Not just another Supply Chain and Pandemic article

Why I did not write much about Pandemic and its impact on Supply Chains

I can write a response to the question above in many sentences but the short answer to start with is – I hate “Flavor of the month” topics. Ever since pandemic severely disrupted our lives and our Supply Chains, we have milked the sh*t out of it in terms of thought leadership. I can list 100+ articles that cover the same “vaccine Supply Chain” theory, each one written after the previous one. There was no value add in writing the 5th one, let alone the 100th one. Yet, they were written. Why ? Because the most current flavor is Covid vaccine. Everyone works for views, likes, readership. No one wants to put even a toe in the “maverick” zone. Anything that is not conventional will probably not get views, likes or heck- may even lead to career constraints. And the result is- just like the articles, we are also repeating the same mistakes in the business world again and again.

So finally, I did decide to write another article on pandemic (last one was six months ago). But on a topic that is not “the flavor”.

I believe that with all the attention that Supply Chains received (and the subsequent focus on benefits of digital solutions in Supply Chains) has led to a sales feeding frenzy where everyone is trying to market their “digital supply chain” product in the context of the pandemic. So here is my article suggesting few aspects you need to keep in mind when being bombarded with sales pitches during the pandemic.

A. Understanding the Two opposite ends or aspects of Tech advancement

For an assignment for my online MS in AI program, I was training a deep learning model on a cloud GPU most of the day today. The solution controls a tv using hand gestures. My wife, not happy with the fact that I was not helping her with errands asked me what I was up to. I started explaining to her how interesting the project was and soon, we were discussing how advanced algorithms are getting easier to develop. That discussion started with how someone like me, who is not a professional developer or an expert programmer (and probably stupid 😁) can develop something sophisticated like this with ease. The discussion eventually got into the zone of – how analytics and planning tools will evolve rapidly this decade as the technology evolves rapidly (something that I have written extensively about in my LinkedIn posts and this blog).

But then there is another, opposite aspect to it as well. How far will this “exponential” advance go realistically ? What will the the approximate trajectory of this advancement ?

More than an year ago, I wrote an article on my blogsite here indicating why an fully autonomous Supply Chains will not be a reality in next couple of decades. The level of cognitive intelligence that we need for a centralized cognitive algorithm to run a “self managing, self adjusting” Supply Chain, will not happen in next two decades. This is the other, opposite end aspect. If you look at the Gartner Supply Chain strategy hype cycle for 2020, you can see where AI stands there. No better validation than that.

B. So….It is all about understanding few aspects of Technology

So with those two opposite ends of tech advancement in mind, let us understand a few more aspects.

The key, in understanding when and how to select the “perfect” technology, is to evaluate, where can technology be, every few years (say, every 3 years). So if you are looking at technology today, you need to understand whether it is:

  1. Really advanced ?

2. If yes, what is its “advancement” life cycle ?

3. At what scale does it become a true capability ?

But why is this related to the “Digital solution sales pitch pandemic” thing I mentioned earlier in this article ? With the background we have built so far,we will get now get into the crux of our discussion.

C. Ok. So why the pandemic was not the right time to invest in a new tool ?

When the pandemic started, I made a post on LinkedIn on why executives should capture all the learnings from the pandemic- in terms of where their current solutions could not help them address the challenges they were running into. Since Supply Chain challenges brought the function into limelight, the pandemic was a good time time for executives to leverage it to make a business case for digital solutions.

But the pandemic may not have been the right time to go on a shopping spree for Digital Supply Chain solutions.

Confusing ? It is not. Let us try to use the three aspects that I have highlighted above to understand why you need to wait, as far as some advanced Supply Chain tools go, before you decide to make a purchase.

D. Aspect 1: Is the tool really “Advanced” ? Or is it just “cloaked

Some vendors were trying to “cloak” their solutions during the pandemic- leveraging all the hype Supply Chain tech was enjoying.

It should not be news for anyone that organizations realized during the pandemic that Digital tools and digitalization are really useful. That it could have helped them manage many scenarios better and with the right tool, may have helped them plan better. But the key here is – “The right tool”.

Since there is no subtle way to put it across, let me put it out straight : There are Supply Chain planning tools out there that have been around for decades, exactly in the same format, as far as the planning backend goes. (The user interface kept on getting fancier). As the AI age arrived, these products, that never cared about transforming, suddenly found them on the path of being non relevant in many aspects.

A question few of you may ask is why did these providers not feel the need to evolve. And here is my answer that “may” get me in trouble but since I work for a CEO who is pretty open about candid ideas and suggestions, I will take the chance. One word answer:

Relationships.

