Celebrating Drones, Butterflies and Exceptional People

Hugh Williams, recent Conference Chair of the 3PL Summit & CSCO Forum in Chicago, shares his thoughts on the event.

The Americas are pulling me South-eastward with greater frequency these days. Having just returned from a client engagement in Brazil, where it’s currently winter with sunny blue skies and 28 degrees, our English ‘summer’ with its driving horizontal rain is something of a comedown!
Before heading off to Brazil, I had the privilege of chairing my first US eft CSCO conference, in the bustling, blustery city of Chicago. Not for the first time this year, I left the conference with an unshakeable sense that technology is ascending once again in supply chain. Why? Because in our increasingly uncertain, unpredictable world, the extent to which companies take advantage of opportunities and react to crises makes or breaks them. Technology is getting much better at helping companies be more responsive - dare I say ‘agile’.
In his keynote talk ‘Next Generation Supply Chain Metamorphosis’ Jim Tompkins, CEO, Tompkins International, set the stage for the event by challenging us all to think beyond ideas like agility, change and even transformation. Like Kafka before him, Tompkins was inspired by the powerful metaphor that ‘metamorphosis’ - a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in an animal's body structure - provides. Tompkins spoke passionately about how great companies like Kodak died when they refused to acknowledge oncoming change but, how, others saw change coming, embraced it, and turned into a butterflies.
In my experience, people don’t stay resistant to change as long as they are given the right motivation. To demonstrate, I asked the delegates in my S&OP interactive session how many of them had a smart phone. With few exceptions, everyone had been using one for the past five to seven years - even though they’ve only been around for ten. So in the space of ten years we willingly changed the way we did things because we like the fact that our smartphone functions as a search engine, an online shop, a map, a clock and, yes, even a portable telephone. We only resist change when we can’t see what’s in it for us. That’s why the legendary Steve Jobs could pull so many people towards that new trend - he showed them what they could have and put it just within their reach.
Speaking of technology, a new conference experience for me was being a mentor in eft’s first ‘Hackathon.’ (This instinctively appealed to me as most know how much I abhor ‘death by PowerPoint!’) Six teams of people up to age 25 were each given five hours to invent a breakthrough idea for the supply chain industry and present to a panel of judges. The winning team came up with an idea called, DriverAssist that uses GPS to help lorry drivers find parking overnight and near their delivery locations in the ‘last mile’ of their journeys. Congratulations to the winners: Jacob Gariup, Caleb Welchans, Michael MacDonald and Sachin Bhat!
Interestingly, the young professionals all came up with technology solutions as part of what was certainly a tech-heavy agenda. And some of the kit coming out these days - drones, 3D printing, and robotics - makes me feel like a young lad at Christmas. It’s hard not to get a little excited! Although most companies currently apply these technologies in a limited, even siloed way, I expect in the future all the devices will be connected and talking to each other in an “Internet of Things” model.
Lagging behind all these drones and butterflies, however, is thinking about the people and the organisational structures to accommodate it all. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of software’s glory days and underestimate the need to map organisational structures and behaviours against all these new technologies. Skills development remains an ever-present concern in supply chain. I met two university representatives at the conference who confirmed my suspicion that supply chain is still not being pitched to students as the diverse, exciting and highly valuable career that it genuinely is today. 
So let’s not forget about the people as we embark on this new era of metamorphosis and technological wonder. As we delegate more of the routine jobs to machines, the role of humans in the chain will continue to evolve and become more interesting and valuable than ever before. Bring it on!
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