A time of shortages

In terms of our standard of living, we are in the midst of a time of excess in the Netherlands, despite the current economic crisis. However, we are all too aware of the periods of shortages that lie and wait for us in the future: fossil fuel reserves are being irreversibly depleted. Minerals are also starting to become increasingly scarce (and hence more expensive); since China currently controls many of the precious metals required for the manufacture of high-tech products, countries in the West are reopening old mines. Fresh water is another resource which is likely to become scarce – not only due to climate change but also as a result of the increasing prosperity in emerging economies – which will in turn lead to food shortages. A fifth inevitable shortage is of skilled workers as a result of the ageing population.

For managers and directors nowadays, the biggest shortage they face is one of time. A lack of time is the most significant problem of all, since all of the threats of shortages listed above (fuel, minerals, fresh water, food and workers) require attention, and hence cost time. And in the current, still uncertain financial landscape, corporate decision-makers need to spend a lot of time on turning the economic tide. Unfortunately they do not have the luxury of being able to spend a lot of time on potential developments – prior to that, they need to concentrate on the business challenges in the here and now.

The only way to emerge from this apparent stalemate is to open yourself up to new and different ideas, to the concept of open innovation. It is logical that there is more brainpower to be found beyond my own department than within it. An interactive session on open innovation held by the IMD Business School in Lausanne, around 18 months ago, really opened my eyes to the idea for the first time. Working on an actual case study, all of the participants made a real contribution to innovating in practice for an American car team racing in the Nascar series. The leader of the session, Professor Corey Billington from IMD, explained that Procter & Gamble was already outsourcing fifty per cent of its R&D work via the online platform for open innovation, www.innocentive.com. Social networks appear to offer the best solutions to problems.

From the point of view of open innovation, it is essential to keep close tabs on what is going on beyond your own four walls – and this is also, or perhaps especially true for decision-makers in the supply chain. In the past month, I’ve bumped into a couple of supply chain directors on two different occasions, both of them telling me how crucial it was to network with fellow professionals in order to discuss current issues and share experiences. If they so desired, they could fill their diaries with nothing but conferences, seminars, summits, master classes, workshops, forums and numerous other supply chain events.

Maintaining social networks can turn into a full-time job for supply chain professionals. The only way to find out which events are truly worthwhile, and which ones your peers attend, is to ask them. As a busy decision-maker, you should be spending some of your time on taking an active, preferably pro-active, role on platforms such as LinkedIn, even if the benefits are not immediately obvious – in the case of social networks, it is a question of giving before you can take. Social networks can generate significant time-savings – in terms of recruitment, for example, or for knowledge-sharing. But nothing comes for free and, while the investment of your time and effort may seem a high price to pay in these hectic times, it is one that can lead to immeasurable returns.

Martijn Lofvers, Publishing Director & Chief Editor, Supply Chain Magazine