Let’s talk about bending time. This concept may sounds straight out of Star Trek, but the fact is that anyone involved in supply chain management has already witnessed the compression of time.

Think about it: 100 years ago, how long did it take for a commodity to arrive after it was ordered? Weeks? Months? How many systems were required to support that process? The order could’ve arrived by telegram or by mail. The goods may have been
transported by boat, rail, or even horse and buggy. People would’ve been required to support all those systems – office clerks, laborers, deckhands, train engineers, and yes, even someone to muck out the stalls for the horses that pulled the delivery wagons.

How long does it take to fill an order now? It’s hard to imagine a customer waiting more than a few days for anything but the most specialized of goods. And yes, technology has replaced many of the people that were once involved in fulfilling an order.

With the accelerating pace of technology, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that eventually orders will be filled and delivered in near real time. Imagine if your auto repair shop had a 3D printer that could immediately generate a new part for your car while you waited – something that may not be too far off and could have huge implications to supply chain operations, according to the Harvard Business Review.

We have effectively learned how to compress time.

Supply chains will need to become more customer-centric

Manipulating time has consequences – and we’re already seeing many of them play out, especially in terms of supply chain management.

On the back end, some functions that have supported supply chains have become nearly obsolete, including the industries that supported specialized printed forms and product catalogs. And there are certainly more changes to come.

On the front end, customer expectations are raised – consumers are demanding more personalized products and services, delivered faster and ordered with the level of ease they’ve become accustomed to.

Business people already have this level of service in their private lives, and they’re now coming to expect it from their suppliers as well. The pressure to become even more customer-centric is on.

Using all that unstructured supply chain data to your advantage

The fact is, businesses do not have the time to react the way they used to. When the need for speed is a competitive advantage, moving faster can be a critical component in the success or failure or organizations.

Researchers at the The Economist Intelligence Unit recently produced a report on “The Rise of the Customer-Led Economy. In it, they concluded that companies that are investing in technology solutions now, rather than waiting to see “which approach works” have a better chance of succeeding in the customer-centric paradigm. 

A lot of workflows that consume time in supply chain management and delay orders exist only because it takes a long time to process, understand, and make decisions with information. And there’s a lot of information. The technological advances that have sped up supply chains have also been quietly creating digital records – virtual libraries – of nearly every transaction that’s made.

Using data to bring the past into the present

Due to Big Data, not only are all past transactions available for analysis, but the rationale and assumptions can be retrieved and second-guessed in near real time, to be leveraged for better decision making. 

Think about it this way: It used to be that to learn about your ancestors you had to spend days and weeks researching incomplete and disparate historical records, often with very little real information. From this point forward, future generations (e.g., our grandchildren’s grandchildren) will be able to essentially recreate our professional lives by mining the digital information that we all post online. 

The same is true for supply chains. Planning decisions made today can be forever scrutinized and leveraged for decision making. So, in a sense, we are “bending time” by bringing the past into the present.

Smarter supply chain technology = better human decision making

We can also apply this logic to the future. While some people fear that the onset of artificial intelligence will surpass, and perhaps, control the human mind, Wired magazine recently reported that there’s evidence that human intelligence is actually expanding by interacting with, and perhaps competing against, artificial intelligence.

Similarly, by powering supply chain leaders and operators with advanced predictive technologies that model future scenarios, people will be able to more effectively operate the supply chain, while at the same time developing a deeper
understanding of the interactions of the various drivers on supply chain performance.

When technology can help us develop a deeper understanding of the past as well as the future, bending time is truly within our grasp.

For further information on SAP integrated business planning solutions, read my recent article, Integrated Business Planning for Demand Transparency in SAP Insider magazine.

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  1. Richard Howells

    Interesting blog Martin. The clock speed of supply chains are certainly increasing. It’s hard to tell the difference between planning and execution these days.

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