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Making the Case for Humanitarian Supply Chain Management

Have you ever tried to manage a cold chain for medicine in a region with temperatures about 40° degrees? A region with no roads, an unclear situation after several earthquakes, an unstable political situation and you will have to work for the first time with many very different organizations to deliver the goods. By the way the medicine comes from all over the world… And have you thought about where you get the gas from when there is no map of gas stations and potentially many different suppliers? Of course, not everything can be planned ahead, further earthquakes may strike or people requiring medicine can be brought to new locations.

You think this is impossible to manage? This is one of the typical tasks of humanitarian aid organizations that help people all over the world….

Clearly, this domain is a somewhat extreme example for supply chain management, but we believe it is worth to research the problems related to information system support in this challenging scenario. Research in this domain can also bring benefits to typical enterprise supply chains from a management and technology perspective, given the fact that supply chains in business networks need to become more and more agile as well as flexible.

We present in this blog a challenging case for supply chain management and its information system support: humanitarian aid in sudden on-set disasters. We discuss solutions from a management [5-7] and information system support perspective [2-4]. We present first ideas for integrating them [1]. More particularly, we discuss from a management perspective the use of reference process models and tool support for dynamic ad-hoc processes from an information system perspective. We propose a process-based approach. In such an approach, the activities and their relations are made explicit to the stakeholders. It is clear for every stakeholder what has been done, what is currently going on and what can be done next. The activities are coordinated by humans based on their judgment of the complex situation.

Reference Process Models for Humanitarian Supply Chain Management / Business Process Library

Reference process models represent in our case generalized practices of humanitarian supply chain operations. They are based on extensive interviews and empirical studies with leading humanitarian aid organizations (e.g. Worldvision or MSF) [5]. You can compare a reference process model with a Business Process Library (BPL), where you can look for typical process, select the one you need, adapt and execute it. Of course, accountability and responsibilities can be defined according to a RACI Matrix [9].

We provide in the following figure an example process taken from the reference model described by [1].

 Humanitarian Supply Chain Process: Needs Assessment

Ad-Hoc Coordination of Activities Driven By Humans in Dynamic Situations

However, current information systems used by humanitarian aid organizations or disaster response organizations have some limitations with respect to coordination [2]. All information about activities and their relations can be found in a large pile of unrelated e-mails, phone exchanges or faxes. Information about currently executed activities can be found partially also on whiteboards. The next steps can be found in incident action plans. Every time something new is happening, this information needs to be related again from scratch. Contemporary process management tools focus on operational business processes with few predictable exception – obviously this is not the case in our scenario. Tool support is thus desired that allow modeling correctly the activities and their relations (what has been done, what is currently going on and what can be done next). Contrary to existing process management systems, the process cannot be fully specified in advance and is subject to continuous change. In fact, the processes evolves with the situation. Monitoring deviations from the process need to be visualized to the users to highlight shifting goals that lead to reassessment of activities and their relations. Some activities need to be related cross-organizations. For example, one organization can be responsible for deploying emergency teams and another organization performs a need assessment (cf. previous figure).  This is supported by our system by sharing selected activities among organizations and each organization can define relations between shared and internal activities. Consequently, the system needs to ensure correctness of the model of activities and relations cross organizations. Furthermore, it is crucial that deviations from the model and how shared activities have been executed are highlighted to every relevant stakeholder. It is more likely that deviations occur on the inter-organizational level, because each organization has its own goals and operating procedures. We designed and implemented such a system (see [1,2]).


Integration of these approaches means that (1) the reference process model is used to support a common understanding between different organizations and (2) our tool is used to create a consistent common view as well as coordination support for activities with relations cross organizations [1].

We illustrate a simple example in the following figure (cf. also the previous figure) [1]. Organization A is responsible for deploying an emergency team and for communicating the needs to other organizations. Organization B has its focus on exploratory teams and requesting goods for the people. Both organizations rely on initiating a needs assessment and prioritizing needs. They can be performed by the organization with the best skills in these areas.

 Humanitarian Supply Chain Collaboration: Needs Assessment

Of course, this is just a simple example and we did not show here the dynamics of the situation. For example, organization B might already request some goods without waiting for the needs assessment. This needs to be highlighted to organization A so it can communicate the correct needs to the other organizations. The reference process model can thus be used in our proposed tool [2,5] to deploy and coordinate the process in a dynamic situation, so that every organization knows what has been done, what is currently going on and what can be done next.

We are looking for your comments!

It can be observed that the concepts described here are related to the WS-Human Task Standard [10] and the emerging OMG standard for Case Management [11]. More precisely, we describe also how they can work on the inter-organizational level, where selected shared activities are replicated in the systems managing different related cases.


The following people work on this project at SAP Research FRANCE:



This work results from the collaboration between Public Security, SAP Research FRANCE and the SCORE group at LORIA-INRIA-CNRS of the Université de Lorraine,  Nancy, France. The research was partially funded by means of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the French government.


[1] Franke, Jörn; Widera, Adam; Charoy, François; Hellingrath, Bernd; Ulmer, Cédric: Reference Process Models and Systems for Inter-Organizational Ad-Hoc Coordination – Supply Chain Management in Humanitarian Operations, short paper, 8th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM’2011), Lisbon, Portugal, 8-11 May, 2011.

[2] Franke, Jörn: Coordination of Distributed Activities in Dynamic Situations. The Case of Inter-organizational Crisis Management, PhD Thesis (Computer Science), to be published, LORIA-INRIA-CNRS, Université de Nancy/Université Henri Poincaré, France, 2011.

[3] Franke, Jörn; Charoy, François; El Khoury, Paul: Collaborative Coordination of Activities with Temporal Dependencies, 18th International Conference on Cooperative Information Systems (CoopIS 2010), Heraklion, Créte, Greece, 2010.

[4] Franke, Jörn; Charoy, François; Ulmer, Cédric: Handling Conflicts in Autonomous Coordination of Distributed Collaborative Activities, 20th IEEE International Conference on Collaboration Technologies and Infrastructures (WETICE’2011), Paris, France, 27-29 June, 2011.

[5] Blecken, A. : Humanitarian Logistics: Modelling Supply Chain Processes of Humanitarian Organisations, Haupt Verlag, Stuttgart, 2010.

[6] Tomasini, R., van Wassenhove, L.: Humanitarian Logistics, Palgrave, MacMillan, Basingstoke, 2009.

[7] Tufinkgi, P. : Logistik im Kontext internationaler Katastrophenhilfe : Entwicklung eines logistischen Referenzmodells für Katastrophenfälle, Haupt Verlag, Stuttgart, 2006.

 [8] Schaad, A.; Ulmer, C. & Gomez, L. Rescueit – Sécurisation d’une chaine logistique internationale, Workshop Interdisciplinaire sur la Sécurité Globale, 2010,

[9] Wikipedia, RACI matrix,, retrieved 18.07.2011

[10] Wikipedia, BPEL4People,, retrieved 18.07.2011

[11] OMG, Case Management,, retrieved 18.07.2011

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