Supply-chain technology is poised to reach an "inflection point," driven by the emergence of the platform as a unifying force, says Erik Olson, North American supply chain lead with Accenture.
SCB: What’s the major trend that you’re seeing with supply-chain technology today?
Olson: We're beginning to see what I would describe as an inflection point. There’s been a growing awareness of digital topics, and over the last couple of years we’ve seen folks experimenting with a few of those things. We’re just beginning to see actual adoption and advances in the journey toward a digital revolution in supply chain. It's a lot different than four or five years ago.
SCB: Why are we seeing this now?
Olson: A couple of things are contributing to it. Over the last couple of years, supply chain has suffered an identity crisis within the C-suite around what role it might play in driving growth for our clients. They’re recognizing that in order to reach their ambitious goals for growth, supply chain has to play a very active role.
In the past, you would have said it was a support function — a cost play. More clients today are saying, "It's an enabler of my future requirements for growing and getting into different markets, and doing new-product introductions." For those reasons, you're seeing a lot more senior executive support and investments in supply-chain technologies.
SCB: What specific types of technologies are being implemented today?
Olson: There's a wide variety of elements in the digital universe that are coming into play. The way I would describe it is that folks are investing in a platform — the technical architecture around how you enable the supply-chain capabilities that are advancing the growth agenda. The result is much more interoperability, and the ability to pull in things like connected devices and IoT [Internet of Things] sensors. Companies are putting both internal and external into a database that allows them to apply analytics and machine learning. We’re even beginning to see how blockchain begins to fit into some of those advances.
SCB: Is there a challenge of integration — of bringing all this stuff together to work in lock step?
Olson: That would have been a problem four or five years ago. With digital advances, the software is headed toward more interoperability. The direction is to become the platform provider for the digital ecosystem.
SCB: Is there a danger that companies might be dazzled by the technology without coming up with a comprehensive strategy for implementing it?
Olson: Two or three years ago, I would have said that's exactly what the problem was. Often those experiments were without a clear business case. I think a lot of folks have learned since then that experimentation has an endpoint where it no longer advances what they're trying to do. So more and more of our clients are engaged in an effort to define the end state of where they want to be. They’re developing a journey map that's much more pragmatic, that establishes a firm and unique business case around those applications.
SCB: What most excites you about these various technology solutions that are out there today? What’s poised to make the biggest impact on the supply-chain?
Olson: I'm going to give you two different answers. For now and in the next couple of years, it's the platform. I really believe that’s the basis by which a lot of these elements will be brought together. Looking forward another two to five years, I believe blockchain will fundamentally reinvent the way that a lot of our supply chains operate. We’re seeing some experimentation today, but not to the degree where it’s truly disruptive.
SCB: Do you believe in the concept of the autonomous or “self-driving” supply chain, where the human element is minimized and the machine is making most of the decisions?
Olson: You could make the case that in many of our industries today, that's already happening, although maybe not on a full scale. I do a lot of work in the mining industry — if you were to walk into an open-pit mine these days, you might find far fewer people there than just three to four years ago. Whether it’s shovel operators or truck drivers, analytics are being applied to it, and the operation is much more autonomous. It's happening today.
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