it has today," he said. Pepsico works hard to match backhaul to fronthaul on what it calls "power lanes" with heavy traffic. But looking beyond Pepsico's own traffic gets nettlesome, getting the company into areas of gain-sharing with carriers and shippers that may just call for another troublesome negotiation. 

There are load-matching tools, but John N. Roberts, president of J.B. Hunt Dedicated Contract Services, said going beyond single shipments into collaborative territory is easier said than done.

"Trucking networks are inefficient, warehouses are in the wrong place, everyone has empty trucks and half-empty trucks on the road," said Roberts. "So you can fix some of that with talk about collaboration and you can create more efficiency and save money in the overall equation. But then it becomes a talk about who gets the money, whose savings are those? Listening, truly listening to discussions about collaboration is important. But when you get too many people at the table, that's when you have problems."

The audience got into that discussion, and as panelist Chuck Taylor, a logistics consultant, quipped, "We were talking about collaboration, and the first question we got was about rates."