Galvanised by the mounting pressures of internationalisation, business model hybridisation and increasing supply chain complexity, fashion organisations of all shapes and sizes are hurriedly turning to product lifecycle management (PLM) solutions.

 

In the past decade, economic shifts and the escalating pace of consumer-led change have transformed the fashion industry itself. The rise of e-commerce Omni-channel and the blistering pace set by fast fashion, the surge in fast fashion, the experience-led shift from internationalisation to localisation - these are just some of the revolutions and behavioural shifts that have upset the status quo of fashion - an industry that, perhaps more than any other has become characterised by change.

 

In short, although PLM adoption continues apace, with between 19 per cent and 25 per cent growth predicted year-on-year until 2018, the needs driving a modern brand or retailer to seek out a solution are often dramatically different from those of PLM's early trailblazers. Despite these complex, compound changes in the context, creation and consumption of fashion, the criteria used to choose and implement PLM have remained comparatively static.

 

A significant majority of PLM projects undertaken to date - many of them in recent years - have adhered to a software-first approach, prioritising the oft-cited "go live" above other, equally important considerations.

 

For early adopters, this approach made sense. At the turn of the millennium, very few vendors offered solutions tailored for fashion businesses, and the selection and implementation of business systems was seen as the preserve of Information Technology departments alone. Coupled with the fact that the software itself was typically what analysts refer to as a "toolbox" - a loose framework on which extensive bespoke development was hung - it's easy to see why historical PLM projects placed software on such a pedestal.

 

Today, the software-first mind set is not only outdated, but can in many cases be actively harmful to the true strategic potential of a modern PLM project -failing as it does to take into account the sheer scope of introspection, qualitative evaluation, and change management that underpin the most successful modern PLM projects.

 

Indeed, according to analyst data, the subjective success of PLM on the whole- measured by survey respondents' assessment of the value realised from PLM-driven process efficiencies - fell 18 per cent from 2013 to 2014, the most recent periods for which data is available.

 

This shortfall in satisfaction can't be accounted for by any regression in the capabilities of the solutions themselves; insight from the same analysts reveals that most PLM products are significantly more functional and comprehensive today than even five years ago.

 

Instead, increased complexity of fashion industry business models and the volume of vendors who sell solutions to that market have conspired to undermine traditional selection approaches. Evidence reveals that a significant proportion (32 per cent in 2013, and 22 per cent in 2014) of PLM project teams continue to buy PLM "off-plan", without factoring into their decision making processes how the software will address their specific challenges, or how their chosen vendor will accommodate their requirements.

 

The results of this reductive, software first approach to selection can be felt at all stages of the PLM project, affecting everything from hardware costs to end user satisfaction, and increasing the incidence of incorrect fit - not just for products and their consumers, but for brands and their software providers in all walks of the fashion industry.

 

In response, a growing number of brands, vendors and advisors have pioneered more modern methods of PLM selection - tailored approaches that take a step beyond software to consider the more personal aspects of finding your PLM partner.

 

Today, more than forty different vendors compete for a foothold in a market worth almost $400 million worldwide.

 

The traditional approach to shopping a PLM solution involves scanning the market and pairing down to a short list of vendors for further evaluation such as RFI/RFP usually based on functionality and technical IT criteria.

 

Almost 20 per cent of project teams surveyed in 2014 revealing that their chosen vendor had subsequently failed to demonstrate the level of experience they'd initially sought. Whether it's challenging vendor demonstration teams or speaking with their existing fashion industry customers (something less than half of project teams currently do) the modern approach asks project teams to build the broadest possible understanding of two businesses: their own and their prospective partners.

 

Recently, however, more than 80 per cent of prospective PLM customers worldwide list apparel or footwear specific processes and expertise as one of the foremost criteria that would influence their choice of partner.

 

This change has been driven by a growing understanding of the importance in linking functionality and industry specificities; thus the difference of a fashion specific approach makes.

 

The changes needed in the fashion business should translate into more rigorous and expanded evaluation methods when it comes to shortlisting prospective partners. Brands, analysts and forward-thinking vendors have begun to embrace a set of common reference points that can serve as a template for any project team looking to evolve their evaluation methods:

 

- Examine any prospective vendors' customer history. Try to discover how implementation times and costs are estimated in order to understand potential hidden cost and delay.

 

- Verify that your prospective partner has an experienced pool of professional services, demonstration and implementation experts available in your time zone.

 

- Query the potential partner on integration. PLM does not exist in isolation. Integrations to ERP, CAD and other solutions are common, and the right partner will be happy to assume their place in your expanded vision.

 

- Seek independent verification. In an industry where analysts agree that the solutions offered by the most successful providers have begun to approach feature parity, the most forward-thinking vendors are volunteering their solutions for objective assessment, allowing impartial analysts to compare and contrast their competencies against a composite industry average.

 

With PLM's newfound recognition as a whole-business initiative, also comes an additional scrutiny from executives and project teams. A modern approach to selection therefore entails a heightened degree of diligence, and project teams and analysts are encouraged to examine annual reports not just for fiscal reassurance, but to gain a clear picture of any potential partner's perspectives on the future of fashion. The modern selection approach asks brands and retailers to assess the fit between their long-term business goals and their partner's strategic roadmap.

 

The historical role of the PLM project team has been to demonstrate objectively to the executive board why greater efficiencies and a more potent return on investment can be found in one solution rather than another, and to go no further. Today though, a modern PLM selection is both an objective, scientific exercise, and a uniquely personal quest, driven by your business' essential DNA and a confluence of immediate challenges and long-term strategic goals.

 

There is an exhaustive cataloguing and re-use of data pertaining to every stage of a garment's transition from design to delivery. Collaboration and integrity of vision from fit to marketing. These processes are all indicative of the true reach of a modern PLM partnership: facets of fashion that can be supported and enhanced by the right software, but cannot be delegated to software alone.

 

Thinking in these terms - with software as just the foundation of a much grander design - is the key to stepping beyond the confines of traditional selection and finding a PLM vendor whose integrity, stability, technical competence, values and overall vision all meet your unique needs.

 

Where feature checklists once revealed yawning gulfs between solutions, making selection comparatively straightforward, today's most productive PLM partnerships are built on subtler but no less concrete foundations. Building on the foundations of software development, these qualitative aspects represent the difference between simply finding a PLM product and finding a PLM partner.