Automation has become a ‘catch-all’ term for the use of technology to address a range of tasks and business objectives. Although the whole business world has been swept up in the hype and optimism surrounding automation, the impact within the supply chain profession has been particularly significant, due to the fact that we can benefit from both physical automation (e.g. warehouse robotics, driverless fleets) and software-based automation (e.g. artificial intelligence, robotic process automation).
If we focus specifically on software-based automation, supply chain professionals are advantageously positioned. We have extensive experience leveraging technology to improve operational efficiency and streamline processes. Solutions such as inventory management, supply chain control towers or source to pay platforms have given us firsthand knowledge of how to (and how not to) select, implement and monitor enterprise technology.
Although the automation trend now has us focused on the potential benefits chatbots and smart machines – technologies that seem ‘futuristic’ to say the least – the fact remains that no technology is the answer to all of a company’s problems. If we ask too much of our technology, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past and failing to optimize the automation and meet user expectations.
How we perceive the automation we evaluate and implement has as much to do with its ability to deliver a sustained ROI as the design of the technology itself.
Technology as Savior
Getting overly excited about technology as a cure-all or as the ‘secret sauce’ needed to reach the next level of enterprise performance is dangerous and asks far too much of it. The classic ‘build it and they will come’ fallacy has played out so many times that we should be on the lookout for it, but the enthusiasm associated with new technology (like we are seeing today with AI and machine learning) has a way of blinding us to the fact that we’re wandering back down a well-worn path. Automation is not magic; it was created by humans – humans that have an imperfect understanding of businesses, industries and competitive pressures. If we allow automation to float above proven governance and accountability standards, we can be certain of nothing but failure.
Technology as Slave
Computers excel in environments where they can be programmed to process structured information. As a result, it is tempting to let them handle tactical, low value added transactions while we retain all of the analytical and access-related work for human intermediaries. Unfortunately, this leaves considerable value on the table. Once the tactical work is complete, supply chain professionals have to take advantage of the analytical strengths of technology, even allowing distributed users to access it through chat bot powered support or guided buying. If automation can enable individual decision makers to do their jobs better with less oversight by providing them with contextualized data, supply chain professionals have a responsibility to set the technology ‘free’ to do so.
Technology as Sidekick
We can’t expect automation to come to our rescue, but that doesn’t mean we have to relegate it to the basement. The ideal automation mindset combines a little bit of the savior and the slave, creating a middle space where supply chain professionals take an active role in understanding and leveraging the full capabilities of automation while retaining human perspective and responsibility. If we can bring together the greatest strengths of automation (speed, scale, accuracy, up time) with the unique advantages of human innovation (subjective interpretation, value orientation, creativity), we gain the ability to completely transform the business.
Automation isn’t a ‘Deus ex Machina’, Greek for ‘God from the Machine’, a plot device used when authors and playwrights need something to happen to logically reach the desired endpoint of a story. AI may be more complex or have a higher level impact than something like email or inventory management, but it still has to be matched with well defined (and well understood) business objectives. Supply chain professionals may be learning about new levels of automation for the first time, but we should build on the experience we have bringing other technologies to bear on the operation.
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