When businesses sneeze or even succumb to the sniffles, they render trading partners vulnerable to catching a cold. Just ask procurement professionals about the congestion that has ailed business-to-business commerce ever since the onset of the pandemic and its viral variants.

First a runny nose sets in with your source of raw materials, then a sore throat grabs hold of your logistics partner, and pretty soon entire industries grapple with fragmented supply chains, logjammed seaports, and mismatched labor markets. But what if the human respiratory system’s own natural defenses point the way toward remedying afflicted supply chains? What can the humble sneeze or cough teach us about restoring systemic resilience at a time when an airborne contagion disrupts not only the flow of oxygen but that of global commerce as well?

Some analysts fault the modern supply chain for its length, sometimes crisscrossing oceans from sourcing to processing to manufacturing to shipping. Others say its weakness lies in its complexity. But consider the average pair of lungs, whose airways exceed 2,400 kilometers in total length and whose surface area surpasses that of a tennis court. Lungs, after all, contain a vast network of 480 million air sacs, also called alveoli. Clearly, length and complexity alone, which characterize even the healthiest lungs, fall short of explaining pulmonary dysfunction. Difficulties with breathing, not unlike those with supply chains, tend to arise from external factors. The culprit may be a wayward dust particle. Or it could be the outbreak of war that throws off established patterns of commerce between buyers and suppliers.

Nature’s response to obstruction is the sneeze or the cough, a remarkably efficient reflex to cleanse respiratory passageways. Hair-like receptors trigger the medulla, located in the brain, to expel the irritant with a forceful thrust of air. After the perfunctory “Bless you!” from courteous passersby, all is well! The body’s processes for regulating the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen return to normal.

In contrast, nature holds little recourse for clogged supply chains. Organizations instead rely on cloud-based business networks. When uncertainty looms over the sourcing of critical materials or volatility undermines the demand for goods and services, businesses turn increasingly to integrated digital platforms to gain visibility into the interconnected operations of trading partners – spanning procurement, supply chain, logistics, and asset maintenance. Serving as a central nervous system for these and other core business processes, cloud-based networks lend organizations the data-driven insights they need to anticipate backed-up supply chains or logistics pathways – and to decongest them.

Unfortunately for many businesses, by the time congestion sets in, relief can be hard to come by. They are lacking a fast and effective reflex to the situation. But other firms are well prepared since they adopted the cloud-based solutions necessary to counter disruption, instill resilience, and mitigate risk. Only with the aid of 360-degree visibility both within an organization’s four walls and beyond them can it collaborate with trading partners, achieve mutually beneficial sustainability objectives, and lay the foundation for new digital ecosystems within which partner relationships thrive and customer value accelerates.

As cloud-based networks yield actionable insights from massive troves of operational data connecting organizations with their trading partners, they increasingly look toward autonomous functionality – not unlike the brain signals responsible for triggering the familiar sneeze or cough. When businesses automate previously manual procurement and supply chain processes, they free up their professionals to redirect their time and talents to more strategic pursuits, such as collaborating with customers, shoring up partner relationships, and fostering joint innovation.

Where are integrated digital business networks headed in the future? Toward systems that can carry out end-to-end operational processes within guidelines set and supervised by humans. These cloud-based solutions are bringing organizations closer to an era of automated decision support, in which digital transformation helps to prevent businesses from coughing, sneezing, or even coming down with the hiccups – long before contagion can take root.

Through integrated digital networks and the competitive advantage they extend, businesses and their trading partners can, despite the headwinds of ongoing disruption, breathe easier.

Andreas Heckmann is executive vice president of Product Engineering and head of Customer Solution Support & Innovation at SAP.