The 20th century was dominated by an analog, linear and fossil economy, but we are about to shift to an economy that is digital, circular and post-fossil. It seems obvious that our discipline, to remain relevant, needs to drive this transition rather than clutching at obsolete managerial practices and theoretical perspectives. Those who participate in developing new business models will gain a first-mover advantage, while those trying to keep the 20th-century economy alive will soon be forced out of business.
My personal predictions for 2019 relate to these transitions. First, robotic process automation and process mining are increasingly shaping the way of modern business. This will have a tremendous influence on end-to-end business processes. Great chances are within our reach, as learning machines are taking over increasingly complex tasks from white-collar workers. But we should not overlook the danger of a small number of IT giants using their scripts to centrally control the majority of our global supply chain processes.
Second, we sometimes seem to assume that we can change the laws of nature, just like other laws. This becomes clearer when moving into the anthropocene epoch. But planetary boundaries, including the Earth’s carbon budget, cannot be negotiated or abolished like budgets in business. We simply have to accept that exponential growth and a capped number of planets – and this number is 1 – do not fit well together. One does not need to be good in math to understand that if we cannot change the number of planets, it will have to be our supply chains that will need a radical and ambitious transformation. But how can we achieve degrowth and decarbonization in our supply chains? We could shift from linear supply chains to circular ones, from selling products to selling services (e.g. the right to use instead of owning a phone), from consumer orientation to user orientation. Thus, SCM theory needs to shift away from the “consumer” of things they don’t need towards the “user” of limited resources. This would incentivize producers to keep resources in the loop instead of building products for the scrap yard.
Millennials are not primarily driven by income, but by doing something meaningful. They are scared by the climate crisis. My wish for 2019 is that we all start teaching them that they can be part of an exciting journey that could simultaneously save our planet and create income and wealth. Let us hope the best for 2019 and beyond!
In this TED-Ed video, Kim Preshoff investigates the smartphone production: “As of 2018, there are around 2.5 billion smartphone users in the world. If we broke open all the newest phones and split them into their component parts, that would produce around 85,000 kg of gold, 875,000 of silver, and 40,000,000 of copper.” I really like the video, as it takes a supply chain perspective, and I can imagine to use it in my future SCM courses.
Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. A map of our globe enables us to reflect upon key issues in SCM: Who is actually producing our computers? Where does value creation take place? What are the core competencies of the brand company? Who is governing the computer supply chain? What is the role of contract manufacturers? Why is final assembly being done in China and not in the EU or Canada? Why is packaging being done in Eastern Europe or Mexico and not in China; and why not in Northern Europe or Canada, where the consumers are located? What modes of transport should be used? How long does it take to move a container from Hong Kong to Hamburg? What is the size of a container? What are typical container shipping rates? What can be problematic about sourcing raw materials from the Congo? How would you calculate the CO2 emissions of a computer? How could a linear supply chain become circular? What role will machine learning play? How will the supply chain change in the age of automation? What is the potential role of 3D printing? Is a “supply” chain about “supply” or is “demand” actually the factor that we should be looking? Is a supply “chain” actually a “chain”?
All successful business models provide a solution for a problem. Let us identify such a “problem” in academia: As university teachers we all know that grading students’ essays can be a tedious and time-consuming endeavor. If that is the problem, a solution could be to let software grade the essays. Five years ago, my immediate reaction would have been that this could never work. However, now, in the era of artificial intelligence and machine learning, it increasingly does work. If we acknowledge that AI is able to drive cars, predict court decisions better than experts and automatically schedules our meetings, we should also acknowledge that AI will very soon support and soon replace us when it comes to grading students’ essays. Pioneers of so-called “robo-graders” believe that “the time is right and it’s really starting to be used now”. Robo-graders learn what is considered good writing by analyzing essays graded by humans. The automated programs then score essays themselves by scanning for the same features.
The Guardian has recently published an interesting article with a provoking title: Why We Should Bulldoze the Business School. The author writes: “[In] the business school, both the explicit and hidden curriculums sing the same song. The things taught and the way that they are taught generally mean that the virtues of capitalist market managerialism are told and sold as if there were no other ways of seeing the world.” The author demands “an entirely new way of thinking about management, business and markets” and argues: “If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem, or that the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, or that creating new desires is the purpose of marketing. In every case, the business school acts as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science.” To what extent does that also apply for our SCM courses?
The Case Centre has recently announced the winners of their 2018 global awards and competitions. Already last year, the winning case in the Production and Operations Management category was closely related to supply chain management (see my previous post, Zara: The World’s Largest Fashion Retailer). This is also the case for the 2018 category winner, which is titled Everything Is Connected: A New Era of Sustainability at Li & Fung. It was written by Hau L. Lee and Sheila Melvin. The case deals with the way how Li & Fung, a Hong-Kong-based trading company, reacted to the Rana Plaza disaster and other such events to ensure sustainable supply chain management. Li & Fung’s Head of Learning and Development is right when saying: “The hard part is to make sustainability part of our DNA, to get 27,000 people to understand that this is now as fundamental to us as the fact that we source globally.” Therefore, this case could be a great building block for future SCM courses!
It is widely known that the term “supply chain management” was popularized by Keith Oliver, among others, in the early 1980s. Interestingly, in a 2003 strategy+business article, Oliver has revealed that, looking for a catchy phrase, his consulting team originally proposed the term “integrated inventory management” (I2M). While, in our modern understanding, SCM is focused not only on intra- but also inter-organizational coordination and typically takes a more strategic perspective, “I2M” already focused on “tearing down the functional silos that separated production, marketing, distribution, sales, and finance to generate a step-function reduction in inventory and a simultaneous improvement in customer service”. Later, at a key steering committee meeting, Oliver’s team introduced “I2M” but “the phrase failed to resonate with participants”. One of the managers, a Mr. Van ’t Hoff, challenged Oliver to explain what he meant by “I2M”. I am not sure whether Mr. Van ’t Hoff is aware of it, but this moment marked the birth of the term “supply chain management”:
Among the best ways to teach supply chain management is by discussing different types of real-world supply chains. In their interesting report, Enabling Trade: From Valuation to Action, the World Economic Forum (in collaboration with Bain & Company) present several supply chains that could be discussed. The introdution makes one point clear: “The overall benefits to nations, producers and consumers are clear. However, making it happen is not as simple – particularly because supply chains cut across multiple stakeholders, requiring collaboration and leadership that goes beyond local constituents and borders.” This is where the report delves deeper into examples of practical application. Among the examples presented in the report is the avocado supply chain. This example demonstrated how “a number of supply chain improvements have enabled Kenyan avocados to be profitably exported to high-value markets in the European Union”. It illustrates that supply chains “must be able to react to changes in market dynamics in order to maintain a virtuous cycle”.