Gartner dares execs to face supply chain’s future

In this, my 15th year working in supply chain, I’ve come to set a low bar on technology conferences. They tended to drown in hyperbole, jargon, PowerPoint and terrible coffee. So after an extended drought, I resurfaced last month at the Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference in London. I wasn’t expecting more than a chance to catch up with old industry friends and maybe see a few interesting customer talks but I ended up getting much more than I bargained for.

Bold predictions

Gartner’s Michael Burkett’s slick opening keynote brimmed with predictions about supply chain’s future that initially set me off on a dark, existential crisis. My mental chatter progressed from: “will robots be doing my job by 2025?,” to “how is it possible to develop ethical algorithms not tainted by human bias?” to “are we ultimately just creating carbon copies of ourselves, with all the human failings?” and finally, “WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN FOR MANKIND?” Perversely, a healthy dose of dystopian terror thrills me far more than the usual American positivity that has me making mental shopping lists and checking the Twitter feed. In any event Burkett finished on a utopian high, foretelling more interesting jobs for employees, higher profit margins for shareholders and greater social rewards all around.

If Michael’s predictions were to get us all thinking about the future of supply chain, they were certainly effective. Mind you I take Gartner’s “this will happen by year xx” estimates with a large pinch of sodium chloride. How many years was supply chain planning software around before it even began to remotely start doing what it promised in all the analyst reports and marketing bumpf? It wound up being small vendors (that Gartner labels ‘niche players’ much to said players’ chagrin) that led the way, rather than the large ERP vendors that used to dominate conferences like this. Regardless, Gartner’s bold predictions do get you thinking, talking and sometimes even acting and that’s reason enough to pitch them out there.

Nokia into B2B

Customer presentations didn’t disappoint. Nokia’s keynote on day one stood out if only because after this Finnish giant stopped cranking out handsets in 2013, I had no clue it was even still trading. Was I alone in my ignorance that Nokia started life in 1865 making paper and gumboots, that the handset thing was a relative blip and that it’s now pivoted into B2B mobile networks? On day two, Chris Clowes from Costa Express wowed us with his demand sensing, smart-machined, Internet of Things-friendly supply chain of the future that was in fact live today. The only thing more surprising than witnessing a real live IoT case study by a British coffee retailer was that this outstanding talk – that supported all Gartner’s futuristic predictions – came at the end of the conference, while many delegates were packing up.

On day two I journeyed outside my comfort (and let’s be honest, interest) zone and took in a Gartner presentation by Stan Aronow on Leveraging Cost-to-Serve Analysis for Improved Supply Chain Performance. Aronow’s surprisingly entertaining talk left me with hope that finance and supply chain could (and should) find common ground. He made a persuasive business case for drilling down to the SKU-level when it comes to planning, rather than engaging in the practically useless – but common – practice of analysing aggregates.

Dismantling the silos

The theme that kept resurfacing in all my conversations and mental chatter was that none of the cool innovations Gartner and its clients were championing from analytics to drones to sensors to 3D printing would amount to a hill of beans unless companies integrate them and their people into single, intelligent unified systems. If we continue to operate in organisational silos, we just run the risk of just making bigger, more costly mistakes. It’s all the crucial decisions that take place at departmental ‘edges’ that ultimately determine business success or failure. Dismantling these silos is the hard, dirty work that will depend on human courage, creativity and leadership for many generations to come. (Existential crisis averted.)

It would be ungracious of me not to close by giving snaps to the tireless baristas at Anaplan’s sponsored espresso bar who saw rather a lot of me over the two days. They served up the tastiest coffee I’ve ever quaffed at a supply chain conference. Things are definitely looking up!

Sarah Lafferty
Director and co-founder Round Earth Consulting