The human element in the digital supply chain: empowering talent and collaboration.
A lot of attention has been paid to the digital transformation of supply chains.
While using technology has become paramount, the fact remains that humans play a critical role in the supply chain management process. And the success of digital transformation depends on having strong user acceptance and a deep commitment from the people within an organisation to the changes.
So, what are the best ways a company can harness both technology and talent and use them to their advantage?
The importance of talent development in the era of digital supply chains.
With technological advancements and an ever-changing supply chain landscape, what a company requires of its staff has evolved significantly.
Digital literacy has become a fundamental requirement for employees, across almost all roles within the supply chain. It promotes better collaboration with colleagues, customers and partners in the supply chain, hence staff are expected to be able to navigate digital platforms with ease and quickly adapt to new software and tools.
With greater integration of technology, companies have a growing need for employees with strong technical skills. Businesses are placing more emphasis on aspects such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, automation and data analytics. Increasingly, companies are looking for talent that can leverage expertise in these areas.
There is also a need for strong analytical and problem-solving skills, to deal with the immense amount of data that businesses use. Those professionals that are proficient in collecting the right data and interpreting it to derive valuable insights from it are important to the organisation. They can identify patterns and trends and use data to inform decisions on strategy or for optimising processes and developing innovative solutions to complex business challenges.
As supply chains become more complex and require better visibility, so ever more sophisticated systems are required to manage them. IT staff and other technology users need to master the full range of end-to-end supply chain software – such as ERP, warehouse and transport management, EDI solutions, marketplace integrations, robotics and more.
With rapidly changing technologies, staff need to be adaptable and have a desire to embrace continuous learning. It’s imperative that they continually acquire new skills and stay up to date with supply chain technology trends.
Companies need to foster an openness to change, ensuring their people can navigate through uncertainty and demonstrate a growth mindset.
Soft skills are also important in digital supply chain management. Companies value employees that have strong communication, collaboration and problem-solving abilities. These qualities make for better teamwork and enable professionals to foster strong relationships with customers, colleagues and suppliers – as well as to be successful when working globally, encountering diverse teams and unfamiliar cultures.
One of the most significant benefits of technology is that it automates repetitive tasks. Freed from time-consuming and mundane work, staff can undertake more valuable efforts that machines are not capable of. Supply chain businesses can differentiate themselves by harnessing their employees’ critical skills – such as creative thinking and analysis – to generate new ideas, develop innovative processes and drive product and service advancements.
Moreover, the ability to combine this creative thinking with sound technical expertise is the ultimate prize in the digital supply chain. If it’s not achievable in every individual, it can be done by mixing abilities so that some in the team are the technically gifted ones and others are the creatives.
Using technology but also tapping into the innate human strengths of their employees is valuable for supply chain businesses. Staff who are valued for their intellect rather than solely for their task execution capabilities are more likely to experience heightened motivation and morale. Esteemed staff members tend to exhibit increased productivity and are more likely to be retained by the company.
One way of combining skills in the supply chain is to employ technology in a collaborative way. Demonstrating one aspect of the changing nature of talent requirements in the digital age can be seen, for example, in warehouses that use autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). These cooperative robots – known as cobots – work alongside people. The humans perform tasks such as picking, packing or counting, while the technology handles more automated aspects, such as moving picked orders, directing operatives to the next pick and so on. Here, technology augments human talent, rather than replaces it.
Strategies for fostering a culture of innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement.
Supply chain businesses that can develop a culture that fosters innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement can be more agile and competitive, employing their people’s skills to adapt to evolving and challenging market demands. Developing talent to achieve this can involve a number of strategies.
The culture of your organisation needs to be one that encourages and rewards the generation of ideas. This means creating a supportive environment where staff feel confident in sharing their ideas without fear of being judged. Implementing idea generation platforms, innovation schemes and brainstorming sessions can help inspire staff and enable you to collect and evaluate their ideas. Recognising and rewarding the best contributions will also motivate your staff to participate further.
Open and transparent communication at all levels of the business helps employees feel more able to express their opinions, provide feedback and contribute freely to discussions.
By developing an internal culture that values learning and growth, you inspire your employees to embrace challenges, learn from mistakes and continuously develop their skills. Providing professional development resources such as training programmes and other opportunities for your people to upskill. Supporting your staff in their learning helps encourage a growth mindset across the company.
Many companies suffer from poor collaboration and communication across departments, especially as they grow larger. Establishing cross-functional initiatives helps break down these work siloes and promotes better teamwork. By proactively setting up projects that bring staff together from different departments, you encourage the sharing of knowledge and can benefit from a diverse range of business perspectives. As well as cross-functional initiatives, regular team-building activities also help staff to get to know one another and to work and communicate more effectively.
Empowerment of employees is important in developing a sense of autonomy. By giving your staff decision-making authority, you show that you trust them. Encourage greater ownership of projects across the company to enhance engagement, creativity and innovation
As a company, you should acknowledge and celebrate achievements, to reinforce the sense of innovation and continuous improvement. Employing employee recognition and reward schemes engenders a sense of pride in the company and boosts personal morale and motivation.
Finally, it’s important to lead by example. Leadership plays a crucial role in shaping the culture of a company. Leaders that embody the values of innovation, collaboration and continuous improvement model the behaviours they desire from their teams. Strong leaders also provide guidance and mentoring that encourages employees to engage in the same behaviour.
Examples of companies embracing technology and people.
There are several examples of successful companies that have been able to leverage their talent in the digital supply chain. They demonstrate how to integrate technology into their supply chain operations while also valuing and empowering their workforce.
Amazon is well known for its extensive use of technology throughout its supply chain operations. It has successfully integrated automation, advanced robotics and AI in its warehouses, which helps streamline its order fulfilment. The company also prioritises employee development through offering training programmes and career advancement opportunities, empowering its workforce to adapt and excel in what is essentially a technology-driven environment.
UPS has also embraced technology to enhance its supply chain operations. It uses advanced tracking systems, route optimisation algorithms and real-time data analytics to improve the efficiency of its delivery operation. The company places a strong emphasis on staff training and provides employees with technology and digital tools that enhance their capabilities. UPS encourages staff feedback and suggestions through its sustainability and innovation programmes helping to foster a culture of employee engagement, innovation and collaboration.
Another logistics operation, DHL, has used technology to optimise its supply chain operations. DHL has implemented advanced warehouse management systems, automated sorting solutions and real-time tracking. The company has created a strong culture of employee engagement and recognition and offers an outstanding development programme for its staff.
Global shipping company Maersk has embraced technology in the digitisation of its supply chain operations. Its Maersk app gives its customers better control of their own supply chains, allowing them to track shipments and access real-time data. It aspires “to create an engaging environment” for staff and “to be a company where talented people can develop and enjoy thriving careers”. The company measures and tracks its employee engagement and seeks to attract engaged employees that have capabilities in areas such as technology and data analysis.
By investing in employee development, fostering innovation and creating a collaborative culture, these companies have used supply chain technology to enhance their productivity and success.
What’s next for the human element in the digital supply chain?
Supply chain professionals need to embrace these and other technologies so they can understand how they can be applied in their own organisations. Success will come for supply chain businesses that can identify technological opportunities and which can also use their employees to leverage them for improved efficiency, visibility and sustainability.