D1. Why many providers did not feel the need to change

For decades, these providers sold their products through relationships. An executive would get aligned to a particular marketing or sales guy and whenever they would move from one org to another, they would leverage that very same product. Product relevance and functionality was not as important since technology behind these tools as a whole was not changing enough. Other tools out there were not starkly different. No one could challenge if an executive would pitch a tool they have helped implement in a previous job since the competition will also not be very different. Any advantages that a competing product would have could be easily challenged and negated. The providers never felt the need to evolve.

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Side note: Do you see how a beautiful and critical thing- like building everlasting business relations morphed into something dangerous ? Relationships are great but they should be developed for the benefit of the organization/role you are in. At least that is how I think about it. I would love to connect to folks to learn about what they have to offer but in the end, it is my employer that I should be passionate about, when making a decision. An associated aspect that leads to this behavior of leveraging “tried and tested” is the fear of failure from trying something new, which is always a new technology. If an executive have tried something tht has existed for decades so many times, why risk a career to test something bold. Heck- even if the technology becomes non relevant after 5 years, they would have either moved into a new job or a new role. With a “successful implementation” under the belt. We need employees vested with employers, not with their jobs.

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D2. Pandemic driven pitches– “The Cloaking”

So as discussed above, the providers did not feel the need to evolve. But few bold excutives in some bold organizations took chances on what was the “new and emerging” tools and technologies and the world of business around us started rapidly moving into the digital era. And suddenly many of these started feeling non relevant. There was not enough time to actually evolve their tools into solutions that were already out there. The old “relationships” started retiring or started getting challenged. Just as the world started asking for solution not advise, they also started asking for solution not technology. And these rigid prespecriptive tools were lacking.

So many tried to cloak their products in Marketing jargon of buzzwords. Here is actual Marketing text from a Supply Chain planning solutions provider (sanitized by removing text that is not keyword in the marketing text)

“……vendor onboarding *** compliance tracking. **** ** forecasting, sourcing and production. **** ** positioning raw materials ** ******** ******** components from multiple sources, **** ******* factors like seasonality and capacity. **** **** ****** **** worldwide omnichannels, including distribution centers, stores, ** ***** *****. ***** *** power of a digital supply chain ** ****** “

So essentially, they are trying to project a tool, that has been around for decades (and is still useful in its current form to be honest) as something that is “purpose built” for today’s “powerful digital Supply Chains”. But if you look at all the functionalities, they have been around for decades now. Nothing in the tool leverages anything that I will term as a functionality that was recently born out of the digital revolution fire. 😀 If the keywords thrown in the text above define what a digital supply chain means, then digital supply chains have been around for decades. But we know what a true digital supply chain means.

So keep this aspect in mind. With the pandemic, and the sudden focus on Digital Supply Chain tools, these marketing jargons will increase exponentially. Understand how the solution is advanced. Ask smart questions and probe providers.

E. If it is really advanced, what is its “Advancement” life cycle ?

While many technologies may not be emerging, the pace of advancement of their underlying USP may be rapid. What this means is that you need to understand how will the underlying technology evolve in next 2-5 year. Unless you are actively partnering with those solutions providers, if the technology will transform rapidly in next 2-5 years, you need to wait. Period.

Else in few years, you will see competitiors leveraging tools with similar underlying technology that can do so many things that the initial form of that technology in your tool can not.

F. At what scale will that technology become true capability?

I have been researching Supply Chain visibility platforms recently. One key aspect of these platforms is the scale, or the number of carriers, that are in the “visibility network”. In theory, you can develop a visibility platform and have 10 carriers in the network. And that means that despite the technology for such a platform being there in your solution, you can’t provide the value this platform promises – the extensive network visibility.

This reminds me of a Supply Chain solutions provider that recently indicated that in-transit visibility will now be standard “free” feature on its platform. The issue is, the number of carriers and modes in their “visibility network” is not enough. So when people reached out to me asking how this will threaten visibility augmented platforms like FourKites or Project44, my answer was- it will not. As Project44, a Supply Chain visibility platform provider highlights- their tools is built bottoms up i.e visibility network is the key foundation. This particular provider is adding this feature, which is good, but unfortunately is much more daunting to build vs the solution they built. On the other hands, likes of FourKites and P44 can easily layer planning tools on their platforms.

The key, therefore, is also to look beyod the capability of the technology, and understand the usefullness, in its current context.

Parting notes

Sorry if this was not the “Effect of pandemic on Supply Chain” article that you wanted to read about. 😀 But hopefully this will help you manage the onslaught of Supply Chain tech that you are facing during the pandemic better.


Views expressed are my own.

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