Integrating technology at speed
Wrong-footed by COVID-19, many logistics companies are realising that they need to up their technology investment but how should leaders approach tech investment and installation at this time of immense pressure?
The world around is shifting underneath our feet at an incredible rate as new technologies emerge and proliferate and societies and economies react and grow around them. This process has been given a huge boost by the advent of COVID-19.
Just one year ago, the debate about working from home was, for most people, fairly theoretical, with the office the cornerstone of most people’s working days. Fast forward to where we are today, and many companies are wondering about whether to bring people back at all this year and when they do, for their offices to be radically different. Companies and employees have therefore had to embrace remote-working technologies and roll these out organisation-wide.
Similarly, for supply chains and their attendant workforces, tech has had to be rolled out far faster and to a wider extent than before. This is not just in the case of remote communication systems, but also to address the myriad of issues and concerns that have arisen from the pandemic. Technology is showing itself to be vital in keeping staff safe, sourcing new suppliers, automating processes, managing adjustments and tracking and tracing products globally.
The proof of its importance is clear, but the challenge now is to stand-up technologies in the midst of the most complex logistics scenario in recent memory and with employees scattered or reduced in number.
The need, the need for speed
The modern supply chain operator needs “Speed, agility and visibility across their supply chain,” says Mario Harik, CIO for XPO Logistics. Although many knew this was the case, the arrival of the pandemic has thrown this need into a sharp, savage relief.
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, research from Accenture suggested that supply chain operators were not being tactical enough with their approach to investment into their supply chains. It estimated that just 10% of 900 senior executives from nine major industries surveyed are effectively using their investments to transform their supply chains to meet increasing and evolving customer experience demands.
I think the bottleneck is getting everyone on the same technology, the same topic. Now we have to, you know, dot our i's and cross our t’s…. Things have to be pretty well thought out ahead of time when you're getting started
“If you have a certain customer that [was] running an e-commerce operation, but it was a highly manual operation, and they have seen an increase in volumes, then now they need to respond much quicker or be able to cater for that growth,” says Harik.
Therefore, we are left in an environment where there needs to be more adoption of technology, from relatively simple communication systems, up to supply chain-spanning control towers.
“I think the bottleneck is getting everyone on the same technology, the same topic. Now we have to, you know, dot our i's and cross our t’s…. Things have to be pretty well thought out ahead of time when you're getting started,” thinks Greg McCord, Sr. Director of Information Security for technology company CalAmp, but the challenge is trying to get that strategy, thinking, culture and technical know-how working together in the year of COVID-19.
Operating a distance
A huge part of that challenge is the need to do almost all of this at a greater distance than before. McCord gives the example of “When you're moving from a physical data centre to we call a virtual data centre or cloud provider like AWS, Azure GCP. The challenge is now we have to accelerate that because now we can't necessarily visit that physical data centre. How do we get into a virtual data centre and how do we integrate those technologies in this in a scenario where everyone has to sit at home?
“Is there going to be a challenge? Yeah. But I think everyone was more open to the fact that we're going to have to look at technology a little bit differently.”
The need for social distancing and workplace safety is driving many to look at automation but also incorporating a wider technological base and making that technology more inclusive, so it can be installed, understood and maintained by a wider proportion of the supply chain.
Is there going to be a challenge? Yeah. But I think everyone was more open to the fact that we're going to have to look at technology a little bit differently
“We wanted to make sure we introduce as much social distancing and separation between the driver and the person receiving a certain product” says Harik, “so, we launched touchless capabilities, whereas opposed to a customer having to acknowledge the receipt of a product on the device of the person delivering the product, they can actually do it on their own device.”
Similarly, McCord notes that “We are seeing some of our customers starting to deploy more of our on-board diagnostic devices, which are self-install. There's a lot more of that usage going on…. Then we have software that can be updated and configured over the air.”
Approaching technological change
Looking at the process of incorporating technology swiftly and efficiently It’s all about being open to change and looking at the solution from the ground-up with the right expertise according to Harik. He sees the key pieces in a tech-first approach as:
1. Number one, I would say is invest in technology and embrace technology.… It has to be part of your DNA, how you operate, how you execute, everything that you think through. Always think of how technology can make our people and our customers more efficient.
2. The second area is around the proprietary systems. Customers want solutions: They want to be able to react to changes in the world; they want nimble and flexible supply chains; they want speed; they want visibility. Technology is a cornerstone of making that happen and proprietary systems allows you to respond to those changes and make sure that you can actually react to them. Build systems that are intuitive, easy to use, that are part of the workflows will have a certain operation executes overall.
3. The third category I would say is people - build the best team, hire the best people. My team members come from all the big tech companies in the world. I think having a team of innovators, a team of technology professionals who can execute every step of the way, is incredibly important.
4. And the fourth one is innovate and think about how the world can be different. Get at the forefront of changing the status quo. Think how things can be done differently, again, to support that heightened and ever-increasing need for customers to change and how their supply chain operates.
McCord cautions that while integrating technology at speed is important, you can’t rush into a solution, as the real time-sink is when it comes to making tech operational, not in the selection of that tech to signing on the dotted line for it. “I think patience is the first piece of [implementing] technology. Find one that fits the use cases for your organization. I wouldn't make any unilateral decisions, because that can create strife, and then you don't have buy-in within the organization. Getting the right tool set that fits your needs of the organization is probably my best piece of advice there, because then the adoption is going to go that much quicker.”
When we deploy a new piece of technology, we deploy it in pilots first, and then we get a lot of feedback from our customers and from our employees on how we can make it better
Harik also notes that prep is key and that one should start small with comprehensive testing. “When we deploy a new piece of technology, we deploy it in pilots first, and then we get a lot of feedback from our customers and from our employees on how we can make it better.” Only then do they “implement those changes and then we roll them out,” with a focus on a continuous cycle of improvement.
The name of the game then is to be smart in your approach. Although there is a definite need to improve supply chains through technology and real pressure to make these moves now, you need to be thinking about the specific challenges your supply chain faces and take a step-by-step approach. Think hard about the tech you need, test first and consider how full implementation will occur and what this will look like functionally in the business from an early stage.
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