This is a guest contribution by Barbadian supply chain professional Wanda Downes. It is an independent piece and is not reflective of the views, thoughts or opinions of the author’s employer.
6 MIN READ
Overwhelmed. Frustrated. Complicated.
Some words that pop up when we think about new technology and when we are asked to integrate it into our roles. Resistance to the unfamiliar takes hold.
Amazing. Useful. Created value. Not as hard as I thought it would be.
Some others expressed by those who dare to venture in.
Admittedly, we sometimes have a habit of failing to take advantage of new technology until we are forced to do so. At that point we opt to jump on the bandwagon rather than truly take time to understand if a particular technology can be a problem-solving tool for our individual businesses. More often than not, this results in waste of time and money and contributes further to the frustration experienced by employers and employees.
Lack of planning as well as perceived or realized high costs all contribute to our failure to embrace new technology in our supply chains. Arguably, however, fear of the unknown is prime and by far the most crippling. It tidily disguises itself in a myriad of excuses such as “too busy”, “not for us”, “too risky” and so on. As a result, our supply chains suffer.
Small but frequent doses of knowledge is a great way to combat fear. As such, we’re going to simplify some recent buzzwords in the field of supply chain management—Big Data, Cloud Computing and the Internet of Things (IoT)—as a starting point. Note, however, that this discussion should not be the last purposeful interaction you have with these terms.
As a practicing supply chain professional for a number of years, I’ve seen companies gather data because it was the “thing to do” for audits. Similarly, there have been instances where management and other staff truly had good intentions for its use, but a lot of that data was hardly ever analyzed to create business change resulting in growth. This is where big data analytics comes in.
So, what is Big Data? Initially we had unstructured data—our documents that we housed in various files—and structed data which we stored in systems like Oracle and SAP, our forever growing Excel files and so on. Now we have data coming in from multiple interaction points: emails, social media, websites, blogs, audio and video files, and so on. You can see how extensive current day data can be; hence the name big data. Considering volume, speed and the variety of data, it has become too large to process using traditional means.
This data is raw and has to be ‘cleaned’ and processed using a number of choice applications. Software exists for analysis such as Hadoop. You can also become certified and carry out the analysis yourself or hire a firm or freelancer to carry it out remotely. I always encourage persons to utilize students from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and other tertiary institutions. These students are competent, have amazing ideas and are normally aware of current trends. What’s more, they are looking to amass experience, so a reasonable fee can be negotiated. I recently engaged the services of a young lady from the Samuel Jackman Polytechnic in Barbados with much success. She did a splendid job, can now use me as a reference and it didn’t break the bank. It was a win-win.
Apart from analysis, this massive amount of data has to be stored somewhere larger than the physical units we were once accustomed to. We have now made the transition from floppy disks to CDs to USB sticks to the cloud. Don’t be deterred by the name of the latter; it may seem lofty and above our head at times, but the sky is large and can hold multiple clouds, and that image best describes the large amount of data that can now be stored. Clouds are large warehouses of servers more powerful than their predecessor storage devices. Multiple cloud storage sites allow for the backup of data that traditionally would have been very expensive for a business to purchase on its own. Another advantage is that cloud computing grants access to your stored data as long as you have an internet connection— quite the step up from the older forms of storage where you were required to keep on your person otherwise your information was inaccessible.
The basics are down. Now here’s why big data analytics and cloud computing matters to your business:
Since cloud technology is shared it means your operating costs should be less as you pay for what you use. As you employ big data analytics and your business grows, your technology space can scale with you.
Big data analytics can help established and new businesses see behavioral patterns in potential customers. Spot the pattern then supply the pattern; this will give you growth. For example, aggregated, multichannel data for a retail store can be analyzed to yield insights on its high-value customers, what motivates them to buy more as well as how and when it is best to reach them. Similarly, in manufacturing, big data analytics can help companies foresee order volumes and make adjustments to the supply chain accordingly, so that profits are maximized.
Increased ease of access and proper data visualization allows you to make intelligent business decisions with as much information as possible in a short space of time.
But what about the negatives?
Hackers? Well, yes, they exist just like natural disasters that can destroy physical documents. Adequate security measures will safeguard against intrusion.
Now let’s dive into the Internet of Things (IoT), which concerns any device that has an on/off switch and has the ability to connect to the internet and/or to other devices. IoT can be of tremendous benefit in automating otherwise time-consuming tasks. For example, inventory detection for larger companies with automatic reorder when supplies are running low. The possibilities are seemingly endless.
Taking over such functions does not necessarily mean loss of jobs but rather being able to better assign staff to other tasks so your business operations can run more efficiently and effectively. The above example doesn’t get rid of the need for a purchasing department—machines aren’t the best at building relationships with suppliers and negotiations will forever continue to be necessary.
I’m confident that by now you realize that there are a multitude of growth opportunities in the use of big data analysis, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. Keeping up to date with what’s new and figuring out how you can use it to improve your supply chains is what will keep you ahead. We do not need to wait for consultants from larger countries to come to us to implement these things in our businesses.
All of this said, here are some simple starting steps you can take to help you move forward:
1. Have a goal.
None of this matters if you do not know what you’re looking for. You can’t go gold mining without having a basic idea of what gold is. No one and no program can give you the goal for your business.
I’ve found that new technology has been implemented in some companies, but no one took the time to explain it. Something as simple as a shared file sometimes needs to be explained. I still see persons sending files back and forth—although cloud storage and hence collaboration is available—because their IT department figured they should know how to use this technology and therefore would not require training. Determine the level of your employees’ tech ability and train them up!
3. Check Google.
I hear so many people say, “I don’t/didn’t know” and not once have they checked Google. You have a massive resource available to you and Wikipedia is not the only site for learning (please don’t use Wikipedia as your only source). Google is an invaluable resource for checking facts and gaining knowledge. There are free classes to learn how to use various technologies to better your supply chain specifically and your business as a whole.
4. Don’t be afraid.
You may not admit that to yourself or some of your employees may not admit it to you, but fear exists especially when it’s linked to the unknown. When this happens see step 3 and remember technology should complement your business, not intimidate it.
Perhaps we can talk about blockchain technology next—it’s not mythical money transactions—and how it can be used to push our supply chains forward.
How do you see improved technology impacting our local/regional supply chains, and have you made any improvements recently?
WRITTEN BY WANDA DOWNES
Wanda Downes is a believer that companies and individuals that do not have an understanding of supply chain management are missing out on great potential for growth. It’s not just purchasing or logistics!
Ella también está tratando muy duro de aprender español.
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