Much has been made of technology’s disruptive impact on media and communication, shopping, transportation, and a host of other industries in this young century. But behind the scenes, important shifts are taking place that are equally impactful but attract relatively little notice. They relate to automated, customisable production methods as well as increased efficiency in logistics, leading to a significant knock-on effect of improved customer service.
The convenience of intelligent automation removes much of the administrative burden that had been a primary focus for supply managers until very recently. Rather than sorting goods and managing transportation connections, supply chain managers can now leave these key processes to computers, focusing more of their own attention on ancillary tasks such as offering flexible, personalised service to customers. But each new improvement only raises the bar for quality, ensuring that both customers and competitors will adapt their service goals and expectations accordingly.
These are some of the findings of a recent CAPS Research study which surveyed over 100 senior supply chain managers on the topic of current and future trends in their industry. While few would attempt to predict precisely what changes are in store for supply professionals, many agreed that technological upgrades would improve general efficiency while providing an effective safeguard against supply disruption, and that a renewed focus on providing excellent customer service would be a recurring theme. My own discussions with those in the industry have run along similar lines.
Beyond the technical fluency required to keep modern systems moving, supply chain managers of the future will likely be called upon to harmonise processes both within, and adjacent to, their traditional area of oversight. In practice this means integrating upstream and downstream processes related to strategy, cost, and quality. This expanded role requires an understanding of the wider strategy of the organisation, together with skill and experience in prioritising related tasks.
The expanded set of responsibilities outlined above helps resolve an apparent paradox highlighted by logistics analyst Kevin O’Marah, who wrote: “Automation in plants, fulfilment centres, and areas like procurement, production planning and maintenance is eliminating jobs. And yet overall hiring continues to rise and senior leaders say that finding and hiring the right talent is harder than ever.”
As computers help simplify some elements of supply chain management, new requirements emerge – although these can require higher-order skillsets that go beyond traditional roles. O’Marah envisions four possible new functions that future supply chain managers may need to fill in the coming years:
Commercial troubleshooter – A specialist in balancing and prioritising supply-related tasks for maximum commercial impact.
Customisation master – A production expert, working with robots to produce individually-tailored products made to order.
Customer satisfaction director – A packaging and delivery manager, dealing directly with customers to ensure quality at the consumer end of the supply chain.
Resource czar – An expert in sustainability, refining corporate processes to improve speed and efficiency in operations.
These types of roles will likely change in subtle ways as businesses, customers, and governments adapt to the possibilities offered by new technological advances. As examples, however, they illustrate the directions we should be looking in response to the disruptive impact of new technology on the management of supply chains.
The common thread with all foreseeable role adjustments is a facility with new technology, together with the receptiveness to change that such a skill implies. Tomorrow’s supply chain managers will still need the same personality characteristics that define success today – such as being proactive, diligent, and good at problem-solving – but with new specialisations that combine supply chain management with the overall vision and strategy of the company as a whole. Indeed, I have already begun to see an increased demand for supply chain managers with these characteristics.
These behind-the-scenes improvements will lead to a world where quality products and materials are more readily available for people who need them. Each new supply process will be almost invisible to ordinary people, but will make life more convenient for society at large – just the way it was meant to be.